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Secret Agent Man

When Should You Give Up Acting?

When Should You Give Up Acting?
Photo Source: Jonathan Bartlett

Without a doubt, “Louie” is the best half-hour comedy on television. I’m talking cable and network. If you watch one episode, you’ll agree there’s nothing quite like it. The show has a unique tone, surreal and honest, funny and sad, but always entertaining. Watching “Louie” is like watching a darker, more realistic version of the world depicted in “Seinfeld.”

As if you didn’t know, the creator and star of the show is Lous C.K. Right now, he’s the hottest comedian in the business. No one can match his drawing power. The man is 44 years old.

Louie started his career in 1984, and the first episode of his show didn’t air till 2010. During that gap, he worked as an actor, writer, and stand-up comedian, always making a living but never coming close to the big time. I have to imagine he experienced a lot of doubt during those years. But the man hung in there and worked on his craft, and now he’s got an Emmy on his desk.

It’s a rare thing, but success sometimes comes late in life.

As an agent, nothing could make me happier. I cheered when Richard Jenkins was nominated for an Oscar, and I was thrilled when a 52-year-old, working-class actor named Michael Emerson became a series regular on the hit show “Lost.”

Over the years, I’ve worked with several clients who turned into big earners after they hit the wrong side of 40. Unfortunately, I’ve also known quite a few who stuck around way past their expiration dates. So the million-dollar question every struggling actor has to face is, How do you know if you should keep chasing your dream or call it quits?

Before I answer this delicate question, let me make one thing perfectly clear. No one can predict the future. There are too many elements at play. Anything can happen. But I firmly believe you can’t live your life on a hope and a prayer. As the years go by, the whole starving artist routine will start to get old, especially if you want to buy a home or raise a family. And what about health insurance and a safe retirement where you don’t have to survive on cat food and handouts?

(Yes, I know. This whole column is rubbing you the wrong way. Some of you are probably mad at me. But you know what? That’s a good thing. It means I’m forcing you to think about some pretty unpleasant stuff, the kind of stuff you can’t just ignore.)

The only way to know if you’re on course is to perform a reality check every five years. That way, you can see if you’re making any real progress. And by progress, I mean genuine evidence you’re moving forward. That evidence can be in the form of representation from an established agent, bookings and callbacks on mainstream projects, or several rave reviews from known critics. In other words, there has to be irrefutable proof that you have the skill and ability to achieve a long-term career as an actor. If none of those elements is present, you can try waiting another five years for the next reality check, but it would be a mistake to go further than that.

As for Richard Jenkins and Michael Emerson, please understand those guys were working actors known to the casting community before they made it big. And Louie C.K. was a respected comic who kept building on his accomplishments. If any of them did a reality check after five years, I’m sure they would’ve seen the kind of progress I’m talking about.

Charles Grodin said it best: “Reach for it, but don’t fall off the edge of the world. I wish you could all get what you want, but there’s nothing as valuable as a useful happy life, and rumor has it there are some people who have achieved that who aren’t actors."

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