Bob Baisen was once a powerful talent agent in Hollywood. He’d worked for over 40 years: first as an actor, then as an agent’s secretary, a junior agent, in his own office as an agent, and finally becoming a partner in the talent firm. He was very good at what he did. Over the years he’d made show business history negotiating notorious contract deals. He was loved by his friends, clients he represented, and hated by certain producers, directors, and casting directors with which those notorious deals were made. He was in a few words: cunning and shrewd.
He was also gay, not only in temperament but in his sexual preference. He liked men, especially young men with muscular bodies and thick necks. He was fond of stylish women as well, but not for his bedroom. He’d known many an attractive young man over the years, frequently they’d been actors whose career he was managing. Most of these men were not homosexual, but they quickly picked up on the gay culture underlying the surface of the industry in Hollywood. It was not spoken of openly, but these good-looking young actors learned to navigate their careers with gay men holding the reins to opportunities ahead. A suggestive smile here, a loving caress there, even a little kiss on occasion, and always the hint there could be more, if, shall we say, they were helped to those opportunities? To the professional male actor, the sexually attractive ones that is, playing the game was the wise thing to do. Of course, the casting couch was infamous for its stories of young women who compromised their virtue with the advances of the opposite sex, but the industry was shy about mentioning the number of young men who spent time on the couch with the advances of the same sex.
Bob Baisen helped handsome young actors move up the ladder. He was known for discovering talented unknowns and engineering their way to stardom. Finding a small, but important role in an A-list film then fighting and manoeuvring his client into it. He liked to say “presenting” the budding film actor was key so all the world could see them for the first time in a very special scene, a memorable scene opposite
an already established star. It was a career-making moment for those so fortunate to have played their cards right and arrived in the coveted circle of attention.
This great agent, who used to command the best tables at star-studded restaurants, was now living a comfortable, but precarious existence in a well-furnished apartment in Westwood. Gone: the huge palatial mansion in Bel Air next to Charlton Heston, the kidney-shaped swimming pool where he’d entertained Mick Jagger, the Warhol art collection, he’d been forced to sell them all. With little money coming in and not old enough for Social Security, he was living on his faded reputation and luck.
One afternoon the phone rang. It was a reception where he last maintained an office in a large motion picture studio complex in Culver City. A young man named Rocko had brazenly walked in, held up an envelope and said, “Bob Baisen asked me to deliver this to him personally.”
The secretaries at the reception counter looked at him in surprise.
“I’m sorry sir, but Mr Basen no longer has an office in this building,” said the receptionist.
“Where is his office?” he asked.
“Just a moment and I’ll see,” the receptionist picked up the phone and called Baisen’s home who said that’s okay just send him over. They gave the young man the address and soon he was off to meet the great agent he’d read so much about. Rocko was another struggling actor in L.A., another hopeful as they like to call them. He recently decided to take more risks in the pursuit of his career, since for years now it’d been going nowhere. Baisen was curious who this young man was and always willing to look a new person over.
Rocko found the address, checked in at the apartment building’s front desk, hopped the elevator and was soon knocking at Baisen’s door, who opened it smiling at the hopeful.
“Come in. I am in my bedroom on a call.”
Rocko followed. The apartment had a spacious living room, a medium sized kitchen, an open dining area just off the entrance where a Warhol of Marilyn hung. The furniture was tasteful, in excellent condition, but old. They passed a guest bedroom and hallway bath on the way to the master bedroom where Bob resumed his perch on a queen-sized bed.
Picking up the phone, he said: “I’m back, go ahead.”
Rocko sat bedside in a velvet cushioned armchair, taking in the room of the famous agent and every movement he made. There was a large television in a wooden framed entertainment centre to the right on the wall. An old movie starring Jane Wyman was playing on a cable channel, the sound turned down. An exercise bike on the other side of the bed by large windows with the curtains opened to a sunny view of Westwood, UCLA, and the surrounding hills to the north.
Bob hung up the phone and turned to Rocko.
“I’m sorry I lied about the delivery to your office.”
“That’s okay. Who and what are you exactly?”
“My name’s Rocko Felson. I’m an actor.”
“Ah, yes. How are things going for you?” asked Baisen.
“Not so good. I can’t get out to read for paying roles. I’ve been with different agents, but they can’t get me auditions. They say I don’t have tape or I need new pictures. So I get new pictures, I even get some tape from my work in student films, but it still doesn’t help, the casting directors won’t call me in to read,” he said.
“It is a very tough line of work, being an actor. You never know what’s coming next. You must always be ready for any opportunity that offers itself to you,” said Baisen.
“I’ve read about you. I know you’re not like the other agents. You are a manager of talent as well as an agent. I want to get my career started, but I don’t know what to do.”
Looking him over head to toe, he understood the young man’s ambitious desires all too well.
“You have drive. I can see that. You’re also very eager. Goodness, you remind me of a young colt.” Handsome Rocko was, but the demeanour wasn’t the type to make sparks and sensing a common decency in the young man, Bob found him rather square. His attractions tended toward rougher trade. He liked bad boys, not the ones who treated him with respect, but those that tried to use him in callous inconsiderate ways. He found them exciting and dangerous. Nevertheless, he may have a use for this young man. The writer’s strike was looming. If it happened there would be lean times for a while. An assistant was what he needed. An attractive young man to listen to him and help on important pet projects, like photocopying the dinner guestbook pages of his late friend Cole Porter. Yes, he had known the greats and had many stories to tell.
“Why don’t you come work for me? After all, if you can’t make it as an actor you could always become an agent,” said Bob.
“Work for you? How?”
“As my assistant. You’d learn about the casting breakdowns. They arrive every morning. Then you could see what auditions there are.”
“I don’t know if I’d be any good as an assistant.”
“Won’t know until you try. The writers may strike and then there won’t be as much production work, but you’ll see what’s going on behind the scenes, the process agents go through. It would be good for your education and to be around an older more experienced man can be instructive.”
“Would you represent me as well?” Rocko said.
“Well certainly, I will try to help your career,” he replied.
This was said as a throwaway line. Bob needed to be sexually excited about a client to really put his weight into the effort. Rocko didn’t excite him. They agreed to the salary, hours, and set a starting time for the next morning at nine.
After arranging to get time off from his regular job, he reported to his new one on the 12th floor of the Waverly Apartments. The audition breakdowns had arrived and Bob was looking them over. The lesson began for his new assistant with the basics of submissions, also introducing him to his clients, they were framed on the guest bedroom wall. The actor’s names were known to Rocko, though they were past their popularity and worked infrequently. There was an exception. Once a star of the big screen, she was now a smaller screen star with a very lucrative contract. In fact this was one of those historic deals making the front page of the Hollywood Reporter and Variety as the highest paid actress in television history. As revenge, the casting director swore she would never interview any of Bob’s actors for as long as he lived. This wasn’t the only time he’d skewered the part for his client with an outrageous salary attached.
Another of his discoveries, a young actor from Santa Barbara, whom he’d scouted in a high school play, was perfect for a lead in an exciting new film about a small town and its inhabitants, directed by a fast becoming star director. It had all the earmarks of a quality production, destined to become a classic. It did. Bob knew the writer and by-passed the usual casting process. The writer told him the role he inquired about was already cast. Bob insisted, you must see this exciting young actor, you simply must. The writer acquiesced and made an audition appointment with the director and producer of the film for that afternoon. Meanwhile, the young actor in question had locked himself in Bob’s bathroom and wouldn’t open the door.
Bob called out, “Don’t be afraid.’
The actor replied “I’m not.’
“Then what the hell are you doing in there?!’
“Never mind,” said the actor.
Finally, the door opened and out he came with an enormous smile on his face.
“That the hell!” exclaimed Bob.
“I shaved,” he said.
“Shaved?! Why did you lock the door?”
“Because I shaved my entire body, even my pubic hair. I’m just like a baby, completely smooth. If I’m going to play a small town boy who’s a virgin, then I need to feel young and virginal.’
At the audition, he blew them away. They realized this kid was the character they sought.
Later, when the actor was offered the part.
He told Bob, “I’m not interested.’
“But why?!’ said Bob.
“Why? Because it’s going to be shot in black and white. I’m not interested in being in a black and white movie.’
Unbelievable thought Bob. This kid is unbelievable! Then he had an idea.
“Okay, but let’s say, instead of SAG scale, we could get you a lot of money. What would you play the role for? Name an amount.’
The actor though.
Bob said, “What about 21,000 dollars?’
“Okay, I’d do for that.’ said the actor.
When the casting director called to make the deal, Bob told her the amount he wanted for his client’s contract.
She laughed and said “There’s no way. All the actors in the picture are only getting scale.’
“Fine,” said Bob, “I am so glad we have decided, go with your second choice,” and he hung up.
Nobody in the industry, especially at the studio level, wants to get the reputation they couldn’t afford who they wanted. Baisen’s use of “the second choice” was brilliant, like a dagger into their cold black heart. They called back and asked him to come in to discuss the matter. He did. During the meeting, the producer, director, and the casting director began to circle. Round and round they paced wanting to strangle him, while in the centre he sat calmly knowing he had them. In the end, they paid the unheard of amount for the unknown actor. Another notch in the gun of the fastest agent in the west.
As the days turned into weeks, Rocko became acquainted with great Hollywood tales and new insights. These took the form of Bob’s exploits as well as his values and tastes in life and lifestyle. Knowledge of his homosexual affairs was spoken of openly and with graphic detail. He had both observed and participated in lusty adventures in the world of celebrities.
“Many a big star, has gone down that road. Sometimes to just to say they’ve tried it, others because they were of the persuasion. This is kept secret from their adoring public.” Bob smiled.
“But what is really exciting: a straight man you can seduce, a virgin. In the right situation, I can take advantage of them.” Bob winked.
“Once I was visiting a client who was directing a film in Mexico. I spotted this cowboy, very manly type, working on the production crew. Evening came. I got him drunk in the motel room and gave him a blow job. The next day the cowboy was so angry he told me never to mention it again.” Bob snickered.
Baisen’s professional stature was large in his day, but physically he was a short wiry little man. He wore prescription thick rose tinted glasses and dressed in older style suits which gave him the appearance of a well-tailored monkey. He was obsessed with having a tan but hated laying out in the sun. So he used tanning cream which gave his skin an odd ruddy tinge. He told Rocko to try some, who indulged in these fashion experiments and his personal projects like Cole Porter’s dinner guest book. He wondered what he planned to do with all these pages once they’d been photocopied, what purpose they would serve. He never did find out. There were also lectures on the well-dressed gentleman. Socks were of particular importance.
“You must wear long elastic socks that can be pulled all the way above the calf, so as not to droop or hang below the bottom of your pant cuff,” he said.
Despite all the eccentric whims, it was a paying job. Rocko was learning new things. Even with the writer’s strike raging coast to coast he was being submitted for roles; Bob was making the occasional call on his behalf.
The unfortunate thing: the new assistant had no aptitude for being an assistant. Though he tried his best, he frequently made mistakes. His brain was not of a practical business variety. Still he played along, trying to complete the tasks assigned to him: calling clients to inquire if they’d received payment for their work, did they send their check for Bob’s 10 percent, notifying them of auditions, delivering scripts to them, picking up work at the framers or business supplier, as well as care for Baisen’s car, a Chrysler New Yorker, taking it to the car wash, even odd jobs like picking up porn videos—you name it, Rocko was busy attending to the needs and predilections of this once great agent.
Given permission to use Baisen’s credit cards for the bills led to one of Rocko’s biggest mistakes: using a credit card reported stolen by Baisen just a month before on a trip to Palm Springs. Instead of removing the card from his wallet, he told Rocko not to use it, but since credit cards look so much alike and not being very familiar with them, he did. The credit card company was on the phone to Bob, who explained he’d just made a silly mistake by misplacing the card and then using it by accident. There were large charges and Bob reported it stolen rather than pay them. Living on your luck does have its risks. Rocko was in the doghouse.
“I told you not to use THAT credit card!” said Bob.
“Sorry. I was confused which one to use.”
“Confused!? How could you confuse one card for another?! American Express looks completely different than Master Charge! Are you completely incompetent?”
This is when the codependent relationship really began. So in awe of this infamous agent, first he wanted approval with regard to his talent as an actor. Then it went beyond: becoming approval of his whole person. This need mirrored Rocko’s relationship with his father, whom he never seemed to be able to please. Once in place, patterns like these are difficult to change. They tend to recur in other relationships. Bob found not just an assistant, but the perfect punching bag. The other was his mother, who he’d soon be screaming at over the phone every time she called. The rough trade boys would never tolerate such behaviour, so he lavished it on those who would.
When he and Bob were having a codependent go-round, Rocko felt like a bad little boy:
Afraid, hurt, not knowing what to do and sorry for whatever mistake he made. Once, standing in the hallway, he felt not deserving of even entering Bob’s bedroom, where he sat on his bed engaged in a lively conversation with a visiting young man. Bob, curious, stepped out and saw Rocko in this state of dread and worry. He sighed, shook his head, put his arm around him for a moment and smiled as though to indicate it’s okay, all is forgotten and thus forgiven he could resume his assistant duties.
Another time Rocko brought his guitar over to play for Bob, show him he had other talents. Perhaps his mistake was not to announce what he planned to do, but instead brought the instrument into his bedroom, playing quietly as though to serenade him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! That is so rude!” said Bob.
“I just wanted to show you I can play the guitar,” said Rocko.
“ANYONE can play the guitar! It’s as common as dirt,” Bob said, “Don’t ever come in here and just start playing like that. You have no manners. It is extremely rude!”
Understandably, if you’d hung out with Kris Kristofferson on a movie set hearing him sing a song he’d just written, which would later play on the radio, then Rocko’s attempt at being a minstrel did pale by comparison.
The emotionally destructive relationship intensified. For all those who say loneliness is the hardest thing to endure, there can be something even harder, togetherness: when you are paired with the wrong person, someone who daily chips away at your self-worth, until you are hanging on the ropes. The abuse creeps up on you slowly, like ivy growing into the cracks. You start wondering what is going on. Is it you or them causing the hostility? Resentment builds until you must act to save what’s left of you. Rocko knew something unhealthy was going on. He knew he must act.
It was Saturday morning, a day off from being an assistant when he experienced the strange inability to dress. Each time heading out the door he stopped and changed his mind, went back in and put on something different—this happened 5 times. Finally, he sat on his bed and thought my God I can’t even decide what to wear. It’s as though my ability to trust my own judgment is gone. He drove over to a friend’s and confessed the situation with the new job and the new boss.
His friend said “You need to talk to him or send him a letter. You can’t let this go on.”
The next Monday he did not go into work but instead wrote Bob a letter explaining how he felt, why he could not work for him anymore. Besides the letter, he included a videotape of an inspiring nature documentary with a fantastic music score which he felt it might help relax and calm the great agent. He mailed them.
In a few days time, Bob called and said he was sorry he had been so abusive and asked him to come back. He did and for a time there was a peace between them. Rocko was performing at the Rustic Canyon Playhouse. A light comedy by Frank Gilroy with multiple roles for the actors.
One day Rocko was repairing the stationary exercise bike and Bob said, “Think I don’t notice how helpful you’re being, fixing my bike? I will reciprocate and come and see your play.”
The night of the show he let Rocko borrow his $5,000 Cartier watch. During the scene in which his character wore it, Bob leaned over to the play’s director and said “You see that watch he’s wearing? It is a real Cartier.”
The director replied, “What does that matter, the audience doesn’t know.”
“Ah,” said Bob, “But the actor who’s playing the part does.”
For all his volatile foibles, this agent, this great agent, did have tremendous insight into the world of the arts and Rocko certainly benefited from this.
Old patterns are hard to change, soon the abrasive codependency returned. One night Bob was considering a new client, a young actress related to a once big star. She was her granddaughter. While mentioning his other young clients and their recent successes, Bob suggested she could help out with the daily audition submissions as well. This prompted Rocko to ask a very impertinent question.
“Do those clients help out with submissions?”
Bob became angry and burst out, “Of course not!”
Ah yes, thought Rocko, not the rough trade boys. By then he knew why. By then he was starting to wise up and get over the awe.
Bob started swearing at him in little staccato under the breath jabs modulating in volume.
“Do those clients—ASSHOLE!– those clients, are different…What an asshole! What a stupid question, ASSHOLE!”
The young girl didn’t know what to say so tried to remain indifferent looking at the breakdowns, sitting in the same bedside chair Rocko sat in on the first day. The day it began. He exchanged a glance with the actress and could see her discomfort. Nodding his head to her he quietly left the room. Bob continued ranting under his breath, punctuated by the occasional increase in volume. “No talent ASSHOLE! Incompetent! Do those clients? What an asshole!”
Rocko found himself drifting to the outer hallway, drifting to the memories of his time there. Drifting past the guest bedroom with all the clients pictures, past the living room where important meetings were held and finally to the front door which he’d opened to the handsome young visitors. Quietly drifting out, out of the great agent’s apartment, closing the door, down the elevator and out of his world. Soon he was standing in the street smelling a sweet scent of blossoms in the warm night air. The experience was over, knowing this time he could let it go. Rocko returned to his previous day job and his struggle to get auditions.
Many years later while surfing the internet for information about film personalities he came upon an article, an interview, with the very client who had locked himself in the bathroom and shaved his body for the audition. His career had been impressive in the early years, but missteps later hindered his choice of roles and work. He reflected on his life and mentioned the great agent who started his career. Rocko had to smile since he knew some of the stories behind this rise to fame. The actor focused on the agent and his last years. It turned out Bob Baisen had died in Mexico. The doctors diagnosed the cause of death as AIDS. Rocko let this sink in and paused to remember the man, this great agent with his wild sense of humour, outlandish behaviour, his shrewd business savvy and the insights of the artistic world. That is what he remembered most.
The ugly memories were still there, but they were not in the bright lights centre stage, they were backstage, where they belonged.