Life Is Made Up of Parts

The lives of the supporting cast
By Tim Wahl
Tim Wahl
Tim Wahl
Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”
September 29, 2016 Updated: September 29, 2016

The cinema’s ambience—from the smells and tastes of buttery popcorn to the comfort of the seat and room temperature—is just an iota of what the late film historian Richard Dyer MacCann termed “the total film experience.” It’s not just the film on the screen but the sensations all around at the screening, he once said at a lecture at the University of Iowa.

But the main attraction, Dr. MacCann believed, was the Silent Film-Era born-and-bred Star System.

“Who’s in it?” viewers ask. In the movies, a name by any other name is not the same. The New Yorker adds that success of a film depends on the stars, who routinely command $20 million a picture these days.

The end of a night at the pictures is quite predictable. The house lights come up, credits roll, and patrons stream out, not batting an eye over who played Cop #4. Or who that man was who asked who the masked man was. Yet the question lingers, like Trivial Pursuit: Who was that so-and-so who said, “He went atta way, Sheriff”? In a sense, these unsung players are the masked man, or woman.

Craig and Carla Barnett, of West Hollywood, Calif., are old hands in the acting business. Transplanted Missourians who’ve played the real-life role of husband and wife for 39 years, the couple, both in their late fifties, boast an impressive list of movie and TV credits. Craig played director George Stevens in a TV movie about James Dean and a deputy in “Liar Liar.” He was in “Boston Legal” as a man in a bar and as a jury foreman in “Raising the Bar.”

Epoch Times Photo
Actor Craig Barnett. (Courtesy of Craig Barnett)

Carla defines herself largely as a comic actress, but has had recurring roles in the hit crime drama “The Mentalist.” She was a reporter in “Presumed Innocent,” starring Harrison Ford, and has had a host of appearances on TV.

Epoch Times Photo
Actress Carla Burnett. (Courtesy of Carla Burnett)

The Barnetts have made a career of teaching ESL (English as a second language) to adults in Los Angeles while working on their craft at Actors Studio, earning praise from producer and director Mark Rydell (Academy nomination for “On Golden Pond”). Now retired from their day jobs, the two dedicate their time with their adopted pre-teen son, Steed, who has special needs.

No regrets have they for going at it in a field where breaking in is a tough go, and where success is relative, notes Craig. But the money that usually accompanies high success would have helped.

“The finger of fate points you out or it doesn’t,” says Craig. “Having the money, the support and the connections is the way to do it.”

“You have to work at other jobs to pay the bills,” adds Carla. “We would not have chosen to go to work [as ESL teachers] if we didn’t have to.”

A social paradigm called Maslow’s Hierarchy might agree. Those at the top of the pyramid have time to self-actualize; the lower rungs are busy with basic needs like food and shelter.

Dulcet-voiced, 69-year old actor T. R. Ryan describes “making it” in the movie business as “the entertainment lottery.”

Epoch Times Photo
Actor T. R. Ryan. (Courtesy of T. R. Ryan)

“It’s simply a case of mathematics. If there are 5 roles in a film and 500 actors audition for those roles, 495 will be disappointed. And what determines those 5 getting the parts—looks, or connections, and luck.”

No one can say that Mr. Ryan, who resides in Studio City, Calif., has not given his worldly best—from Hollywood to Bollywood—to launch an acting career beyond incidental movie appearances. Brooklyn-born and Fordham-educated, Mr. Ryan began his career in Off- and Off-Off Broadway productions. He taught ESL in South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, and India, where he also landed roles in English language movies, including one with Aamir Khan, a star in Indian cinema.

Performing, he says, is “in my blood.” Mr. Ryan’s father was a standup comic, his mother a coloratura soprano. They quit their respective avocations to raise a family. His daughter, Marissa Ryan, is an accomplished actress.

“Expect the unexpected” could be the motto of Iowa-born Melinda Simonsen. Younger looking than her 55 years, she comes across as an ingénue in her headshot. A registered nurse and doctoral candidate in education psychology, Ms. Simonsen told the Epoch Times she applied to be an extra in Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated Best Picture “Nebraska” (2013). A turn of fate got her an important speaking part, the receptionist who delivered the sad verdict to Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) that he was scammed.

Epoch Times Photo
Actress Melissa Simonsen. (IMDB)

No entertainment lottery is in Ms. Simonsen’s future. She’ll stay put at home in Norfolk, Neb. “No big aspirations to become a movie star,” she says.

Such is the reality of bit players, who fill out characters in a motion picture, or, as some would say, who serve as devices to push along the plot. When the production wraps, they’re back at work, entering and exiting the stage of life.

Timothy Wahl’s experience in business, education, the sciences, and the arts gives him a unique platform on a spectrum of subjects.

Tim Wahl
Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy: Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”