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Former college thespians on their way to stardom

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

By Samantha Bennett

Another guy I went to college with has gone Hollywood. It's becoming almost monotonous now. This is what happens when you go to a hoity-toity school in New England that cranks out a lot of future celebrities and politicians: Eventually, no matter how successful you are in your own endeavors, you will feel like you just fell off a turnip truck.

I suppose I coulda been a contenda. I had a decent high school theater career. When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I planned a double major in English and Theater. But my Theater 110 class cured me of that nonsense, and I pared my degree to just English, changing my career stereotype to "future teacher" from "future waitress."

(Historical footnote: I am perhaps the only liberal arts major in North America who has never, ever been employed as a waitress. I never baby-sat either. Frankly, most jobs involving any responsibility or detail-orientation are best given to someone other than me, which is why I do whatever this is I am doing now.)

My Theater 110 class was full of strange creatures who wore a great deal of black, smoked clove cigarettes and couldn't do a walk-on part such as "Maid" or "Third Customer" in a scene without a six-minute discussion of motivation, piercing shrieks, strange facial contortions and a spray of impassioned spittle over the first three rows of the audience.

These people frightened me. You stand near someone who's chewing that much scenery, you could lose a finger.

So I left Serious Acting to others. But I had gotten to know a few people, and I still did a play or two. Among my acquaintances were several people with a great deal of talent - and they were usually the least pretentious and clove-scented and the most fun.

The first few years out of college are very strange. You have to go and get a job and pretend to be a competent adult, which is hard because you have no experience. And then your friends start getting married, which strikes you as a shockingly adult step, considering that many of you do not yet even own dishwashers.

After you've been out in the world awhile, you begin to hear that your classmates not only found jobs, but got good enough at them to become successful. Somebody has a recording contract. Somebody else is clerking for the Supreme Court. Some irresponsible dork has written a book. This is just totally incomprehensible, given that you were at many of the same parties.

And then, one night, you are sitting innocently in a movie theater, and someone from your past lunges onto the screen, bigger than life and twice as well coiffed.

A guy named Phil LaMarr had a small role in "Pulp Fiction" and is a cast member on Fox's "Mad TV." I danced with him at our fifth reunion and told him a story about how I hurt my back trying to look over my shoulder at a mirror to see if my butt looked big. (It did, but I got over it.)

I was in a production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" my junior year with a couple of guys named Paul Giamatti (Falstaff) and Ron Livingston (King Henry). Paul had a hefty role in "Private Parts" with Howard Stern, and I was also startled - damn near dropped my popcorn - to spot him in small roles in "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Truman Show." Ron was in "Swingers" and is now starring opposite Jennifer Aniston in "Office Space."

When you go to a movie, you expect to see big-time movie stars, such as Tom Hanks and John Travolta. These are not actual people who have siblings and dentists and went to proms with mere mortals. So it is somehow bizarre to see Tom Hanks, in a movie, clap his arm around someone I remember doing iambic banter with in a darkened dining hall.

I haven't seen Ron's movie yet; the commercials for it on television are surreal enough. I mean, there he is - it's Ron! Our King Henry, who amended Shakespeare on closing night in Act V, Scene 1 thus:

"How bloodily the sun begins to peer
above yon bosky hill! The day looks pale
at his distemperature.
All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray."

Life is so full of surprises. There we were, Paul and Ron and I, all in that play a dozen years ago. Two of the three of us are now Hollywood movie actors. The third not only didn't have to dress for Oscar night, but she still, to this day, does not own a dishwasher.

Samantha Bennett can be reached by e-mail at sbennett@post-gazette.com.

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