“An Actor Prepares,”

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

When I met her, she was Cathy. Later, she was Catherine. Still later, she was Cleo, Chloe, and Cologne. But to me, she will always be Cathy, for that was her name when we first met as teenage acting students.

From what she told me, she was raised by loving, generous parents. From early childhood, Cathy was told she was beautiful, special, and that one day she would make an important contribution to the world of art.

As a teenager, she was given piano lessons, ballet lessons, modern dance lessons, and singing lessons. She acted in school plays and was a favorite of her teachers. She was, to no one’s surprise, an honor student. She had many role models. Some were famous actors, some were ballerinas, some were modern dancers, some were opera divas. Cathy, at various times, wanted to be each of them. And as an actor, she could be anyone.

Cathy had to maintain a purity of being, to focus her attention on her unique identity. She could not conflate her identity through infatuations and sexual compromises, so she regularly turned down boys who wanted to date her. She did so kindly and gently, for it was never her intention to hurt anyone’s feelings or to diminish anyone’s self-esteem. She wanted to be admired, liked, highly regarded, but untouched.

I met Cathy one summer at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where we were both studying to become actors. Dreams of stardom filled our adolescent fantasies. I was immediately struck by Cathy’s dark beauty: her coal-black hair, arched eyebrows, sculptured cheeks, and cat-like green eyes. Like many girls at that time, she wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which swung from side to side as she walked briskly down hallways.

I never asked her out on a date, because before I could ever do so, she informed me that she was so devoted to her calling, to the craft of acting, that she could not invest her emotions in dates. Her emotions were reserved for the stage. Boys would have to wait until they became men and Cathy became an established actress.

“I studied so hard for my audition here,” she told me. “I memorized the roles of Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the role of Emily in ‘Our Town.’ I practiced and practiced until I felt that it was perfect. I did my scenes for my parents, and they loved it. My father said I was a natural; my mother said, ‘Look out Elizabeth Taylor.’ They are so supportive.”

She was indeed a fine actor, and I was pleased to do scenes with her. We did several from “Teach Me How to Cry,” a popular drama of the 1950s, which was later made into a movie called “The Restless Years.” The play turned out to be a standard for acting students.

While my rebellious nature and subversive personality did not go over well with our primary acting teacher, Cathy became his pet, his protégée, his acolyte. She was a far better actor than he was. I had seen him in three movies where he had small roles consisting of grunting, nodding, and shrugging. His dreams of success were poured into Cathy, and she felt beguiled by his view of her talent. She looked up to him as he looked up to her. In “Pygmalion,” the teacher feels himself superior to Eliza Doolittle, who really is no do little. In Cathy’s relationship with her teacher, she was the subtle instructor whose example helped to curb his sense of melodrama.

For our final, end-of-summer scenes, I chose to play the part of the young Jett Rink in “Giant.” And Cathy played Shaw’s Saint Joan. She was marvelous. Our teacher had invited his agent to attend the performance, and he agreed to represent Cathy. Within a year, she had a supporting role in an amateur’s low-budget mystery movie. I went with several former classmates to see the movie, and we either laughed or shuddered in embarrassment. Not only was the movie amateurish, but Cathy seemed to have channeled her former teacher’s exaggerated melodrama. Her eyes rolled; her gestures were as exaggerated as a silent film actor’s; her laughter was an asthmatic witch’s cackle. I supposed that the director had forced her to act that way.

I phoned her at home the next day, and she agreed to have lunch with me. I asked her about the director.

“He was a dictator! He made me act like a zombie, an idiot. I am furious. And then he tried to get me to go to bed with him. Well, you know that I won’t date anyone until I’m a self-supporting, independent actor. But even if I were, I wouldn’t go to bed with that slob. He had hamburger breath and belched like a monkey. I think his father financed that movie. It’s not even Equity, and I haven’t gotten paid yet. I had to sign an agreement that I would get a small percentage of the profits, not a salary. Can you imagine? And my dad’s accountant told me not to hold my breath. Chances are the movie won’t make a dime, and neither will I. I just hope nobody ever sees it. It could ruin my career.”

I commiserated with Cathy and paid for lunch. I didn’t see her for several years and then in the spring of 1963 she phoned me. “I have to meet you. I have a problem and need your advice.”

We met at a luncheonette near where I lived with my first wife on East 36th Street. She walked in looking older, more sophisticated, and exotically beautiful. She reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra.” Her black hair was cut into a short fringe of bangs over her forehead, and the straight sides touched her shoulders. Her eyes were heavily made up with black eyeliner and light blue eyeshadow. She wore a tight white linen blouse that emphasized her rounded breasts and a pair of skin-tight blue jeans.

  “You look great,” I said.

“Thanks. You look fit.”

“Lots of exercise,” I responded.

We sat in a booth at the back of the restaurant and ordered tuna salad sandwiches on whole wheat bread and coffee.

“What’s up?” I inquired.

“My mother died last year and my father has been depressed ever since. He morosely wanders around our apartment, always asking me if I’m going out. And when I do, he wants to know where and for how long. I’ve become his crutch, his cane, his wheelchair. And I can’t stand it much longer. I have an offer to play the lead in ‘Under the Yum Yum Tree’ in summer stock. I’d be away for at least a month. He said that if I go, he’ll die. I don’t know what to do. I need that part. I need it for my career. Things really went south after that horrible horror movie, and this could be a new start for me. You were always the rational, sensible one. Tell me what you think I should do.”

“Can you take him with you?” I asked.

“I thought of that and even asked him. He said no, and I was relieved, but I can’t think of an alternative.”

“Is there anyone else who can stay with him?”

“His sister-in-law could stop by, but she has her own family and is not about to move in with Dad.”

“I don’t know what to suggest.”

I never learned what she did. Later that summer, she sent me newspaper clips from two local papers praising her performance. I wrote back my congratulations. In the fall, she wrote me that she was going to try her luck in Hollywood. I don’t know if she was successful. She didn’t write again. I often thought of her and wondered what she was doing.

About 20 years later, my wife and I were coming out of a performance at Lincoln Center and I heard someone calling my name. It was Cathy.

She no longer looked exotic. Her hair, still black, was cut short, and she wore no makeup. She was dressed in loose-fitting blue jeans and an old denim shirt and wore ballet slippers. She looked like an out-of-work dancer.

“Hey,” I exclaimed. “I’m surprised you recognized me. It’s been about 20 years since we last saw each other. Oh, I’m sorry, this is my wife.” They each said hi and nodded.

“You haven’t changed much,” she said. “Maybe gained a little weight, but it suits you.”

“So what are you doing now?”

“Oh, I’m in the chorus of a play. Unfortunately, it’s going to close in two weeks. Then who knows? Oh, gee, I didn’t realize the time. I’ve got to run to an audition. Nice seeing you and nice meeting you.”

“Who was that?” asked my wife.

“She was the best female actor in my acting class when we were teenage students at the American Academy. Everyone thought she would be a great stage star.”

When I got my first computer and hooked up to the Internet, I searched for Cathy online. I searched for her various noms de guerre. Nothing. She seemed to have vanished; there is no trace of her once-promising career. It is, no doubt, the fate of many once young actors who never achieved success and whose diaries are filled with years of lost dreams. For them, the world once seemed new, possibilities endless, and it would always be spring.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of numerous books and president of Jeffrey Sussman Inc., a marketing and PR firm.