Shut Up & Keep Moving: Lessons From an Old Pro (Part 1)

Connie Sawyer SmTo be honest, I’ve been standing still. It’s been a rough month. My Captain died. My boyfriend and I rescued a dog who has required much more time, energy, attention and money than we could ever have anticipated. And, my expectations for “Episodic Season” have yet to pan out.

It’s been a dry few weeks for auditions. I had a great spring and early summer, going out quite a bit even when production was slow. Then all of a sudden, poof! Nothing. Ouch. I will comfort myself with the explanation of now that everything’s in action, everyone else is back in town and the competition is fiercer than ever. There are just too damn many people vying for too few jobs. Yay.

So, I’ve been stuck, spinning my wheels and feeling sorry for myself. After my last post, I realized I wanted to know more about my newest hero, Connie Sawyer. I reached out to her agent and was thrilled that she agreed to let me interview her. We spent a lovely hour at her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Fund Retirement Community and I will be forever grateful for the time she gave me.

This is what I learned.

  • Keep Moving
  • Mentors Are Great
  • Never Give Up
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally (knew that, but great reminder!)
  • You Are What You Are
  • Family First
  • Honesty Is Not Always The Best Policy (yikes, I hate this, but she has a point.)
  • It Gets Better

KEEP MOVING

In case you don’t know, Connie Sawyer is 101 years old and she is still a working actor. In fact, she is the oldest living and working member of SAG/AFTRA and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Amazing. I asked her the secret to such a long life and a career. This was her simple answer. “Keep moving.”

“I always played golf, I tap danced in my act. I was a hoofer in Vaudeville. I played golf, I swam. I live in the Motion Picture home and I go to the exercise class 3 days a week and the arthritic class in the pool. It keeps you moving and it keeps you young. You don’t eat a lot of junk food, I never did. I’m not a fanatic about health food, but I love fruits and vegetables and I don’t eat a lot of fried foods.”

NEVER GIVE UP

Born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1912, Connie’s family moved to Oakland, California when she was a young girl. Connie began her career as a performer at the bright young age of 17 when she won a local talent contest. “I sang and danced and told funny stories.”  That landed her a gig on a radio variety show on KCRF in San Francisco. There, she learned sketch comedy and began “doing a single,” which is what they called a stand up comedy act in the Vaudeville days before the term stand up was coined. Vaudeville, people. This woman cut her teeth doing VAUDEVILLE.

Did you get paid?

“Did I get paid, baby!? I sure did.” On her six month contract with the radio station, Connie received $125/week! That was big money in 1930. Hell, an extra $125/week would sure do me good today!

After getting her feet wet with Vaudeville shows and night clubs in San Francisco, Connie soon set her sights on bigger markets. The bright lights of Broadway were calling to her and she hit the road for New York City. “I worked my way across the country. Took me two years. I played every dump you could think of.” While on this cross country trek, Connie got some attention in Pittsburg where Gil Lamb, a movie star, eccentric dancer and comic, was emceeing a show at a very nice night club.

“He got the William Morris to come and look at me.”

“THE William Morris?”

Yeah. THE William Morris. Gil Lamb got him “to come and look at my act. They brought me in to New York. My real name was Rosie Cohen and I was like a poor man’s Fanny Brice. I did everything in dialect, I had a song about Ming Toi Cohen, Dinah Cohen, Two Gun Cohen from the barbecue. And The William Morris said ‘We’re going to get rid of that corny act, you’ve got talent. And you’ve got to change your name.’ So from Rosie Cohen, I became Connie Sawyer. They said to me ‘Who would you like to look like?’ I said ‘I’d like to be a blond and gorgeous. Constance Bennett.’ You wouldn’t remember her, she was beautiful. Big, tall, leading lady. And I said, ‘Don’t give me the name of Jones or Smith.’ ‘What name?’ ‘Something everybody knows like Tom Sawyer.’ They said, ‘That’s it! But you can’t be Constance, you’re a comedienne.'” And so, Connie Sawyer was born.

Shortly after this, Connie experienced her first and possibly ONLY moment of doubt. She also discovered the value of a mentor. “I was lucky, I always had a mentor.”

“I had to play Grossinger’s. Before I got a new act, they booked me for the weekend. I opened the show. It was with Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis. Joe E. said, ‘You’ll open the show.’ I said, ‘I’m not a dog act or an acrobatic act. I’m a comedienne!’ He said, ‘What d’ya want? Sophie Tucker, the headliner, to open the show?’ I opened the show.”

Unfortunately, ‘I bombed. Talk about flop sweat. The audience didn’t like me, they didn’t laugh. I’d been getting laughs with the old act. I was upset, I started to cry. I said to the audience, ‘Why are you so mean to me? I’m Jewish. What is wrong?’ You know what I did? I ran offstage. Very unprofessional. That’s why I’m telling you this. And then Sophie Tucker came to my dressing room. I said, ‘I’m going home. I’m going to call Mama. I’m going home.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re not. We’re gonna help you. You’ve got talent, you’re pretty and cute.’  And they found a writer, I got a new act. And The William Morris sent me out to play and break it in.”

“Cut to the chase, we put an act together, it was fine and I auditioned for the Reuben Blue, an East Side supper club. I got the job and from there, I just sailed.”

“That time that you ran offstage, was that the only time you ever felt like ‘I can’t do this. I want to quit.’?”

“Oh yeah! It’s the only time. No way. I went sailing! I played every night club in New York. I became a headliner. The last club I played was 1956. London. The Colony Club. Beautiful club. They came in evening gowns and tuxedos. I was the only act and I was on the bill for an hour. … I had two children. I took them with me and I was there for six weeks. I said ‘That’s the last time. I’m going to become a character actress.'”

And being a London headliner act was the last time Connie played “a single.” “I wanted to stay home with my children and my husband. And that’s how I became a character actress and that’s how I’ve been in the business all these years. But, I started ‘doing a single’.”

From there, Connie began performing on Broadway and booked her first television appearances on variety shows in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Always moving and staying busy, Connie worked as a Broadway understudy and continued doing her act around town to supplement the scale income of an understudy character actress. It was in 1958, already in her late 40s, that Connie got the attention of one of the world’s biggest superstars – Frank Sinatra.

“I did a wonderful play called Hole In The Head.  The show, they changed it into a comedy. I went to the director and told him I could put a comedy shtick in. I played a drunk that wandered in and out of the play yelling, “Geronimo!” And Frank Sinatra bought the property, his manager saw the show and I told her I could do a shtick and she told Frank Sinatra, ‘There’s a girl in the show that does a funny drunk. And the author didn’t write it.’ He said, ‘Bring the drunk.’ So I came to Hollywood. I’m the only one from the Broadway show that got into the movie A Hole In The Head.”

DON’T TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY, i.e. “Get used to rejection.”

From then on, it was more smooth sailing for Connie Sawyer. She has lived in Los Angeles since 1959 and has worked consistently ever since. Of course, that doesn’t mean she booked every role she went out for. Or should I say, she didn’t always “get bought.” Today, we usually say we “booked” a job, but Connie has an interesting turn of phrase I’ve never heard before. She often says, “they buy me” or “bought me.” On one hand, this sounds crude or objectifying. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. Today, we actors talk a lot about “marketing yourself” and “creating a brand.” And, it’s true. We are selling ourselves, we become a product for production and consumers to spend their money on. The big stars become, “a bankable name.” It’s a business and I think the more I can wrap my head around “getting bought and sold,” the less these occasionally rocky waters can get to me.

I asked Connie what advice she could give to actors.

“I never gave up. You go with the punches. It’s a tough business. I love to perform and I’m sure all the actors do. You stay with it.

“What’s the hardest part about the business?”

“I guess rejection. Gotta get used to rejection. You just forget about it and just go on. The competition is so keen. Even with the old ladies! There’s so many of them. I tease them.” At auditions, “They say, ‘Here’s comes Connie.’ ‘What? Nobody died yet?’ And they laugh and yell and say ‘Shut up!'”

Connie’s laughter is infectious. On this particular day, feeling beaten down by the biz, this was exactly what I needed to hear.

“See? You laugh. You gotta have an attitude of humor, otherwise it’ll get to ya. Don’t do that. Don’t let it get to ya. It’s tough to be an actor.”

Do you think it’s harder for women?

“Oh absolutely. Oh my goodness. But it’s so good now. It’s loosened up. We’ve got lady directors, lady producers. … Way better than in my day. Look at the girl comics today. Oh my goodness, when I was a girl comic back in the 40’s, it was disgusting. The men didn’t like ya. If the war hadn’t come on, I would never have played all those night clubs and Vaudeville, because the guys, there weren’t too many 4-Fs, so they had to buy the women and they bought me.”

The war helped boost your career?

“It helped me. I was on USO. I was on the hospital shows, which were hard. I saw many kids with no arms and legs. I was on it six months. It was tough. I had to quit, it started to get to me. So, I did my share in the 2nd World War.”

“But, I’m never gonna give up. What’s the old expression? You die with your boots on.”

Continuing with her great life lessons, I told Connie what an inspiration she is to me.  With the big 4.0. on my very near horizon, I’m in a bit of a panic. Here’s what she had to say to me and the young people she works with at Theatre West, a local theatre company she has been involved with for decades.

“I just tell ’em, keep moving. Never give up. You’ll hit a gold ring. You’ll get a job. Something happens! It’s an attitude.”

“I only cried when I was a kid way back with Sophie Tucker. I never cried again about the business. I laughed about everything.”

Really? Never?

“No. When I wouldn’t get a job, I lost a lot of good ones. Everybody does. You just go on.”

I’m going to try my best to never cry about this darn business again. If I can go a year, that will be a major accomplishment. I am in awe and a little bit of disbelief that Connie has gone over 75 years without taking it personally! I have subscribed to The 4 Agreements philosophy for nearly a decade, but, her attitude is more than I can even imagine and certainly what I will always aspire to moving forward. Hey, maybe that’s her superhero ability that has made her whole career possible. Amazing. No more tears. No more tears.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE

Being in this business definitely means knowing who you are. I asked Connie if her career changed as she got older or if she ever aspired to be the leading lady.

“I became a character actress and they bought you for your age and different things.”

You were never a leading lady or ingenue?

“Oh no, no. Who would want to be a lady? Not me.”

Why not?

“Oh, honey. I’m a character actress. I’m a comedienne. They buy me because I have great timing. People laugh and that’s my talent. It’s inside.”

Do you think the leading lady roles are less interesting?

“Oh no. Of course, they’re interesting. But I never looked like a leading lady. You are what you are. You love what you are. You don’t just want to be something else. That’s why you have such a good time.”

I pause in the conversation here. This hits me deeply. I talk the talk of this but do I walk the walk?

I am a fat actress.

I am a blue eyed Latina.

I don’t fit in most of the pre-fabricated boxes that the industry sells. I love who I am and I love being a character actor, but I’ve still been guilty of trying to force my way into those places where I will never fit. My eyes are basically my signature, my brand, and the one feature I get the most comments and compliments on from everyone from loved ones and colleagues to strangers on the street. So, why did I feel compelled to buy brown contact lenses a couple years ago? I’ve only worn them a few times, in certain situations where I thought the contacts could help me get work as a Latina. That’s one of those boxes I want to shred, the general perception of what a Latina looks like and what kind of roles she (or a fat girl) can play. But, come on, let’s get real. These boxes are made of steel and stone and are taller than the Sears Tower. I can’t tear them down today and I can’t do it on my own. Thus, I am dramatically rethinking the brown contacts. I am what I am. I’m chubby. I’m funny. I can create a character (broad or subtle) in seconds. My name is Adelita Elena Lopez and I have beautiful blue eyes.

“They buy me because I’m funny. From doing a single, that’s my talent.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with the incomparable Connie Sawyer.

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