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My First Time


My First Time

Like James Lipton of Bravo's "Inside The Actors Studio" -- and, believe me, I don't compare myself to him happily -- I have some standard questions I try to ask all my interview subjects. One is for a "war story" about being fired. Another is the coy request that they tell me about their first time -- that is, the first time they ever stood on a stage, held an audience's attention and thought, 'I like this.' For many of them, the answers bring us back to plays in grade school or summer camp. For others, it's holding forth at a backyard talent show or a family dinner. Here are their stories. Do you have a funny/silly/sweet/memorable story about your first time getting up in front of a crowd or performing on stage? Send it to and you might see your words appear for the first time on the web.


I think my first time on stage was at summer camp. My mom worked there and I was a staff brat. They were putting on a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and I begged and begged and begged them to let me have a part in it. And they wouldn’t. But then when they put on Hello Dolly, they gave me a line. I literally run on the stage and say, “Dolly’s here!” excitedly to the audience. And then we started singing “Hello, Dolly.”


My first lead role in a play was playing Hawkeye in MASH in high school. It was in 9th grade. We did the film as a stage play and, as I recall, they hacked away a bunch of the language in that. I went to Andover High School in Andover, Mass. I remember my acting teacher being pretty fricking hip. They were alright. It was one of the galvanizing moments in my life as for knowing what I wanted to do. I think I said to my parents when I was seven that I was going to be an actor and I never really wavered. But doing that show was one of the times when I absolutely realized where I was going and what I was doing.


I pulled a little trickery on the Clint Eastwood movie Sudden Impact. There was a casting call in Santa Cruz where I lived. I was an extra and we’re there on the set and somebody said, ‘All the extras go over there.’ And I was the only one who didn’t go; I just hung around. As fate would have it, they said, ‘Oh and you go in the elevator.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and I went into the elevator. It was me, Clint Eastwood, and two other guys in the scene and that was it. While I didn’t have any lines, I was absolutely featured. That famous line happened in the elevator. ‘You’re nothing but dog s***. You know what happens to s***. It gets stepped on.’ So then of course, they focus on me looking like, ‘Oh my god, there’s going to be trouble in this elevator!’ That was my first on-camera experience: with Clint Eastwood. Then I went to college and got my master’s degree at NYU.


Actually, my first job was dressing up as a Planter’s Peanut. Robin Hood was my first role, but the Planter’s Peanut was a summer job that launched me into comedy. Unintentionally.


Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol was my first role ever. It was in North Carolina and we performed it in front of 3000 people every night for all of November and December. It was a pretty big deal for my first thing, although it was in North Carolina. But an agent saw me doing that and asked my mom if I wanted to start doing auditions for commercials and movies. So I really started off in North Carolina.


It was a production of The Emperor’s New Clothes in second grade. I played one of the first people in the kingdom to realize the emperor was indeed naked. I remember being shocked! My first direction was from my second grade teacher who told me I should bring it down a little. I was already a ham in second grade. From then on, I never overacted.


I was asked to play Santa Claus in the school play when I was in the third grade. I remember getting some laughs and thinking, ‘Hey, this is nice.’ I have a picture of me. Someone also sent me a photo from when I was the co-mc of the high school talent show. I have this picture of me next to my computer here at work and it’s black and white and I’m doing some horrible ventriloquist’s dummy routine, where I’m the ventriloquist’s dummy and I’m sitting on the school janitor’s lap and I’m about six four and one hundred and forty pounds. But I look at that picture every now and again and think, okay, well I’ve come a long way since that guy anyway.


It was record pantomimes. I used to do Stan Freberg. I loved Stan Freberg. I would do them at the drop of a hat in front of relatives to their endless boredom. The Christmas one, and the Lawrence Welk one. I did them at the Grosse Point Unitarian Church. Then there was a bunch of kids in the Tuxes Club which was this Episcopalian group of which I was not a member. But I was dragooned into this musical and we did some skit based on Eliot Ness and the Untouchables. But I stayed away from drama in high school. The very first time was kindergarten, I’m told, in which I was the angelic voice singing “Away in a Manger” behind the piano that Miss Lois Jean was playing. I was a hambone from the beginning.


It’s going to sound really corny. But in the old neighborhood [in Chicago] we would put on plays all the time in a garage. We would do “Oliver!” -- a really pathetic fifteen minute version. I remember there was a man named Uncle Charlie who had been in World War II. He would sit on his front porch in a lawn chair. Whenever we did a play he would dress up in a suit. There would only be three or four people on folding chairs in the back yard but he would dress up in a suit and give us fifty cents to see the show. I remember that as being the most incredible time of my summer.


I did “A Christmas Carol” at the St. Louis Repertory Theatre when I was eight years old. I was Tiny Tim. I did that and I would always come down and instead of going out the stage door on the matinees when all the kids were there, I would come out through the lobby. [laughs] My mother always tells this story. I would say, “Pick me up in front of the lobby.” She’d say, “Why don’t you just come out the stage door?” “No, no, no. I want to go through the lobby.” She’d say, “I don’t understand.” Then she came on a matinee and saw me coming out of the lobby and of course I came out through all the kids and they were all saying, “Hey! You’re Tiny Tim!” She said, “You’re terrible.”


I was six years old and in a play being done at my sister’s high school: The King and I. [You played one of the children?] No, I played the king. Yes of course I played one of the children. I played Anna; it was an unbelievable transformation. The only thing I really remember is during a dress rehearsal there were about fifty or sixty people in the audience. There was some kind of musical number at the end of the first act. The children were moving in a circle and I was furthest downstage. The curtains closed and I was the only one left on the outside of the curtain. The audience cracked up and it was humiliating. I was devastated of course. And it’s just been one humiliation after another since then.


I was at a Catholic boarding school in England and I had a cricket ball hit me on the back of the head and had what appeared to be just a slight concussion. But then the nuns started noticing that I wasn’t remembering things very well. I seemed absolutely alright but I’d keep forgetting pencils and glasses and where this was and that was. So one nun thought perhaps I should start learning some poetry in the evening by heart, just to get that memory snapped back in. I don’t think they wanted to call my parents. I remember distinctly after about a month of learning poems that it went from one nun to five nuns to ten nuns when I would read it back to them. There was this little audience of nuns. “Oh, that’s lovely, darling. Do the next one.” So I found myself performing for nuns. I remember Ogden Nash’s were the ones that made me really have fun, such as, “Matilda tells such dreadful lies/ It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.” I’d have fun. I had an elocution teacher, who started to enter me in the guild hall competitions. I would go and do these competitions and it was a great way to get out of school. They were very trophy oriented and I would get to win trophies and travel around. That’s pretty much how it started. I had no back and no front, just one long skinny thing. I remember there was a point where they weren’t quite sure what to do with my hair so they cut it down really, really low and I remember suffering by going to the sweets shop and having the owner say, ‘Yes, sir, can I help you?’ ‘Not sir! Not boy! I’m a girl! Can’t you see that?’ And praying tits would show up and finally prove me right.


The absolute first time I do remember. I did a play in the second grade called “The Log and Admiral Frog.” I was Admiral Frog. The log, we didn’t know was a crocodile. Me and my team of frogs were trying to claim the log as a base. I don’t remember how it ended. Me, I hammed it up. But it was all about preparation. I knew all my dialogue, so I could improvise and have fun. My costume was just a green mask made from construction paper, like Robin from Batman and Robin. I had sort of a flimsy sword, also made out of construction paper. We had those rounded scissors and some glue and they threw us at a bunch of green construction paper and said, “Make your costumes.” We performed it for the entire second grade.


It was after I’d seen Platoon. I went to one of those dodgy acting classes. I went in and did this improvisation and I froze. It was really bad. This girl was going nuts around me. She was going nuts firing all this information. I froze and I was staring at her thinking, what do I do, what do I do? It was bizarre because at the end of the improvisation, the teacher came up to me and said, ‘That was really, really good. You were just listening. That was brilliant.’


I was in some plays even in grade school. In high school I was president of the dramatic club and sang in the choir. I was in every show they had. I just loved it. I was in some kind of Halloween play. I painted and made all the tombstones – it was set in a graveyard. And then I got some laughs. Right there, I was hooked. About the fifth or sixth grade. That became the point for living after that.

I went to a grade school out here [recently] and they invited me to see their performance of ‘Mary Poppins.’ All the kids from kindergarten up to the eighth grade. They did every song and every dance number. It was one of the cutest things I ever saw and I fell on the floor during the laughing scene where Uncle Albert is up in the air. They just hung a kid from a rope. It looked more like a hanging than a dance number. But God it was a funny show.


When I was a kid I was in a rock band. I was the lead singer. My best friend was the drummer and my two other friends were lead guitar and bass guitar. We were called The Unknowns. [laughs] We did all Led Zeppelin songs. No, no. The first rehearsal we had was in my buddy’s basement and we were in third or fourth grade and we rehearsed two songs. They already had an established band and they’d been together for a couple of months and then I came in and they auditioned me. We did “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” We did those two songs at school functions and talent shows and that kind of thing. We were the rock stars. I was asked to leave the band a few times. There was a conflict between me and the lead guitarist over a girl. He’s the one that they formed the band around because as soon as a Led Zeppelin record came out, like when Houses of the Holy came out the next day he knew all the songs. And we could only use his basement to rehearse in. And there was this girl we both liked and not only did I get kicked out of the band but I lost the girl to him too. It was quite humiliating. So I branched off on my own with my own guitar music. All originals. I thought I was Neil Young when I was in high school.


I was three at my grandma’s house doing my Shirley Temple impression for the family at Friday night dinner. I was singing “The Good Ship Lollipop” and the whole deal – dancing. Loving it. They applauded, because I was brilliant. It was so fun. I loved the attention.


I don’t remember the very first time. But in middle school we’d always do plays. I remember specifically when we did “Les Miserables.” I was eleven years old and I played four different roles. I thought it was the greatest thing to go backstage and change your clothes and go back to play your character and then go back stage and change your clothes and go back on as another character. One of my characters got to die and then I went offstage and changed my clothes again and went back on. I don’t know if it was an adrenaline rush, but I just loved being out there. Not only the performance aspect but actually getting into the character. I was always a ham. A year later I played Athos and my best friend was Porthos.


The first time I performed I was seven years old and I did a little tap dance at the little dance school I was taking lessons at. It was fun. I was the only boy and that was part of the appeal – I liked girls. [Did you tell other kids what you were doing?] Oh, you know, I never even brought it up. I was a lonely little child. [laughing]


At the University of Toronto, I was a varsity basketball player and I hurt my back in my second season. I was living with a guy who was a playwright and he asked me to audition for this play. I’d always been asked to audition for plays in high school but I was a jock and I was like, “Man, I’m not doing plays. Plays are gay. I’m a jock.” Even though in the back of my mind I had a desire to do it and knew I could do it. So this came up and I did one play and that was it. I was hooked. The play was called One Bright Morning. I played a French waiter. I was totally rude. I had to do a French accent and come in and be a smart-ass every once in a while. And every time I came in I got huge laughs and it was addicting. It was kind of an absurdist play in the spirit of Beckett. It was actually very good. I started doing all kinds of theater. I hadn’t thought about doing it professionally but the only thing I loved was being involved in theater. But I never thought about being in movies or television in a million years. I didn’t get my first professional acting job until I was 25 on “Forever Knight.” The first time I acted I realized how much sports is performance. We practice and then this is the game. We execute what we’re supposed to do and we do it in front of an audience and I got the same kind of feeling from it. But you don’t sweat as much.


I remember doing a piece in front of my parents because I was preparing something and it was really hard to do. I was in college. They were like, “You want to study what?” I’d never done it in high school. But I was so excited by the piece I got up and did it for them. I guess it must have been very weird for them to watch. That’s always stuck in my mind. I do remember watching their faces and being able to affect them through this monologue. And they’re your parents. They know who you are, so you’re trying to sell them on somebody else. It must have been weird for them and it was weird for me. They wanted me to be a lawyer. So I had to tell them I was going to study acting and then go to law school if things didn’t work out. Thank God I started working. I started working out of college. I was fifteen credits shy. But I took off to do this “Law & Order” and then I got another job right away and I’ve just continued to work.


I loved being a performer. When I was a little girl, maybe four or five, I used to stand in front of the mirror and dance and sing. And I loved it. I always knew when someone was watching me and I pretended not to know they were there. My daughter [Luca Bella] does the same thing.


The music teacher was not fond of me initially. I don’t know why. Maybe I was a cut-up. I don’t know what I was doing. I was asking for attention in all the wrong ways. And that teacher to humiliate me said, ‘Okay, Peter, why don’t you get up and sing the song yourself in front of the class!’ I remember feeling like I was going to die. Up till then, I’d been doing Dean Martin impressions since I was in sixth grade. Singing ‘Everybody loves somebody…’ I was thinking, ‘I’m going to sing this song and I’m going to sing it well, goddamnit, just to piss him off.’ And I did and it worked. I thought, ‘wow.’ Everybody was quiet afterwards because I’m sure he expected me to fail miserably. Of course, I was the only person in this class he didn’t ask to be in the next musical. Which was “110 in the Shade.” But after that, they did “The Fantasticks” and had auditions. I was a soccer player then and I paced back and forth for hours until our French teacher said, ‘Peter, what are you doing out here?’ I’m trying to get up the nerve to audition for Mr. Bissel [sic] for ‘The Fantasticks.’ He encouraged me. I went in and did my Cockney accent and got the part and that was my first time onstage, dying in fact, because I played Mortimer [sic]


From ten, I loved writing. I loved printing ink on my hands. My first time -- it wasn’t my name in print, it was my initials. In those days, back in the late Fifties, they didn’t give you bylines, not in the local papers. My first byline was in the Daily Mail. I still remember at age 18 having a byline on the page one splash was like I’d died and gone to journalism heaven. It was an unbelievable, at-sea rescue during one of the worst storms that had ever pounded Britain. I was able – miracle of miracles – to get the captain of the rescue ship on the phone at the pub where he’d gone to get a good stiff drink after bringing back the 19 rescued people. I was the only one who’d thought to call him in the pub. I called all the pubs in this tiny little village.


The first time I ever performed was when I sang at my First Communion. I had a solo. I remember thinking, “This is nice.” I got a lot of attention for that. I can’t remember what I sang; something about God. I was raised a Catholic. Catholic music is tragic. But little kid Catholic songs are alright. [Sings] “Hi, God, how do You feel today?” A lot of that stuff; chatting with Christ. I remember thinking, “I’m on to something.” I got a little special treatment. Then I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t allowed to do anything. At 12, I auditioned for “Amahl and The Night Visitor” at my church, so it was mellow. I did plays anywhere I could. On front yards and stuff.


I was a kid actor at camp and I made people cry. I can recall right now looking out at the audience and seeing the campers’ mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and realizing I had done that and the power I had. And I’ve never stopped.