The hilarious, insightful memoir of the highs and lows of Hollywood by the actor who starred in multiple iconic blockbusters: Diner, Police Academy and Three Men and a Baby
"Forget being an actor. You don't have the look, you don't have the talent, and your name is ridiculous. You are the last guy I would ever pick to be a movie star." This was the first piece of advice Steve Guttenberg ever received from an agent. Like many other times in his life, he didn't listen.
In this honest, charming memoir, Guttenberg tells a Horatio Alger story of how he became the star of some of the '80s most successful blockbusters. He spent his early days sneaking onto the Paramount lot (he pretended to be Michael Eisner's son) and meeting more celebrities and casting agents than most aspiring actors ever would. Even before the hit Police Academy (which his agent said would be a flop), he had already worked with everyone from Sir Laurence Olivier to Mickey Rourke. Perhaps it was his charisma or perhaps it was his dogged persistence, but his life was filled with unexpected run-ins and connections with dozens of Hollywood hitmakers.
Guttenberg has lived through the addictive pull of show business and worldwide celebrity (You're no one until you have a stalker, he learns). With a wide-eyed appreciation for the one-of-a-kind experiences that the high altitude celebrity lifestyle has to offer, he knew that his family would keep him grounded and never let him forget where he came from. His self-awareness and sense of humor about the ups and downs of fame make this one of the most sympathetic and unguarded Hollywood stories to date.
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Thomas Dunne Books
May 08, 2012
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Excerpt from The Guttenberg Bible by Steve Guttenberg
"You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star."
That's what an agent said to me when I was sixteen.
He was a friend of my godfather, Michael Bell. You may not have heard of Michael as an actor, but you have definitely heard his voice. He is one of the preeminent voice-over specialists. In the '70s, he would come from Hollywood to visit my family's house in Long Island, New York, bringing with him rented sports cars, beautiful girlfriends, and plenty of money in his pocket. When people would ask me what I wanted to be, I would look at Michael and his life and say, "Whatever he does!" He was a star to me. This guy was an inspiration to a kid from Massapequa.
In 1975, Michael made an appointment for me to visit his agent's New York office. I flew through Penn Station and ran twenty blocks to the skyscraper where I assumed my dreams would come true. I met two female agents and one older vice president of the agency. They were complimentary about my head shots, and I explained a bit about the theater experience I had in Long Island. Then, as if my dog had died, the VP asked the ladies to leave so he could speak to me alone. This started to give me the creeps. My first creep-out in show business, with more coming.
"I'm going to give you a gift," he said, "something that I would give my own son."
This is going to be good! I thought to myself.
Instead he said, "Get out of the business, get out of this office, and become something else. Forget being an actor. You don't have the look, you don't have the talent, and your name is ridiculous. I'm telling you this for your own good. This is a tough, competitive business that you have no place in. Take my advice, walk out these doors, no, run out these doors to Penn Station, get on the train back to Massapequa. You are the last guy I would ever pick to be a movie star."
I swear I didn't hear a thing he said.
* * *
On June 24, 1976, I graduated Plainedge High School, and already knew what I wanted to do. I had a girlfriend, of whom I was very fond, and could have stayed in the New York area, gone to college, and had a calm, normal life. But I had other things in mind.
Two days later I was on a plane to Los Angeles. I had three hundred dollars in my pocket, salami from my mother, and my father's briefcase. Michael met me at the gate. We walked outside and Los Angeles hit me. The sunshine, the air, the energy.
We got to Michael's car, a green BMW, and drove to his house. All the way we couldn't shut up. It was all new to me, and I asked about each and every thing I saw. Michael is a chatterbox, too, and couldn't help but give me the 411.
"That's where James Dean auditioned for Rebel, that's Beverly Hills, that way is Malibu where the stars all have beach houses, and over there, along those mountains, is Mulholland Drive, where I live. Oh, and so does Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and Warren Beatty."
We took the 405 freeway and got off on the Mulholland exit. After passing mansion after mansion overlooking the cliffs, we got to his place. He pointed across the street to Ernest Borgnine's house.
"McHale's Navy? That guy?"
"Yep, but we in the acting business like to refer to him as the Academy Award winner for Best Actor for Marty."
We drove down Michael's driveway, and there it was. A mansion overlooking the San Fernando Valley. We walked along a path that seemed right out of a movie. For that matter, so did everything I saw from then on.
I had two weeks to try and become a working actor. After that, I would be going to Albany University to study and enter the real world. But who knows, two weeks was a long time and anything could happen.
At dinner that night Michael suggested I take his extra car, a 1974 Pacer, and drive around Hollywood, look at the studios, and read Variety. "Just don't do anything dangerous or your parents will kill me."
The next morning I was up early to start my career. I bought Variety, which was exciting in itself. I drove past Warner Bros. in Burbank, then NBC. I took off to see Universal, then Twentieth Century-Fox, MGM in Culver City, and then the grande dame of them all, Paramount. That famous Bronson Gate made immortal in Sunset Boulevard. I could see in my mind William Holden and Gloria Swanson standing there, beckoning me in. And I noticed the guard smiling and waving people through. The card-punching clock for employees, and beyond the gates the famous Nickodell Restaurant where it looked as if starlet after starlet was coming in and out. My stomach even now has knots in it, remembering my excitement. The feeling of freedom, of possibilities! I drove home and dreamed of driving onto that lot.
That night I told Michael what I did, and he said, "You have thirteen days left." He would bring me to his agents, Cunningham in Los Angeles, and introduce me. "You never know what can happen."
The next day we went to the agency and he introduced me to Vic Sutton, Rita Vennari, and Marcia Hurwitz, three agents there that agreed to "send me out" if something came up. Send me out! That was as good as being told I won the lottery. After that, I called them every day, twice a day. I was polite, but persistent. I knew I had a short amount of time to make a dent in Hollywood.
* * *
Meanwhile, I learned how to sneak on the Paramount lot. That feat would be impossible now, with the advent of sophisticated security. Even then it wasn't easy, but it was possible. That is one of the lessons that Hollywood taught me. Dreams aren't easy but they are possible.
In those days, there was one guard at each gate. For two days, I stood outside watching the people go in and out. On the right side of the gate was a time clock. Most of the Paramount employees had to take their cards out of a rack, punch in the time they arrived, and then walk on the lot. They would always finish the routine with a wave to the guard and a "Hi, Sam."
I mustered up my nerve. I had prepared by wearing my only sport coat, a corduroy number that I thought made me look older. I carried my father's briefcase and walked across Melrose Avenue with a handful of "coworkers."
I watched the guard let in a car and waited my turn to punch my card. Of course I didn't have one, but I hadn't thought of that! When my turn came I saw a group of blanks, slipped one in the slot, and heard the punch. I turned to Sam and waved, he waved back, and I was in.
I was in! I was on the Paramount lot! To the left were the studios for Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Little House on the Prairie. To the right were the executive offices and the movie sound stages. Everywhere I looked was opportunity, excitement, and my dreams coming true.
On that first day it felt like I walked a hundred miles on the ten-acre lot, and perhaps I did. What blew me away was the lot's self-sufficiency. Since then I've seen it on all movie studio lots. They have their own furniture store, which is the prop house; a clothing store, the wardrobe department; their own fire station, hospital, and construction shop. Whatever you need, it's there. It's all perfectly private, with its own rules, laws, and culture. That's what makes shooting on a lot so exciting. The real world's boundaries are gone, and you can make your own universe. Which I suppose is why artists thrive behind those gates and can dream up whatever they want. I think it was John Ford who called the business "a dreamcatcher."
I left after nightfall and drove home knowing that I had accomplished something special. I told Michael what I had done and he laughed and encouraged me to keep going. "Do whatever it takes, kid. You've got to have chutzpah!"
The next day, I parked my Pacer off of Melrose, put on my jacket, grabbed my briefcase (that had nothing but two Varietys in it), and gathered my courage. I waited for a few of my "fellow employees" to walk across the street and I followed. Lo and behold there was my card, no name but exactly where I had put it the day before. This time I mimicked one of the other workers and read a Variety while walking in and giving a wave to the guard.
This time he waved back, but also waved me over. I gave a look of amazement and impatience. I looked at my watch and thought I'm going to be late. Late for what, I didn't know. But I knew I had to give the appearance that I belonged.
"Hey, I've never seen you before," the guard said. "Who are you? Where do you work?"
"Um, um," I stammered. I'd been caught and I started to sweat. I do that when I'm nervous. I can gush buckets. "I'm going to see my father."
"Oh yeah, and who is your father?" He knew I was up to something. I looked down at my Variety. All I could see was President of Paramount Makes Boffo Deal.
I looked at the guard and with all the earnestness I could grab said, "I'm going to see my father, Michael Eisner."
The guard couldn't believe this if he tried. "Michael Eisner has little kids, not someone like you."
At least the sport coat is working, I thought. I'm looking older. "Well, I'm his stepson, and I'm here to visit him."
The guard shook his head and said he would have to call Mr. Eisner's office to see if I was telling the truth. "What's your name, young man?"
And my first improv began. "Sure, I'll give you my name, but I want to know your name. Because I'm late as it is and you know what a stickler he is about time, and since I'm going to be late, I want to tell him who it is that made me even later! That's right, buddy boy, my Dad is not in a very good mood today and I'm not taking the brunt of his wrath; what's your name?"
The guard started stammering. "Um, um, you go on in. And say hi to your Dad."
I smiled ear to ear. "Will do! Thank you!" I walked on the lot, swinging my briefcase, acting like I owned the place.
From then on that guard thought I was Eisner's son, and every time I saw him I told him how much my "Dad" liked him. I can only imagine that every time Eisner went through those gates the guard thought he was on the president's good list.
A couple of years later I was working on Players, a Paramount film for Robert Evans and Anthony Harvey (the director of The Lion in Winter), and Eisner visited our set in Cuernavaca, Mexico. As I shook his hand I asked if he knew the story. He said he did and praised me for my unconventional methods of getting on the lot. Thank goodness he thought it was funny. Little did I know that ten years later I would film one of the biggest hits he ever had at Disney, Three Men and a Baby.