“Donnie, I understand what you’re saying, it’s totally clear. But what I’m trying to get you to understand is what I’m dealing with here on my end—” pleaded Alan Shiner into a tiny mobile phone, with the other hand covering his ear. His whole body motioned when he emphasized a point on the phone, because he couldn’t use his hands as in a personal conversation.
“Donnie, Donnie, you don’t even have to explain to me anymore. You think I don’t know? Of course I know. I’ve worked with this guy for 40 years. I know like you have no idea I know. You see where I’m going with this?”
And that ended his plea with the big-time director of the new film that Alan’s oldest client, Howard Kessler, was being kicked off and replaced with a younger lead actor. At least younger was the excuse they used. And in Hollywood, that’s a viable excuse.
The deal was tentative, at best, when it was signed, and Alan knew it. It came on the heels of yet another scandal that Howard brought on himself. While on set filming a public service announcement for a children’s charitable organization, he was caught doing lines and getting a blowjob by one of the P.A.’s in a trailer. And the P.A. was apparently only 17 years old. It was like these media-friendly train-wrecks were happening one a month.
So any deal for Howard was a good deal, these days. At 66, Howard’s lead actor status was diminished, but his ego and denial were his driving forces, so breaking this news wasn’t going to be a high point of Alan’s day. He’d been an agent for nearly 50 years, and like Howard, was from Brooklyn and made it out to Hollywood and set down roots. He didn’t want to see one of his peers get old because that meant that he, too, should hang it up soon. So he was really pulling for Howard, his most lucrative client, the actor that made Alan a star agent.
Alan shifted his weight on his feet and paced. He was just outside the lunch spot he came to every day when he wasn’t entertaining clients—a small Vietnamese bistro where they treated him like the king he felt he was. He stepped outside to take the call from the director. Alan rarely takes calls in restaurants—and even in L.A. where doing deals on the phone over a meal is just a regular extension of the office. Alan sees his business as one of discretion; he’s an old-school shark. Before stepping back in to his table, he paced some more outside and flipped open his phone again to dial Howard, hoping he wouldn’t answer.
“Howie, it’s Alan. You, uh, you, the picture, just call me,” he said in a whisper.
Alan whispered when there was bad news. He didn’t even do it purposely. His demeanor was such a dead giveaway when he had bad news to tell, that he frequently didn’t even have to explain the details, people knew immediately. Last week he called his wife from the deli to tell her they were out of whitefish salad. In the hushed tones, like as if he was telling her that the dog had cancer.
Today he was broken up. He stepped inside, put some cash down on the table and walked back to his car, thinking that this may just be the beginning of the end for both Howard and himself.
Howard’s sprawling Malibu home was usually packed with people on a Friday afternoon. He, or his girlfriend at the time, would entertain by the pool, play high-stakes card games, and show movies in his 50-seat custom built home movie theater. He’s a movie star; they can do things like that. Today, though, the cavernous, sun-filled house was empty. Howard sensed that Alan’s call would be coming. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten bad news recently from his agent and his friend, but the first time that a deal had been actually signed and then broken. Howard knew that when this happened in Hollywood, it was a tactic used to pin him as the bargaining chip for studios to get another actor with a higher price tag. It happens all the time.
This came right after a disastrous episode on the Stern radio show, when the interview didn’t go as planned and the wack pack ganged up on Howie about his recent, high-profile plea deal he cut with prosecutors on an indictment for his role in a high-net worth betting ring. Instead of joking his way out of it, he cursed and spit in his defense. The following week, media loudmouth Jon Hein’s commentary revealed his thoughts about Howard Kessler’s Hollywood status: jumped the shark. Howard knew that once you jump the shark, you weren’t jumping back in the big pictures that the studios, once upon a time, would line up for his involvement.
The phone rang.
“Alan I know what you’re gonna say,” he took a deep breath in as if he was going to give a long response. “This is shit. It’s just shit,” Howard exhaled.
“Howie, I know, this asshole director, what is he, French or something? Anyway, he’s a shit and the studio’s shit–I don’t know what else to say. You know I’m working for you, buddy, right?”
“Listen, can we take a break—what am I trying to do here? I just have to wait it out. This town could use a break from me. Five pictures in 3 years, it’s like I’m Travolta. It’s fine, I’ll take some time and we’ll see what comes up in the spring.”
“You sure about that? I mean, I’ll hit the streets, there’s stuff out there for you now…” Alan trailed off, not believing what he was saying and letting that come through. Being polite wasn’t Alan’s strongest characteristic, but he’d never been in this position with Howard—Howard Kessler, the biggest star to come out of Brooklyn since DeNiro. Except DeNiro is from the Bronx.
Howard’s prejudice against overexposing himself waned in the past year or so. He did too many films, too many awards shows. He hired a new personal trainer and stepped up his routine, cut out meat, started doing some yoga. All with the goal of getting some perspective, growing younger, changing the scenery a bit. None of it was working and Howard was getting increasingly depressed. He hated L.A. Thousands of actors desperately jockeying for position for the next role, and who would replace an idol like Howard in ten seconds flat. There were no roots in L.A. Howard’s feelings about the city were admittedly stereotypical—the town has no soul, it sucks the creativity out of you, it’s plastic, desperate, superficial, and utterly hopeless for all but a tiny fraction of the populous. For some reason it never felt as heavy as it does now.
Later that evening, Nancy came home and without even asking why the house wasn’t packed with strangers, friends, and other stars, proceeded to ask for Howard’s full attention.
“I fell in love with someone else,” she stated, simply and assertively.
After a painfully long pause, without breaking eye contact, Howard responded, “Are you fucking kidding me? Is this a joke? Do you have any idea what a shitty fucking day I just had? And now this? What the fuck are you trying to do to me?”
“I’m sorry, I really am. I don’t know what happened,” she said without remorse.
“You been fucking this guy for a long time? Because that would really piss me off.”
“No. Yes. Not really.”
“Seven years, Nancy, seven fucking years.”
He felt like he ought to be more upset. A bomb like this should have more aftershock. But with all he’s been through, he may have been expecting it to happen. It’s not like Nancy was the love of his life. She was no overnight fling, but Nancy was one of the few women who could take Howard’s lifestyle, his past, his future, and his distant demeanor with a stride, and didn’t seem to want anything more from him than companionship and the occasional trip to Fiji. Nancy was currently a relatively successful make-up artist; and had been a former model and severe cocaine addict in another lifetime. She was markedly younger than Howard, but still not young—at least by L.A. standards. They made a good pair. When they attended openings or galas, Howard didn’t manage her every move; and by the second drink, they were off socializing at other sides of the room. She had her friends and he had his folk. It was a decent balance.
“Get the fuck outta here. Just get out. I can’t fucking believe this shit,” as he turned his back and walked away from Nancy, who seemed more stunned than Howard.
He grabbed his keys and left the house before Nancy even made her way upstairs to pack her things.
* * * *
Howard’s usual means of escaping problems is to hit the bottle and go to the track—two habits he took and kept with him from Brooklyn to Hollywood. Back as a kid in the old neighborhood, he and his gang would spend their days ditching high school and hanging out in the pool room hustling and starting fights. When they didn’t shoot pool well enough to cover their bets, they would find a mark and either hustle some more or flat-out rob them. Stores, apartments, businesses were all targets for their petty—and sometimes not so petty—thefts. When the pressure heightened to come up with more money at the pool hall, Howie dug himself deeper into debt with drinking.
Through the years, his addiction to pills, heroin, cocaine, and then prescription painkillers nearly brought his life and career to an abrupt stop in the early 1990s. Alan stepped in and spent nearly two years handling Howie’s rehab in an exclusive facility in the desert outside Palm Springs. Alan’s partnership at the agency came close to disintegrating, but he couldn’t stand to see his friend eaten alive by drugs. Alan felt that Howie had seen and experienced enough that he could kick the habit and go back to focusing on the acting, so his strong faith in his friend pulled them both through. And they both came out better for it: Alan was profiled in Time magazine for his heroism in saving the iconic Howard Kessler; and Howie emerged as a newly polished star ready for A-list roles written exclusively for him.
The two had been unstoppable.
Not so much past the addiction but over it for the moment; and confounded about what to do with his life at this point, Howard felt for the first time like there was a clarity in his perspective that he should be taking advantage of. He wasn’t distracted by lunatic women, drugs, or gambling debts. He had plenty of money. He felt at peace with so many of his demons. Why couldn’t he just settle down and enjoy a quiet retirement? Wasn’t that what all these signs were pointing to?
Howard couldn’t just retire. He has more fire and energy now than he’d had since he first came to L.A. as a 22-year old hack in 1966 right out of the Navy.
* * * *
Ralphie, Howard’s stylist and a friend 30 years his junior, insisted that the best way for Howard to shake off this cloud was to get a tattoo.
“The last time I got a tattoo was when I was in the Navy almost 50 years ago. I’m not getting a tattoo. I’ll look like an asshole,” Howard responded.
Two hours later they were both sitting in the plush couches of one of L.A.’s most exclusive tattoo artists’ dens, browsing the photo and design books. Ben, an artist from New York, comes out from behind the beads and nearly fell backwards seeing Howard in his waiting room. He’s idolized Howard for his roles in some of the greatest mob films ever. Ben’s ex-girlfriend’s father grew up with Howard in Brooklyn, so he had followed Howard’s career, stumbles, and highlights for several years.
“Uh, sir, um, hi, it’s really great to have you here,” stuttered Ben.
He didn’t want to crowd the star, and there had been many celebrities in his shop before. But to him, Howard Kessler was the pinnacle of stardom, having taken roles that are now iconoclastic and studied in film school.
“Uh-huh, look kid, I’m not really interested in this stuff—“ Howard grumbled.
Ralphie stopped Howard.
“What he’s saying is he’d like this scorpion here,” pointing to an over-sized flash of a scorpion stinging a voluptuous, naked woman. A hackneyed image, at best, Ben had remarked before, but kept it to himself. Howard rolled his eyes.
Ralphie decided on a panther tattoo and Howard passed on getting one done. While Ben was doing his work, Howard sat and watched and tinkered on his cellphone.
“So, Mr. Kessler, um, do you know a guy from Brooklyn, Karol Plotkin?” Ben asked.
Howard seized and stared straight ahead, his childhood consolidated into five seconds. He glared at Ben.
“I know Karol Plotkin. I know Punch. How the fuck do you know him?”
No one expects Howie’s responses to be as gruff as they are.
“I, uh, my ex-girlfriend, Jessica, she’s his daughter, she mentioned to me a long while ago—“ he said cautiously, hoping to not further agitate the short-tempered Howard.
“I don’t fucking believe it. Punch. What the fuck is he doing now? Where is he? You know, he was the smartest guy out of all of us…” Howard reminisced, his words loaded with memories.
“I don’t, uh, he’s in New Jersey I think. Retired maybe. He was an executive with a big company or something.”
“Right, sure, of course. I heard he went to college. Punch, this guy, I tell you, he was fucking crazy. But smart. I knew he’d do something with himself.”
Howard couldn’t shake thinking about Karol “Punch” Plotkin for days. The good times they had together as an ad hoc gang in Brighton Beach wasn’t because they particularly wanted to have a gang, but because they had to stay together so they wouldn’t catch a beat-down at every corner they turned. Tough neighborhoods spawn tough kids, and the kids found strength in gangs associated by block. Howard and Punch hung around together since they were in grade school. One of Howard’s oldest memories with Punch was in hiding under the boardwalk at Coney Island looking up girls’ skirts. They weren’t alone, but they felt like they were the smartest guys on the beach.
It had been years since Howard had given the old days back in Brooklyn any thought. He rarely looks back, and there’s nothing there for him. Today, the beach for Howard was a glorious view he had from his capacious deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, from his mansion in Malibu. As a kid for Howard, the beach was Coney Island’s crowded, sandy thoroughfare. Howard lived in a tenement with an extended family that was too busy to care for a troublesome kid. Punch lived in a basement apartment with his mother who worked three jobs just to put enough food on the table. She wasn’t around much to supervise Punch, so the two kids stirred mayhem from an early age.
He had to find out how Punch was doing. A daughter. Punch has a daughter. What else does he have?