In my young days back on the streets in Brooklyn, I never thought I could be a writer. My mind was always fixed on how to make a buck. Writing was for the guys in the news, and as for books, well, let’s just say I never had a thing for books.
Now, playing horses and shooting craps, that was my game. The Made Men in the neighborhood never had to push me to it. Once I got horses up my nose there was no stopping me. Back then, the years I spent hanging out with mobsters felt magical to me, if you can accept that. I never had a clue about the depths of their criminality, but I was game to learn how to survive on the street without getting whacked. Mobsters always had respect for one another, or seemed to, and I liked that.
Did it work out well? I was still young by the time I went through four wives and had four children. So yeah. I was seriously misguided. Thankfully, I was never stupid, so ten years in the slammer made me realize there had to be a better way. I began to get that message the first time the cell door slammed.
By this point in your life, you’ve already heard enough cons complain about how hard it is to go straight once you get back out. So there I was, butchering split cows on the Seriously Early Morning Shift inside a giant cold room at the Fourteenth Street meat market. Oh yes. The constant cold, the unforgiving knife blades. The place sucked me up like a clam.
The misery of my situation made me hunger for some way to make a buck that wouldn’t involve red lights in the rearview mirror. Finally, a bartender told me that I had a great personality. Yes, a bartender, but you can wipe that smile right off your face, because he also told me I should be an actor. See? Things like that show us we should all be better listeners for our bartenders.
So it goes without saying, I enrolled in the local acting school for the four months it takes to learn everything you need to know about acting, and then ignored the How-To resume writing class because it involved a lot of fancy bullshit-itis that made me feel tired. Instead I put together a truthful account of my time in prison and listed all the skills I survived on there, as they relate to performing for a camera. Could I be natural for a camera? Friend, I was natural for the warden and his psychopathic goons, the trustees and their flunkies, the drug-addled yard bosses, and the speed-fueled denizens of a place so rotten it turns men into animals.
My message was that I delivered for those guys, and I can deliver for you. It went out to the film and TV world in a mass mailing.
Dozens of calls came in on the first day. More than fifty of them. The same honesty that got me clubbed by the guards on a frequent basis now got me hired in the real world.
Before I knew it, there I was, standing in front of a world-class director named Sidney Lumet. He was looking for actors for his new film, a thing that was going to be called, Serpico.
What can I say? He hired me on the spot to appear in that film with Al Pacino, and for two more Sidney Lumet films after that. At the time I couldn’t afford a SAG card, so Mr. Lumet gave me $300 to get it done. Now you see how much ten years in the joint can teach you, if you’re willing to learn?
After that first film, I moved to Hollywood where I am grateful to have had a long and successful career.