Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Call Me Ishmael

                        An innocent man has nothing to fear?

A few years ago my phone rang on the afternoon of April 15, and before I could even say hello, an unfamiliar voice tumbled into my ear.

"Mike, it’s Jimmy.  Hey buddy, I need to file an extension on my taxes, and --”

I cut him off to explain that although I’ve acquired many skills during my years in Hollywood, filing tax returns – or extensions – is most definitely not in the tool box.  Quite the opposite.  I’ve been paying green-eyeshade experts to prepare my own tax returns for more than three decades now.

"Jimmy" was hardly the first (and certainly not the last) to dial my number by mistake, because there are a lot of Michael Taylors out there in the world.  Among the many, a Hollywood producer, baseball player, high government official, mathematician, and a recently-executed killer -- all named Michael Taylor.

None of them me.  And lest you think I exaggerate, take a look at this page on the IMDB.

See what I mean?

It's no mystery, then, that all those the wrong-man phone calls keep coming.  Not long ago it was the Scientologists, leaving a string of messages urging me to attend some kind of “church” event.  They’ve been calling off and on for the past ten years, inviting me to one official function or another – this despite the fact that I am not now (nor have I ever been) a tithe-paying member of any church, much less an organization the likes of Scientology. I ignore their messages unless they persist, at which point I'll call back to explain the situation and ask them to remove my name from their list.

Which they do -- for a while, anyway.  Six months to a year later, the calls start coming in again.

The theme of mistaken identity has driven plots for countless stories, plays, and books over the centuries, and nowadays television and movies.  Whether it's a pauper thrust into the role of a prince, a common man suddenly wielding the power of the President, or a street hustler who finds himself in the guise of a Wall Street shark, turning the tables on identity remains a time-honored hook on which to hang an illuminating and entertaining story.

In real life, being mistaken for someone else isn’t always so amusing.  Imagine how this poor bastard felt when it finally dawned on him exactly what just happened. Still, there are worse things in life than disappointment and humiliation. 

Once upon a time I came home after a hard week’s work to find a phone message from someone who identified himself as “Michael Taylor.”  He’d found a fat paycheck in the mail that the post office was supposed to deliver to me.  Being an honest man, plowed through the phone book calling every Michael Taylor he could find.  I was able to verify my identity by naming the company that issued the check and offering a rough approximation of amount -- $1700, as I recall -- then raced on over to retrieve the money.  

My paycheck had somehow been mislabeled with a non-existent street address, so the Post Office made the best guesstimate they could.  Fortunately for me, my namesake/doppelganger went the extra mile to make sure the right Michael Taylor got that check, and the guy wouldn’t even accept a twenty dollar bill as thanks.

I got lucky that time, but even if the other Michael Taylor hadn't been so honest, the worst I'd be out was money -- hard-earned money to be sure, but only money.  As I’d learned a several years before, a case of mistaken identity can come with a much steeper price: one’s very freedom.   

Cue the angelic chorus and the swirling visuals of a celluloid dissolve...

So there I was, sipping my second cup of coffee and reading the paper one beautiful spring morning laden with promise. Golden sunlight poured through the open windows of my apartment as birds sang and bees buzzed happily outside.  I’d worked a couple of days earlier that week, but with nothing else on tap, this lovely spring day was all mine to squander as I chose.  All was right with the world. 

The phone rang.  When I picked it up, a male voice I did not recognize asked “Is this Michael Taylor, of NABET Local 531?”

“Yes,” I replied, assuming this to be a job call.  I was doing lots commercials back then under the auspices of NABET – the only Hollywood union willing to let me join at the time -- and phone calls from strangers offering jobs were pretty much my bread-and-butter.  I grabbed a pen to write down the pertinent details. 

But there were no details, just a click followed by the dial tone. 

I hung up, figuring we must have been disconnected.  If so, they’d call back, and if not... well, that’s life in the big city, where shit happens each and every day.  I went back to the newspaper, and sure enough, the phone rang a minute later.  I picked up the receiver, prepared to accept an utterly insincere apology, then dicker over the details of my potential employment.

But this time it was a woman, and she was crying.  

“Get out of your apartment right now!” she sobbed.  “The police are coming to arrest you.  Grab your checkbook and passport and get the hell out!”

It took me a few stunned seconds to recognize the voice of Judy, the sweet-natured woman who ran the NABET office. 

“They have a warrant for a deserter from the Navy named Michael Taylor.  I told them you’re not the guy, but they wouldn’t listen.  They warned me not to call you, but I can’t let this happen.  They’re gonna take you down to Terminal Island.  You have to get out! Come to the office and we’ll find a way to fix this.”

I’d spoken with Judy many times, but never heard her talk this way – the urgency in her voice was palpable.  Either she’d gone totally insane, or something bad was about to happen. 

It didn’t feel like such a nice spring day anymore. The birds were still singing and the bees buzzing outside, but I felt a clammy chill as my heart thumped hard against my ribs.  This was crazy -- but there was no time to think.  I grabbed my checkbook, passport, jacket, and helmet, then headed down the back stairs to the motorcycle.  Choking down a rising tide of panic, I fired it up and eased out the driveway, headed down the street, then turned left at the corner.

Five LAPD cruisers were heading right at me. 

This was real, all right.  Swallowing an almost overpowering urge to yank the throttle open, I held my breath and stared straight ahead as those oncoming cop cars passed by. I’d known a couple of guys who managed to outrun a single cop car while aboard fast, maneuverable motorcycles, but not five.  Besides, those get-aways happened back on the Home Planet, where there wasn’t a squadron of police helicopters poised to take up the chase.  Here in LA, only the most desperate, determined, and lucky of runners can successfully elude the cops in a street chase.

Besides, I was an innocent young man with nothing to fear, right?

That I’d never been in the Navy, much less deserted the service, didn’t really matter.  Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and with the LAPD bearing a warrant for my arrest -- and sending five cop cars to bring me in -- I had to get the hell out of there, even if none of this made any sense.

I watched the prowl cars in the bike’s mirrors, expecting those black-and-whites to spin around in pursuit – but they kept going while I headed the other way.  At that moment, images from Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man flooded my brain, but this was no movie – this was me trying to avoid being dragged down to the LA Harbor and turned over to the not-so-tender mercies of Marine guards at Terminal Island. 

Terminal Island -- if that's not an ominous name, I don't know what the hell is.*

My mind was spinning all the way to the NABET office at Vine near the Hollywood Freeway.   Waiting at red lights was torture – I kept expecting a cop car to pull up behind me at any moment, lights flashing and siren wailing... but I made it, then parked the bike and sprinted upstairs to the fifth floor office.

Judy gave me a big hug, then escorted me to an empty room with a desk and a phone.  She handed me a card with a lawyer's name.
"He'll know how to handle this," she said, then left me alone.

I got on the phone to explain the situation to the lawyer, who told me to sit tight until he called back.  Then I called my folks back on the Home Planet to tell them I might be going to jail.  My dad seemed to think it was funny, while my mom -- naive in her Norman Rockwell-era assumption that the police always know what they're doing -- said everything would work out fine.

I wasn't so sure.

The lawyer finally called and told me to come to his office -- via side streets rather than the main drags -- and to park off the street in the back when I got there.  So once again I ventured out, a fugitive from the law on the streets of Hollywood taking another nerve-wracking ride.

Safe in the lawyer's office, I turned over all my ID for his inspection, then waited as he called the LAPD.

"You're after the wrong guy," he said, then told the cops exactly who I was and why I couldn't possibly be the Michael Taylor they wanted.  As it turned out, the cops were prepared to arrest me on the strength of a description: six feet tall, brown hair, and hazel eyes… all of which sounded like me except for those hazel eyes -- mine are blue -- but I'm not sure the arresting officers would be receptive to discussing the distinction. 

The lawyer won the arguement, and the cops agreed to send a letter to me explaining the error.

"Keep that letter in your car for the next six months at least," he advised.  "The message doesn't always get out to every cop on the street."

With that -- and after writing him a check for $175.00 (roughly $500 in today's money) -- I was free to return home, where my neighbors and landlady recounted how the police had surrounded my apartment, covering every possible exit, then pounded on the door while claiming that "Mike's parents need to get in touch with him and he's not answering the phone."

An innocent man has nothing to fear?  Before this near-miss, I thought that was probably true, but since then I'm a lot more sympathetic to those who claim the cops threw the wrong person in jail.  It's happened before and it'll happen again -- and it damned near happened to me.

The question remains as to exactly why the police were set on my trail in the first place.  The lawyer tried to track it down, but came up empty.  Like I said, shit happens in the big city, and it doesn't always make sense -- or to employ the seminal quote from Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer's classic 1945 film noir dealing with the theme of switched identities, among other things):

"Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."**


I'm beginning to think I should change my name to John Doe, Alan Smithee, or Joe Shmoe -- anything but Michael Taylor.  Or maybe I could spin hard the other way with a moniker like Zenon Xerxes Pantsafire.  People might think I'm a little crazy, but at least they wouldn't lump me in with the vast herd of "Michael Taylors" out there.

Wait, how about one you hardly ever run across these days -- an old-school name that packs a serious literary/historical punch?

Call me Ishmael...

* It's also the facility where Al Capone,  Salvatore Bonnano, and Charles Manson were once imprisoned

** For a terrific post analyzing this legendary film, check out Hard Boiled Girl.  


JB Bruno said...

Great post, Michael, and, as someone whose full name is John J Bruno, I share your pain.

There are 20 John Bruno's on IMDB, but my favorite mix-up is with the John J Bruno who was visual f/x master for James Cameron (among others) on movies like Terminator 2 and Titanic. For a while, our IMDB's were intertwined, and he must have been as surprised to find that he was line producer for a small indie that I am sure he had never heard of as I, as someone who can barely draw stick figures, was to learn that I not only knew visual f/x but worked on Hollywood blockbusters. It took a while to sort out.

I did get the occasional call for a gig whose paycheck would have been nice, but I couldn't have faked my way through lunch.

Of course, I at least should have tried to crash some cool Oscar parties. Oh, well.

Michael Taylor said...

JB --

Well, I guess that's the other way to handle this -- start passing myself off as Michael Taylor the Hollywood producer.

Not sure I have the wardrobe to pull that off, though.

Thanks for tuning in...

A.J. said...

Wow. That's a pretty great story, Michael Taylor!

There are a few IMDb listings that share my name. And judging by the credits listed on them, they're mostly me. :)

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

Thanks - glad you liked it, and that you (and only you) are getting the credits you deserve...