Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Oldest Scam in Hollywood

By Barry Dutter

The oldest scam in Hollywood is the bogus “talent agency” that lures in gullible young hopefuls and gets them to pay some kind of “sign-up fee,” as well as pressuring them into paying for a photo session with the agency’s staff photographer for way too much money.
(For the record, no reputable talent agency ever charges any kind of up-front fee. They get paid on commission after their clients get paid for a job.)
I can proudly say I’ve never fallen victim to any of these scams, but there was an incident that happened in L.A. last year that was so well-executed, they almost fooled even a grizzled old veteran like myself.
It all started when a talent management company put an ad on Craigs List, saying they were looking for male models over 30. I happened to fall into that age group, so this seemed right up my alley. You rarely see a Hollywood company looking to sign a long-term contract with middle-aged guys.
At the time, it seemed like it could be legit, but like any posting on Craigs List, you have to be wary. I sent them an email and included my head shot. I was pleased to receive a call from a girl at the agency, asking if I wanted to come in for an appointment.
Of course I said yes.
The next day, I headed over to the agency, which was located in a high-rise building in Newport Beach.
I took the elevator up to the tenth floor and stepped out into the spacious lobby. The floor and walls were all black marble. This was apparently a very successful management company.
There was a cute girl at the reception desk. I gave her my name and she had me take a seat. I had an appointment with the head of the agency. We’ll call her Rebecca.
A few minutes later, Rebecca called me into her office. I expected to find a middle-aged corporate lady. Instead, waiting within that office was a sexy young girl, no older than 22, who introduced herself as the owner of the agency.
This seemed fishy to me. I’ve been in the offices of dozens of talent agencies over the years, but I’ve never seen one headed by a 22-year-old girl before. It didn’t seem realistic to me that someone so young could have acquired the wealth and resources it would take to launch a company that was obviously so successful.
I figured there was no way this young cutie was the owner. She had to be some kind of a figurehead. But I had traveled all the way there to meet with her, so I figured I might as well see it through.
Rebecca explained to me that her company was very selective about who they picked. She said if I was deemed worthy, she would need to take some test pictures of me. Then she would show them to her staff, and they would collectively decide if I was worthy of being added to their roster.
So far, so good. But how much would it cost for the pictures? “We take the test pictures for free,” she explained. We concluded our meeting with her saying she thought I had potential. Could I come back the next day to do the test shoot?
Sure, I said. They weren’t asking me for any money at this point, so it seemed like everything was on the up-and-up.
The next day I put on my finest shirt and slacks, shined up my shoes, and headed back to the agency. Again I met up with Rebecca, the impossibly young owner of the management company. She had me stand against a wall in her office and took a few quick photos of me. Then she asked me to wait in the lobby while she and her staff reviewed the photos to see if I had made the grade.
At this point, everything still felt legit. My spider-sense was not tingling to warn me of any danger.
They kept me waiting in that lobby for about twenty minutes -- long enough for me to think, “They must really be studying my pictures hard!”
Finally the receptionist said Rebecca was ready for me. I never did see any other staffers meeting with her, so I have to wonder if they even existed. The entire staff seemed to consist of the so-called owner and the receptionist.
Rebecca had some good news for me: my photos had passed the test! I felt like a superstar. I had somehow survived their extremely difficult judging process.
Now they could send me out on high-paying modeling jobs! Except that was not the way they ran their agency.
Rebecca explained to me how it worked: you pay them a monthly fee (RED FLAG!) and they email you all the contacts you need to book yourself jobs. And unlike other agencies, you don’t have to pay them a percentage of the income from your jobs.
Right off the bat, this was seeming more and more shady. It sounded like after I paid them money, I would never hear from them again.
I didn’t see why I had to pay them anything if I was the one doing all the work.
And that was when Rebecca dropped the other shoe. “You’re going to need new pictures,” she said. “Our photographer can take them for you.”
“How much will they cost?” I asked.
“Six hundred dollars,” came the reply. (RED FLAG #2!!!)
(Most photographers charge between $50 and $100 for head shots.)
Then she made her final pitch. She sounded very sincere. She had studied her lines well. “We need people who are absolutely committed to a career in modeling. You need to ask yourself, how important is your career to you?”
“It’s very important,” I said, but then I added I was not ready to commit to the photo shoot just yet. I told her I would be in touch to schedule the shoot -- but I knew I would never call her.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that the whole thing had been a first-class scam. The way they had me come in one day, and come back the next day, to keep me dangling like a fish on a hook. The way they kept me waiting in the lobby, to make me think they really were judging my photos… even the pretty girl who was the so-called “owner” of the agency was probably just a model they hired to lure middle-aged men into signing on.
I can't prove it, but I would wager that every guy who walks in to that agency passes their "photo test" and is offered the "opportunity"to pay for more pictures.
I had to give them credit for the amount of detail they put into their scam. It must have been a very successful con because the rent on that office must have cost a small fortune.
Basically it was an upscale version of the oldest con in the business: the old “you need new pics/we’ll take them for you” hustle.
I was happy to get out of there with all my money. Little did I suspect that I was about to walk right into another trap: a low-tech version of the same scam!
About a week later, I saw an ad on Craigs List for an agency that was looking for a middle-aged male to model for an ad.
I made an appointment to meet with the head of the agency. He was a fat, gay Armenian man in his mid-fifties named Vito. Now this seemed like the type of guy who would run a talent agency!
His office was a tiny one located on the ground floor of a luxury high-rise. I think his office may have once been the janitor’s closet, because that’s about how big it was.
The walls of the office were covered with photographs, many of them featuring shirtless men.
Vito explained to me that he was both a photographer and an agent. He showed me samples of his work -- some of them featuring girls, but quite a few featuring what seemed to be his favorite subject: shirtless men. He told me he was about to do a photo shoot of some sexy girls for Maxim.
I don’t know if he was really working for Maxim or not -- it seemed to me that Maxim could afford to hire someone who didn’t have a broom closet for an office. But he kept saying he was doing this shoot for Maxim. He stressed over and over how sexy the girls were going to be.
I think the reason he kept talking about this non-existent Maxim shoot was because there was so much gay stuff in his office, he wanted me to know that he wasn’t just about shooting shirtless guys -- he could do heterosexual stuff, too.
We spoke for a few minutes about the job. It was a modeling gig for a magazine, one where I would get to keep my shirt on. Vito said the client would want to see may headshot. I actually didn’t have a headshot at the time, and I needed to get some new ones. I mentioned how that last management company had tried to scam me with $600 photos. He said, “You’re right, $600 is too much. I can shoot your headshots for free.”
That sounded vaguely familiar, but it was still the best deal I had heard all day, so I asked for more details. He explained that he didn’t really have a studio but he knew a location on the corner of Hollywood and Vine where there was a great backdrop where he could shoot some quick head shots for me.
Usually when you shoot head shots, you bring 3 or 4 changes of clothing and take anywhere from 100 to 200 photos. Then you pick the one picture that best represents your look.
But Vito thought that was too wasteful. He said to me that I didn’t even need to bring a change of clothes -- just wear one outfit, take a few quick pictures and we’re done. He told me his philosophy was that any decent actor should not have to take more than a dozen or so pics to get a good head shot.
This seemed like a really unorthodox way to take pictures, but I did need new photos and the price was right, so I said why not? I mean, since the pics were being taken for free, I really had nothing to lose but a few minutes of my time.
Little did I know that I was walking headlong into another scam!
A few days later, I met Vito on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He took me to an alley where one of the walls had been painted red. He explained to me that this wall was the perfect backdrop for taking head shots. I posed for 10 or 15 pictures.
Vito showed me a few of the pictures on the LCD display of his camera. Then he said we were done.
Traditionally, when you get headshots taken, the photographer gives you what’s called a “contact sheet.” This is a collection of tiny prints of all your photos on or two one pages, so you can look them over, show them to your friends, and then decide which picture is the best representation of you.
I asked Vito when I would get my contact sheet. He said it wasn’t necessary. “I’ll just bring these pictures to my retouch guy, he’ll pick the best one, and we’ll make that your head shot.” I did not like the way this was going at all.
Basically he was saying I would have no say whatsoever in which picture would be used for my own head shot! When you’re an actor, your head shot is your calling card. It’s the single most important tool you have for finding work. You want it to be as good as it can be. And you always want to have some say in which picture is used.
Vito was trying to take all of that decision-making away from me for this very vital component of my acting career.
But wait -- it gets better. Then he says to me, “All I need now is $175 for the retouching, and I’ll have your pictures for you on Monday.”
“I thought you said the pictures were free.”
“I said I would shoot you for free. What I need now is $175 for the retouching and the prints.”
“I didn’t bring any cash. You never mentioned anything about me paying you any money today.”
“No problem. We can go to the ATM, you can take put the $175, pay me now, I’ll have the pics for you on Monday.”
“I don’t like this arrangement. You never mentioned me paying you anything before.”
“It’s no big deal, there’s an ATM right around the corner.”
It may not have been a big deal to Vito but it was a huge deal to me. I don’t appreciate being ambushed.
Vito was insistent on being paid that day. But there was no way I was paying him that day. I had just gotten through explaining to the guy how the previous people had tried to scam me, and there he was, pulling a variation on the same scam!
I told Vito I would bring him the money on Monday when I came in to pick up the pictures. He said that his retouch guy wouldn’t do any work until he was paid, so he really needed the money up front.
Vito seemed a little too desperate to get his hands on my money. Now my spider-sense was tingling like mad! I told Vito my money was tied up, I didn’t have access to it, and that I would get it to him on Monday.
Vito did not look happy, but he could tell he wasn’t going to get a dime out of me. He got in his car and drove away. I think we pretty much both knew we were never going to see each other again.
I had to give Vito credit for trying. I’m sure his scam works on eight out of ten people, especially the younger ones.
I should say at this point that there is nothing wrong with a modeling agency trying to make some extra money by offering photography services to their clients. But there is an honest way to do it and there are some sneaky, underhanded ones. The examples illustrated here are two of the more creative ones I have come across.
Some modeling agencies do employ very talented photographers. But I would wager most of those photographers work out of an actual studio, not out of alley on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
I don’t know where Vito went after that. Probably went off to do his imaginary photo shoot for Maxim. I wonder if he rented a studio for that one or just found another seedy street corner…
I guess the lesson here is you can’t believe everything you read on Craigs List!


Monday, October 18, 2010

The Wheel of Fortune spins on September 11

By Barry Dutter

It almost sounds unpatriotic to say it, but September 11, 2001 was one of the greatest days of my life. No, not because of the horrible tragedy that befell this great nation when the terrorists struck. I was as outraged and horrified as any red-blooded American at the events of that fateful day.
But in addition to being the day when we experienced the first ever attack on American soil, it was also the day I was picked to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
It was on September 1, 2001, that I saw an ad in the local paper saying that Wheel was coming to town. I figured I would try out. I had been a fan of Wheel ever since Chuck Woolery hosted the daytime version back in the 70s. But I never thought I would actually be on it.
Wheel of Fortune is based in Hollywood, but several times a year, the show travels to other cities around the U.S. in order to spice things up a bit (and give someone else a chance to play other than Los Angelenos). I was living in Ft. Lauderdale at the time. The entire cast and crew of Wheel of Fortune had come to South Florida, looking for new faces to be on the show.
According to the Internet, more than a million people try out for WOF in a given year and only 600 actually make it on to the show.
So if WOF comes to your city looking for people, that greatly increases your odds of getting on.
The audition in Miami was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on September 8th … three days before the world changed forever. I arrived right on time and was taken to a room with about 100 other hopefulls. It was a very eclectic group. I remember seeing a guy with a Mohawk and tons of tattoos. He was wearing ripped jeans and had several face piercings. I thought to myself, “Has this guy never seen the show before? Has he ever seen a contestant who looked like that on a TV game show?”
My feeling is, when you try out for a game show, you have to go in there dressed as if you have already been picked. I always wear a suit and tie when I try out for a show and I make sure to shine my shoes. And I have a pretty darn good track record of getting picked.
When you audition for most game shows, you are given a written test. In the case of WOF, we were given half-finished games of Hangman where we had to fill in the missing letters. I always kick ass on these written tests.
We had about ten minutes to complete the test. I think there were 20 puzzles on the test. I got about 15 right, and left the rest blank.
About 30 minutes later, the tests were graded, and over half the people in the room were sent home. I was one of the lucky ones who got to stay. Out of the remaining 20 or 30 people, 15 would get picked to be on the show. (Game shows typically tape five episodes a day, and then the episodes are shown over a five-day period when they air a few months later. Wheel uses three contestants per episode.)
I had made it past the first hurdle -- but that was no still no guarantee that I was getting on the show.
There are three important parts to getting on a TV game show. First, is your look. Most shows prefer contestants who are clean-cut and well-dressed with nice haircuts. Next is how well you do on the written test. And third is how well you perform on camera.
I’m a natural-born ham, so I can usually delivers the goods when the camera is rolling. I knew I had aced the test. I had a distinct advantage this time around when it came to my look: most of the people in the room were black and Latino women. I was just about the only clean-cut white guy who had tried out for the show. This was one time where diversity might work in my favor!
Two days later, I got the call. Apparently they wanted a white male on the show, and I fit the bill. I had been hand-picked to be one of 15 contestants to be on the show. I was told to come in the next day fora a run-though. They wanted us to know where to stand during the show, how to spin the wheel, etc.
The next day was Wednesday, September 11, 2001.
On the morning of September 11, I got in my car at about 7:30 a.m. We were supposed to be in Miami at 9:00. It was a 30 minute drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, but with morning rush hour, it would take about an hour and a half.
I jumped on I-95, and found that traffic had come to a dead stop. I don’t mean like "stop and go" traffic. I mean “stop and stop.”
I had been in traffic jams before, but this one was different. This felt weird. Cars on both sides of the highway were just not moving. I had the radio tuned to Howard Stern, as I always do in the morning.
People who are not regular listeners of the Stern show assume that the show is about nothing but lesbians, strippers, and sex. Yes, it’s true that those are all important aspects of his show. But it’s so much more than that.
Sure, Howard talks a lot about masturbation and midgets and misfits -- but he also talks about whatever is going on in the world. Especially if there is something of national interest going on in New York.
On this day, one of the Twin Towers had just been hit by a plane -- and Howard stayed on the air, and reported everything that happened over the next two hours. As the second plane hit, Howard was right on top of the story.
Most listeners agree it was one of his shining moments as a broadcaster. While most New Yorkers were fleeing their jobs in a frantic effort to get out of the city before more tragedy struck, Howard’s attitude was that he could not leave. He had to stay and continue to report on what happened next.
Howard’s is a comedy show, but there was no comedy on this day. It was just the real, raw reactions of a native New York, responding with shock and anger to the horror that was going on all around him.
Howard continued his broadcast as word came in about the plane that hit the Pentagon and the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
And when the Twin Towers came down, and thousands of lives came to an end, Howard reported on that, too. The devastation and loss of life were almost beyond belief. The situation was so unnerving that some Stern staffers had to leave the show midway and rush home. One went to the tanning salon. Another went bowling. Obviously not every one deals with grief the same way!
There was a lot of fear and uncertainty on that day. Nobody knew when the next plane would fall from the sky. No one knew which city would be targeted next. You had to figure any major American city was a potential terrorist target.
And there I was, heading for Miami. I wasn’t even sure if the WOF "dress rehearsal" had been canceled. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept inching my way down the highway. I didn’t receive any phone calls announcing a change in plans. I had to assume we were still on.
Traffic was crawling like a snail down I-95. Me and every other driver on the road were watching the skies, waiting to see if a plane would crash in our neck of the woods. It was the first time I did not feel safe in my own country.
It would take me about two and a half hours, but I finally arrived at the Wheel of Fortune set.
I apologized for being late, but no apology was necessary. I was not the only one who had had a hard time getting to the studio on that day. Everyone had heard the news about the terrorist attacks.
There was a weird mood on the set. Me and the other contestants were excited about being on the set of a TV show where we had the chance to win a lot of money. But at the same time, we were very much aware of the tragedy that was going on in other parts of the country.
I guess the word here would be “bittersweet.”
At this point, we were not sure if the show would be canceled. We all knew this was a time of mourning. It was not a time to be clapping our hands and chanting “Big money! Big money!”
If they had decided to shut it down and go home, we would have understood. As much as we wanted to spin the wheel, we knew that this might not be our time.
All the contestants and the staff were gathered in a big meeting room. Pat Sajak and Vanna White were not even in Miami. Although Pat had flown in the night before, he was still several cities away. And Vanna was driving in, having stopped to visit relatives along the way. There was some talk that Vanna might not even make it in time to work on the show the next day. (Flying was not an option, obviously.)
Amidst all this uncertainty, the producer of the show addressed us. First, he acknowledged the terrible events that were happening around the country. Then he said they realized how ludicrous it might seem for people to be playing on a game show while this national nightmare was going on.
He said they had considered canceling the Miami shows. But then they decided to finish the job they came for.
I’ll never forget the words he used on that day. He said, “It’s not that the show must go on. It’s that life must go on.”
He didn’t say anything about not letting the terrorists win, but the sentiment was the same. His point was, yes, there has been a horribly tragedy. Yes, thousands of Americans have lost their lives on this day.
But for those of us left behind, life goes on. We can’t stop living just because some maniacs crash planes into our buildings.
We, the contestants had waited our whole lives to be on this show. And we weren’t going to let that damn Osama Bin Laden deprive us of our moment of glory!
And so it was announced that a few hours later, we would begin taping. We just had to wait for Pat and Vanna to arrive.
And so we had what they call in the business a "run-through." We practiced spinning the wheel, and I must say, that thing is heavy! A few hours later, we had blocked out the whole show, and it was time to go home.
All we could do was sit and watch the news, trying to soak up every detail of what was going on in the rest of the country. till it was time for bed.
Miami had been spared any terrorist attacks, but many Floridians have friends and family in New York, and the repercussions of that terrible day were felt all across the U.S.
The next morning, we all headed back to the set. It was September 12, 2001, and we were going to be on Wheel of Fortune!
Despite everything else that was going on, myself and the other contestants were still excited about the chance to be on WOF. And no terrorist attack could ever kill our enthusiasm for that.
Before the first taping began, the producer of the show addressed the studio audience. Again he made his speech about this not being about some dumb game show. It was about the need to go on living after a tragedy.
And so we did. A few minutes later, Pat Sajak and Vanna White stepped out onto the stage. (They had made it just in time!) And on that day, in the aftermath of death and destruction, for a 15 lucky Floridians (and a studio audience of about 100), it was like a little piece of Hollywood magic had landed in our own back yard.
It really didn’t matter how well the contestants played that day. For the record, I came in last place -- and I walked away with $5,000. Wheel is one of the only shows on TV where even then loser goes home with money.
I actually would have won about $15,000 to $20,000 but I hit bankrupt three times. I’m lucky I went home with anything after that!
A friend of mine suggested that the show was fixed, that the wheel was rigged to make me lose all my money. But the fact of the matter is, the woman who beat me hit bankrupt twice on the same show. So much for any conspiracy theories.
Even Pat Sajak was flabbergasted at seeing five “bankrupts” in one show. (For the record, Pat was a nice guy, and Vanna was still reasonably attractive for her age.)
During the course of the episode, I decided I was going to use the term “Big money” more than any other contestant who had ever appeared on the show. I don’t know if I beat the record, but I like to think that I came close!
Wheel of Fortune is, to date, my most profitable game show appearance. I know that in the scheme of things, $5,000 is not a lot of money, but it is still the biggest chunk of change I have won on TV. (Not bad for a half hour’s work!)
After the taping was over, we left the studio and headed back out into the real world, where we once again had to deal with the reality of terrorist attacks on American soil. By then, the whole country was in shock. People were walking around with blank looks on their faces. We had never seen anything like the events of September 11 before. No one knew quite how to react.
It would take many months, even years before things even began to return to some semblance of normalcy.
Looking back now, I truly believe September 11 was the worst day in American history. But for me and 14 other lucky contestants, September 11 was a very lucky day. For that was the day we were part of something special.
Anyone who was around in 1962 can tell you where they were when JFK got shot. And in the same way, any modern American can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001. Most people probably have stories of rushing home from work or being glued to a TV set. But I’ll never forget where I was on that day.

I was buying a vowel.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I am the Weakest Link! Goodbye!

By Barry Dutter

Whenever a new game show comes on, I try to get on it as a contestant as fast as possible, because you never know if it will last. The show could be gone in one season, and if you don’t jump on it when it’s hot, you may never get another chance.
That was the case with The Weakest Link, a show which debuted on NBC in April, 2001. The Weakest Link was based on a British program with the same name. NBC even imported the host, a caustic little red-haired British woman named Anne Robinson.
I was living in South Florida at the time, but as luck would have it, the casting department was coming to Ft. Lauderdale to look for contestants. I tried out for the show, turned on the charm and just a week later, I got the good news: I had been picked to fly to L.A. to compete on the show.
The premise of The Weakest Link was pretty simple. Eight strangers are brought together and forced to work as a team to answer general knowledge trivia. For every question they answer correctly, they earn an increasing amount of money for a communal kitty. At the end of each round, all the contestants vote to eliminate the player who they consider to be the weakest. This goes on for six rounds until there are only two players left; those two players then face off for the chance to win all the money that the team has collected in their pot.
There was a bit of strategy involved, though. Sometimes players voted to eliminate the strongest contestants, because you didn’t want to face someone who was smarter than you in the final round. But you didn’t want to eliminate the smartest contestants too early in the game, because that would greatly reduce the amount of prize money at the end of the show.
Players on The Weakest Link were encouraged to form strategic alliances, because it made the show more interesting when secret allegiances were discovered and confidences were betrayed. Each contestant who was eliminated was also given an exit interview where they were encouraged to trash-talk the people who voted him or her off.
In short, The Weakest Link had all the ingredients in place to be a long-running hit show: a nasty British host who insulted people; back-stabbing contestants who made truces, broke them, and then made snarky comments about each other; a potential million dollar prize…
It was a little bit American Idol, a little bit Survivor and Big Brother, a little bit MTV’s The Real World
It seemed like it couldn’t miss. And while The Weakest Link did start out strong, it petered out pretty quick, lasting just over a year in prime-time. (In typical NBC fashion, they hastened the show’s demise with multiple airings in the same week and too many celebrity stunt episodes.)
I think the main reason the show failed is that America never really accepted Anne Robinson as host the way they later did with Simon Cowell on American Idol. Apparently us yanks can handle a sarcastic British man mocking us but we can’t take it when it’s a sarcastic British woman.
It’s funny, because Anne Robinson did a great job playing her part on The Weakest Link. She was stern, humorless, the very picture of the disapproving authority figure she was meant to represent.
Contestants on The Weakest Link were instructed to give an answer for every question, whether they knew the correct answer or not. This enabled the host to make many sarcastic comments about how stupid some of the answers were. As a contestant, you were not allowed to say, “I don’t know.” You had to say something!
So if the question was about which U.S. president was in charge during World War 2, and you weren’t sure, so you just blurted out “Richard Nixon,” basically you were just giving the host ammunition so she could cut you down to size.
Sure it was cruel, but it was also funny as hell. There was no telling what a contestant might say when they were under pressure and faced a with a question they did not know the answer to. (We’ll get to some of my dumb answers later!)
As mentioned above, you could form a pact with a couple of the other contestants in an attempt to try to control the outcome of the game. I wound up in one of those strategic alliances, and in the end, it was the thing that proved my undoing.
It was shortly after I arrived in L.A. that I met Beth, a 25-year-old blond from Boston, who suggested that the two of us form an alliance. When you play on The Weakest Link, you could be voted off in the first round, which means your whole trip to L.A. would have been a huge waste of time. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so teaming up with another player seemed like a smart idea.
As we rode our shuttle to the hotel where all the contestants were staying, we met a third contestant, a sweet old lady named Mary Lou. We asked Mary Lou if she wanted to join our alliance and she agreed.
Now I was feeling pretty good about this. My chances of making it to the final round seemed pretty good. Much to our surprise, Mary Lou even suggested that if it came down to the three of us in the end, that we vote her off. “You two are a lot younger than me,” she told us. “The money would mean so much more to one of you.”
What a sweetheart! I can’t imagine anyone flying all the way to L.A. for a game show appearance and then not caring if they won! We really lucked out when we got Mary Lou to be part of our team. Or so we thought!
That night, we hung out at the hotel, and tested each other’s trivia knowledge. We all seemed to be fairly equal in that department. I felt like if it came down to Beth and I as the final two that we were pretty evenly matched.
The next day we headed over to the studio for the taping. We met the other five contestants, and we considered maybe adding a couple more players to our alliance. After all, a three-person alliance is not that strong in a group of eight. If any one of us got voted off at the beginning of the game, suddenly our alliance was useless.
But there were problems with adding more people, notably, how do you decide who stays and who goes once you get down to the end? Under the rules of the game, players were forbidden to split the money with each other, so you would have to turn against your teammates at some point. The alliance existed only for the duration of the show. At the end, one player walks off with all the money, and the rest, as Anne Robison was so fond of pointing out, “go home with nothing!”
So you had to be real careful who you picked as your partners. There was even a chance that your “partners” might double-cross you and vote you off. There were no rules against that. Clearly trust was a major issue on this show.
Because of all these variables that were out of our control, we decided not to add any more players to our alliance. There were just too many things that could go wrong.
We were pretty comfortable with the three-person team that we had. I even suggested a way we could vote off the other players. Since the players were all lined up in a semi-circle, and we knew I was going to be the first person in the line, I suggested we simply start by voting off the person to my left in round one, and then just moving down the line, picking off the other players one by one.
Everyone agreed that this seemed like the best way to ensure that Beth, Mary Lou and I all voted for the same player in every round. All we had to do was hope that none of us got voted off before we had a chance to put our plan into action.
We arrived at the studio and met the other players -- five more folks from around the U.S. who all seemed like a pretty decent bunch, over all. Little did they suspect we were secretly plotting to destroy them all!
When we made our alliance, there was one thing we hadn’t counted on -- that one member of our unholy trio would turn out to be the worst player in the history of the game! Mary Lou was a sweet lady, but she froze on camera, and was unable to come up with any correct answers during the show.
Worse yet, she ate up a lot of time on the clock with her hemming and hawing. In a game where you are under a time limit to answer as many questions as possible, and each correct answer is worth money, the last thing you want is a contestant who wastes thirty seconds trying to jog their memory.
Because of her poor game-play, Mary Lou was in danger of being voted off by the other players in every single round. And if we lost her, our alliance was dead! Beth and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to rely on the worst player on the stage.
Interestingly enough, Beth got a little stage fright, too. She missed a couple of easy questions that she later admitted she knew the answers to. As I watched my teammates botch a few questions, I began to wonder if our alliance would fall apart before it even got started.
By some miracle, Mary Lou survived the first round. As planned, she, Beth and I picked off our first victim. Based strictly on gameplay, Mary Lou should have been the next to go in round two. But in a bizarre stroke of luck, one of the other players made a major error that cost him the game.
His name was Arthur, and he was possibly the smartest guy out there. But even smart people can make one dumb mistake. When it came time to eliminate a player in round two, Arthur looked up and saw me standing directly across from him. Without even thinking, he wrote down my name as the person who should be voted off next.
Problem was, I had played the game very well up to that point, so no one else voted for me. In essence, Arthur had just thrown away his vote.
And so Beth, Mary Lou and I picked the next person in the line to be voted off in round two.
Now there were only six contestants left, which meant our three-person team had just gotten a LOT stronger. All we needed to do was to eliminate one more player, and then, mathematically speaking, there was no way we could lose.
Round three came. Again, Mary Lou performed poorly. Again, she miraculously survived elimination. And once again, our Unholy Trio picked off the next player in the line. Against all odds, our plan had succeeded. Taking out the remaining players would be like shooting fish in a barrel for us from that point on.
An interesting thing happened as we knocked off another player in round four. Host Anne Robinson brought the game to a temporary stop as she called out Beth, Mary Lou and I on our remarkably similar voting patterns. The jig was up! Our plot had been discovered!
The people working behind the scenes on the show are very good at finding for patterns in voting. They noticed that Beth, Mary Lou and I had all voted for the same four players in the first four rounds. I hasten to add that we had not broken any rules here. We were not cheating -- in fact, we were playing the game the way we had been instructed to play it. It just makes the show more fun and more interesting for the audience when alliances like ours are exposed.
Based on all the evidence, it was clear to all that poor Arthur, the recently unemployed electrical engineer, would be the next to go. Anne Robinson asked him how he felt about that. Arthur put up a good front, saying all he could do was play the game as well as he could and hope for the best.
But he knew in his heart he was doomed.
Sure enough, we kicked Arthur to the curb at the end of round five. In his exit interview, the still-smiling Arthur was a good sport, saying if there had been no alliance, the outcome would have been very different.
The rest of the show proceeded exactly as we had planned. Dear, sweet Mary Lou was sent packing at the end of round six. You never saw someone so happy to not win any money!
And so it came to pass that Beth and I would face off in the final round for the chance to win $62,000. Anne Robinson was quick to point out that out of a possible $1 million, the best our group had done was to get the total up to a paltry $62 G’s. “So much for strategy, “ she sniffed.
The final showdown began. Now, I should mention here that prior to appearing on the show, all the contestants were given questionnaires where we were asked to name our best and worst categories. Like an idiot, I had told the truth.
I said that pop culture was my best category, and that science and history were my worst. Beth had said that pop culture was her best, too.
The final round began: I was given a rather hard science question: name the lightest element. By some miracle, I got that right. (Hydrogen) Beth was thrown an easy pop culture softball. Name Fred Flintsone’s boss. (Mr. Slate.)
My next question was an impossible history question about a Spanish queen. I took a wild guess and named the only Spanish queen I had ever heard of: Queen Isabella, the gal who had sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to America.
My lucky guess was right. (If they had asked me to name another Spanish queen other than Isabella, I would have been screwed.) Beth was tossed another easy pop culture softball: What writer once used the pen name of Richard Bachman? Gee, could it be the best-selling author of the last 30 years, Steven King? Yep! She got it right!
The round continued in this manner. Super-hard science and math questions for me. Easy movie & TV questions for her. Notice a pattern here?
That’s right -- all of my questions in the final round were in my worst categories. All of hers were in her best category.
During the early part of the game, I had been a pretty strong player over all, and Beth did not play up to the level of her abilities. It seemed like a slam-dunk for me to trounce her in the final round. Unless the producers took a hand and did a little tweaking to make it more interesting…
I got lucky with a couple of my answers but it was only a matter of time until I took a fall. I got the third question wrong. Beth got her next two right. This meant I had to get question five right or the game was over.
The question was asked: “In 1976, Idi Amin allowed a plane filled with hostages to land at which Ugandan airport?” Now, a little bit of back-story here. In 1976, I was 12 years old. At that time, I never watched the evening news, and the only section of the newspaper that I read was the funnies.
Sure, I had heard of Idi Amin. I knew he was a bad guy -- so bad, they even made a movie about that hijacking incident. (What was the name of that movie again?)
Over the years, I developed a much greater interest in current events. But I never went back and filled in my knowledge of all the stuff that had happened when I was growing up.
Bottom line was, I never knew what the name of that airport was, and even if they had given me three hours to answer that question, there was no way the answer was ever going to come to me.
As noted earlier, on The Weakest Link, you are required to give an answer, even if you don’t know it. Anne Robinson pressed me for an answer. I weakly muttered, “Uganda International Airport.”
She revealed the correct answer was “Entebbe.” (It turns out there were two movies made about that fateful day. One was Raid on Entebbe, and the other was Victory at Entebbe. If only I had seen either one of those movies!)
With that, Anne Robinson pronounced me as “the weakest link,“ and proclaimed Beth to be the winner. (I prefer to think of myself as “The Second Strongest Link,” not the Weakest…) The game was over. Beth had won the $62,000.
It seems my strategic alliance had blown up in my face. In retrospect, I think the game would have gone very differently if that alliance had never been formed. In all likelihood, it would have been me vs. Arthur in the final round, competing for a whole lot more money than $62,000. Arthur seemed like a smart guy, and he probably would have beaten me -- unless the producers wanted the underdog to win and threw me those easy pop culture questions in the final round!
A friend later commented that he thought my final answer was kind of clever. I had to inform my friend that I was not trying to be clever or funny. With $62,000 at stake, all I wanted to be was right. But given my limited knowledge of world events from 1976, that was not possible.
Overall I played the game pretty well. I was asked about 25 questions during the show, and I answered about 18 of them correctly. As for the ones I got wrong… well let’s just say they rank right up there with any of the stupidest answer ever given on the show.
Asked to name “the Butcher of Bagdad,” I said “Fidel Castro.” In a war between England and France, I thought their opponent was Spain. And asked to name a North American country that is north of the United States, I said Mexico. (One contestant later asked me if I could answer any questions that did not involve movies or TV. I think I proved pretty well that I could not!)
Host Anne Robinson had loads of fun at my expense. I was her favorite punching bag during the show. At the time, I was working for a humor magazine, so Anne called me a guy “who claims to be funny.”
I sassed her back pretty good. When I first met her, I spoke to her in a cockney British accent, saying, “’Ello!” And when she really started ripping into me, I just asked her, “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?”
Got some good laughs with that one.
My appearance on the show pretty much went the way I wanted to (except for the part about me losing). All I really wanted was to make it to the final round and at least have a fair shot at winning.
I didn’t want to fly all the way to L.A. and bumped off in the first few rounds. At least I can say I had a chance.
After the show, Beth took me and the other contestants out to dinner. Beyond that, I never saw a penny of the $62.000. She was forbidden from sharing the money with any other contestants. Seems to me she could have found a way to skirt those rules a little bit. I mean, if she handed me an envelope with $2,000 in it, it’s not like anyone would ever have known…
I felt kind of bad about not winning the big prize on The Weakest Link, but I didn’t have time to sulk for long. Just a short time later, Pat Sajak and Vanna White were on their way to Florida. My appearance on Wheel of Fortune was right around the corner!