I Don't Take Any Sugar

I sat up a little straighter, waiting to receive the inspirational words that would propel my career forward. He pointed to a brass coffee urn situated on the food table. "I don't take any sugar."
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Everybody has to start somewhere.

I went to New York University in the '60s believing that when I graduated, I would start my career in a $10,000-a-year position. Turned out to be more like 60 dollars a week. I was mortified. It wasn't even in production. It was in the sales reel department of a television commercial production company.

I yearned for an opportunity to move into the production department. Finally, after a year, I got my chance. I was summoned to the office of the Head of Production. He was an imposing man named Ronald. He had a large, lavish office -- all mahogany and brass. He had the largest television I had ever seen, and a food service table across the room from his massive desk.

He was looking at my college transcript as I settled into the high-backed leather chair opposite from him. After a moment, he looked up.

"You went to NYU?"

"Yes, sir."

"Straight As in filmmaking."

"Yes, sir."

"You must know a lot about filmmaking."

"Well," I said, trying and failing to sound humble. "I'm ready to begin."

"Great," he said without blinking. "Let me tell you what you will need to know about this job."

I sat up a little straighter, waiting to receive the inspirational words that would propel my career forward. He pointed to a brass coffee urn situated on the food table.

"I don't take any sugar."

Over the course of the next six months, I ran for more coffee than Juan Valdez. For those of you too young to know or remember, Juan Valdez was a fictional character that appeared in advertisements for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia.

If the notion of being a go-fer, whose only responsibility is getting coffee for people, sounds degrading or humiliating, for a major talent such as yourself, I offer the following story.

My mother once told me about a young lawyer employed by a company in which she worked. Every day, the secretaries, other lawyers and the bosses, would send this highly talented attorney on menial errands.

One day, my mother asked him if that didn't upset or offend him. His answer was: "If you know who you are -- no one can demean you."

I embraced the message of that story, and went about my tasks without suffering. I hope you will embrace that message as well.

Then one day, Ronald stopped in the hallway and told me that I was eligible to join the Director's Guild of America. As the rather inglorious way he put it went: "You can join, but your salary will go up, and I will have to let you go."

What should I do?

I asked Mom.

"Take your chances," she said. "It will place you amongst your peers."

"I would like to join," I told him.

He got me the application. Turned out, three directors had to sign in support of me. One of the unexpected advantages of running for so much coffee was that I knew all the directors in the company. I asked three of them to sign for me, and they did.

Interestingly, they all said the same thing.

"Someday, when you get the chance, reach out a helping hand for someone coming up behind you in the business."

I said: "Interesting," because when I got to Hollywood a few people said to me: "If you are lucky enough to get on the boat, be sure to reach back and pull the gang plank up behind you."

Given that I am now the Director of Physical Production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, where I work every day with the next generation of filmmakers, I have chosen the former. This is one of those, "Who do you want to be?" questions.

One day, Ronald called me to his office and handed me my membership card to The Director's Guild of America.

I was thrilled.

"Congratulations," he said, "You're fired."

I didn't work for three months. I was convinced that I had destroyed my own career before it had even gotten started. Then, one day, Ronald called and hired me for a commercial.

I have worked ever since.

So, fear not the looming coffee urn, and whether or not it will require sugar.

Just film on.

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