When I was but a wee lad at Columbia University in the City of New York as a freshly married, newly-out-of-college, first year graduate student studying theatre — I was pleased when a “Big Name” agent from a “Bigger Name” international talent agency came to one of the plays I wrote and wanted to “take a meeting” with me about representation. You live for moments like that in the hard life of the theatre.

Our “Big Meeting” was delayed about a month because of The Agent’s hectic travel schedule. When I arrived at the agency in Midtown Manhattan I took a seat in the large waiting room. I felt good and confident dressed in my best clothes. The young woman answering the phone was bored, rude and uninterested in answering the business phone because she was busy talking to her boyfriend on a second line.

The sound of a trilling phone was perpetual and never-ending. After a 45 minute wait for — The Agent — he finally emerged from from the suite of offices and when he saw me he did a double-take and stared at me from afar. He didn’t wave me over to follow him to join him in his office. He instead closed the door behind him and cautiously approached me. My gut alarm went off and told me that was not a good sign.

You were always “brought in” when you made an agent call unless you were cold calling — but this meeting had been set up for a long time. I stood — with freshly printed original script tucked under my arm — introduced myself and extended my hand for shaking.

The Agent did not meet my eye or take my hand. He fell into a lump in a leather chair across from me and limply motioned for me to place my script on the coffee table between us. I placed the script on the table and sat in silence.

I decided I would let him be the first one to speak. I glued my eyes on the script. I could hear The Agent repeatedly sighing. Finally, he spoke in a quiet, intimate voice.

“So. How have you been since last night?” I was still a bit of a country rube, a Big Bohunk, and a babe in a Big City — but I immediately did not like or understand his condescending tone. I looked up from the table and saw The Agent perched on the edge of his chair.

“I’ve been fine, thanks.” I replied.

“Oh, really?” His eyes became black buttons. “Fine, huh?” He was waiting for the response he wanted. His lips were quivering. I obviously wasn’t giving him the answer he needed, but it was the only answer I had.

“Yeah, fine. I had a great dinner with my wife last night. Lasagna.”

He was getting angry as he sputtered to find the right words. “So… so… so so…” I didn’t understand why he was getting so upset as his voice rose to a yell.

“So — so you’re saying we didn’t see each other last night, then?”

I was stopped. I had no idea what he was talking about and this was only the second time we’d seen each other. “I was with my wife last night.” I repeated.

The Agent popped up from his chair and started screaming and pointing his finger at me. “We weren’t together last night? Is that what you’re saying?” Now I was getting angry.

He obviously had me mixed up with some paramour or date or whatever he had the night before. I tried to remain calm in the midst of his emotional storm. I stood. I re-introduced myself. I reminded him of our previous meeting at Columbia.

I told him the last time we “saw” each other was at the performance of my play a month ago. I offered the possibility of a mistaken identity… The truth did not satisfy him.

“So that’s the way it’s going to be, then?” He placed his fists on his hips. I didn’t know what to say. I had no reply.

He crispy nodded at me — grabbed my script from the table and roughly folded it in half — and trotted back to the door leading to his office.

The Agent opened the door, looked at me over his shoulder, tossed my script into the trash bin next to him, and vanished behind the closed door.

I stood there frozen for a good 30 seconds as I tried to dissect what happened. The young receptionist was absolutely oblivious to the loud and curious conversation that played out before her. I wondered if I had been the subject of some sort of cruel joke.

I wondered what would have happened if I had played along with his mistaking me for someone else. I wondered if show business was the right career path for me.

35 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    Really great story on intimidation! Why didn’t he just tell you he was no longer interested? Why all the theatrics? Surely, if he thought he was with you the night before he remembered you. Was this his bizarre way of hitting on you and then, when you didn’t play along, he played the drama queen? Am I missing something here?
    “The Agent did not meet my eye or take my hand.”
    It is always a slap in the face when someone refuses your hand. I remember when I interviewed for my commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve. After a friendly chat with the recruiter, I was ushered into the CO’s office and introduced. “Nice to meet you,” I said, and offered my hand.
    The CO stood in silence with his arms folded and stared me down. I withered and, red-faced, slid into the nearest chair.
    Two years later, after jumping through all the hoops, I received my commission from the Secretary of the Navy. The CO and I became friends and he never treated me that way again. To this day, I don’t understand what he was trying to achieve. Reinforce his rank, maybe?
    Just naive in Tennessee,
    Donna

  2. Hi Donna —
    If he wasn’t interested in representing me he would’ve said so. There isn’t any shyness about that.
    He actually thought we’d met the night before and that’s why he did a double-take when he saw me. When I denied it was me he was with — and it wasn’t me — he felt rejected and denied and paid me back for “lying to him” by brushing me off and trashing my script.
    On “The Deadliest Catch” — a great show on the Discovery Channel that deals with crab fishermen — one of my favorite skippers refuses to shake a greenhorn’s hand until after the season. He feels it’s bad luck to shake hands until the greenhorn shows he’s worth the effort. It’s strange to watch him refuse to shake when the greenhorn offers and he doesn’t tell the greenhorn why. He just says, “I’ll shake your hand later.” The greenhorns are always bewildered and insulted.

  3. Hi David,
    At least the captain says he will shake their hand later.
    The handshake in our society is such an important gesture that I think when people refuse it, the action becomes more than just rude behavior– it is a rejection of the person offering their hand.
    Donna

  4. Hi David,
    An interesting subject– the meaning and origin of signs such as the handshake the military salute, the outstretched arm of the German deferring to the Fuhrer.
    Donna

  5. Um. What the hey? What a total idiot. I do not know that I could have ever found the courage to meet with an agent again! I assume SuperAgent Matt Wagner shook your hand when you met him? 😉

  6. Hi Emily —
    It was a WACKO meeting! Most of my in-person meetings with Agents have been delightful but there have been a few strange meetings that I prefer to forget.
    I have never met SuperAgent Matt Wagner in person! We are a virtual relationship and we ever meet in person and he asks me out — even though he’s married with kids — I’m jumping off that new invisible horseshoe observation thing in the Grand Canyon! :mrgreen:

  7. It was entirely odd. There was nothing I could do to convince The Agent I was not who he felt I was and there was no way I was going to admit to something or play along with a mistaken identity.
    The experience was valuable in that it taught me how to value a person more than a company.
    The Big Agency would have been a great “get” for me, but I would’ve had to ultimately deal with The Agent’s “personality” even if he treated me well at the meeting because that oddity was still in him.

  8. David,
    My family happens to share our city with another McRae family. The father of the other McRae family used to work for a big car dealership here in town and made very obnoxious commercials. He has quite the reputation around town, particularly now since being fired from the dealership, that is at best questionable and at worst downright despicable. I have on numerous occasions been mistaken as his daughter or, even worse, his wife, when someone learns my last name. In all of these situations, the person mistaking my identity was cold or downright rude to me until they figured out that I am not who they originally thought.

  9. David,
    Some of them asked after a while: “So, how are you related to so-and-so?”
    Sometimes I would add after introducing myself and getting a knowing and cold look, “No relation to the car salesman.”
    Sometimes I wouldn’t take the effort to correct them and just move on. Some people are just needlessly rude and better left to their own devices. 😀

  10. That’s a wild story, Emily, because it produces direct evidence of prejudice and inappropriate stereotyping — imagine if you were poor and a minority and the sort of looks you’d get based on things you are unable to easily change.

  11. Hi David,
    That’s a wild story. You would have thought that the guy would have known who we was with the night before. Must have been a wild night for him, so maybe some brain cells had been damaged and he should be forgiven for forgetting his manners and forgetting your identity.
    There have only been a few instances where someone hasn’t reached out to shake hands when I’ve extended my hand. Even when people aren’t happy to see me — being in collections has the effect on people — they always reach out to shake hands. If someone isn’t willing to shake hands, I always make a mental note to be a little extra cautious since it’s very abnormal to not want to shake hands.

  12. Hi Chris!
    I do seem to have the problem that people seem to think they know me when I’ve never met them before in my life. I’ve had people tell me I took trips with them before as part of a greater group when I never did!
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/05/29/you-look-like-an-australian-cricketeer/
    He was a good agent with a reputation for being miserable being an agent. He left that job for another running a theatre and now he’s doing some private university work. I haven’t seen him since that day and, frankly, I have no interest in ever seeing him or hearing his name again! 😀
    You’re right about the hand shaking thing. Just do it. Even if you’re furious. A handshake is an important mode of communication and to not play along with the meme is to dishonor the memory that evolved us.

  13. Hi David,
    I think it’s pretty common for people to associate certain faces with other people at times.
    I must look like other people because ever since I was young, people have told me that they have seen me out and about — when I knew I was nowhere around where I was supposedly sighted. When Drew Carey was big, people sometimes said that I looked a little like him.
    Not too long ago, a clerk asked me what my last name was. She thought that I was another attorney and said that he looked exactly like me.
    When I was in law school and high school, there were other students who looked like “twins” because of similar looks. Sometimes teachers and professors would call me the wrong name.

  14. Chris!
    Wild! I wonder why we remind others of others? We must have some sort of common human look that others associate with good times or good memories. It’s an honor, I suppose, to remind other people of people they remember. They must be longing for some sort of contact and we must help make that yearning come true.

  15. You’re absolutely right, Katha. RUN!
    Some of my friends told me I should call him, or have the head of the program call him or write him a letter or whatever because the *possibility* of the opportunity was too great to lose — but who’d want that unnecessary tension staining a relationship with a guy who’s supposed to be your business advocate? Umm? Ick!

  16. You’re right, Katha. If the million is on the table it isn’t coming from the agent’s pocket, so you can move along the money should follow you — though you might have to pay off the original agent if they were involved in setting up the deal.