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I am three years old, sitting at the small round breakfast table in our tiny kitchen, eyeing a half-open box of cereal. There’s a toy surprise buried somewhere inside, and I’m itching for it. I bounce my feet impatiently atop the wooden rung of my chair, feel a cold dribble of milk slip across my lip and down my chin. As consumed as I am by that prize, however, I sense that there is something different, something even more exciting, about today. It’s still early morning in the San Fernando Valley—the sun is streaming through the little stained glass window above the door frame, casting a rainbow of shadows across the linoleum floor of the foyer—but the whole house is already buzzing with energy.
“Boobie?” My childhood nickname for my mother’s mother is a slightly more anatomical version of the term bubbe, the Yiddish word for grandmother. “What am I excited about?”
“Today is your first commercial.”
“My first commersmal?” I ask between bites. “The things before cartoons on TV?”
“Yes. Now finish your breakfast, please. You don’t want to be late on your first day.”
I scoop up the last few spoonfuls of cereal, slide down my chair, and pad down the hallway to my bedroom, where my clothes have been carefully laid out for me. Even though I didn’t know much about commercials (or commersmals, as I would call them for the next few years), I understood that this was serious business. I was a professional now.
At seven, my older sister Mindy was already a seasoned actress. She was the youngest cast member of the 1970s-era kids’ show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club and often spent two-week-long stints at Disneyland in Anaheim, performing bad renditions of Beatles songs in bright satin jumpsuits and oversized mouse ears for throngs of screaming, preteen fans. As the family breadwinner, Mindy was granted a wide berth by my parents; she was enrolled in a fancy private school and, when she wasn’t working, usually locked herself away in her room. I used to spend hours outside that door, straining to hear the music that sometimes rang out from her tiny record player (my favorite was the Wizard of Oz soundtrack). But when she was performing, I was generally allowed to wander through the theme park alongside her and her teenaged castmates. I watched, awestruck, as she navigated those early brushes with fame, signing autographs and posing for pictures, mobbed by her very own circle of groupies. I thought that being a Mouseketeer meant she had a perfect life. It made sense, then, that by following in her footsteps, my life was about to become special, too.
My first professional acting job was a minute-long spot for McDonald’s gift certificates. The setup was fairly simple: I would wake up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, stumble downstairs in my blue-footed pajamas, and leave a fifty-cent gift certificate for Santa, right on top of his plate of cookies, next to his glass of milk. When my mother and I arrived on set, a rented two-story home in the Valley, the director, Rob Lieberman, came over to say hello. He had a warm smile and a hippie-ish, Cat Stevens–like beard, a popular style back in 1975.
“Today is a very big day, Corey,” he said, kneeling down to speak to me at eye level. “Today, you’re going to meet Santa Claus!”
“But it’s the middle of summer!” I said, nonplussed. Rob patted my head and winked at my mom, and that was the end of that—off I went to be fitted in my pajamas.
As the day wore on, we shot take after take—I climbed in and out of bed, I teetered up and down the stairs—until, finally, it was time. Santa was going to reach his hand into the scene to collect his gift certificate and shout, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” while I looked on from between the wooden stair railings. I was crushed, however, when I realized that “Santa” was really just a regular-looking guy wearing a red coat sleeve with fluffy white trim.
“Where is the real Santa?” I asked. “Can I meet Santa Claus now?”
“The real Santa is going to come later,” Rob said, no doubt aware that his three-year-old star was headed for a production-halting meltdown. “Right now we just have to pretend.”
If shooting a Christmas commercial in July was my first clue that things in Hollywood are rarely as they seem, this sad excuse for a Santa was my second. And I never did get to meet the real Santa Claus that day. The McDonald’s ad, though, would run for the next eight Christmases and win a prestigious Clio award, the Oscar of the advertising world.
When you ask most people to reflect on their very first memory, the recollections usually fall within a range of familiar vignettes—that first game of catch with Mom or Dad, playing with a beloved stuffed animal or favorite toy, or watching Saturday morning cartoons. My first memory is shooting that McDonald’s commercial. I can’t remember anything before the start of my career.
* * *
Until the age of five, I lived with my parents, Bob and Sheila Feldman, and my big sister, Mindy, in a modest three-bedroom California ranch in the once-sleepy community of Chatsworth, a district of Los Angeles situated in the northwest San Fernando Valley, bordered to the north by the Santa Susana Mountains. My father, a musician and producer, wasn’t around much; most of his time was spent on the road, performing with his cover band, Scream, at Los Angeles–area theme parks, like Knott’s Berry Farm and Magic Mountain. So most of my days were spent at home with my mom. Boobie might come over to babysit, or to take Mindy to rehearsals and act as her on-set guardian, on the days when my mother had a headache or was too sick to get out of bed.
If the door to her bedroom was open, I would grab my toys and set up camp in her king-size bed or lounge on the floor beneath the television for hours, staying up late into the night to watch Saturday Night Live with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi or my mother’s favorite show, the soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. With the shades drawn, bathed in the blue light of the television screen, I would sit and study the hodgepodge of artifacts displayed around her room like talismans, the little ceramic frog statues that lined her windowsill (her favorite color was lime green), or the gilded frame that had sat on top of her nightstand for as long as I could remember. The pictorial had been torn from the pages of Playboy, and from it she smiled proudly, hand on hip. At five foot one she was the shortest among the waitresses at the Playboy Club in L.A. If I carefully picked up the frame to admire it, she might tell me stories about how she served drinks in a bunny uniform and did the famous bunny dip, bending at the knees instead of the waist so she wouldn’t “fall out of her top.”
“Hugh Hefner was a gentleman,” she would say with a certain reverence, taking the frame from me and putting it carefully back into place. “And he always left big tips.” I liked the way she winked when she said this, and I pictured Mr. Hefner as some sort of benevolent father figure, merrily dolling out “big tips” to other working women like my mom.
When she finished describing her days as a bunny, she might tell me about the wild parties she used to attend at Spahn Ranch, the sprawling five-hundred-acre stretch of land in the mountains above Chatsworth, once the backdrop for spaghetti Westerns and episodes of Bonanza and The Lone Ranger before Charles Manson and his “family” moved in, rent-free, around the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders in the summer of ’69. It was strange to think of my mother that way, as a single, carefree woman in the days before she had children. She was beautiful but, as I sensed even then, somehow dangerous.
On the good days, we’d pile in the car and drive the hills and troughs of the Valley, searching for strays or wounded animals in need of a “good home,” even though we already had a vicious black lab called Shadow, plus an Irish Setter and a little cream-colored Chihuahua, Twinkie, multiple cats, several ducks, a smattering of chickens, and two horses, a black-and-white gelding called Flash, and Wildfire, a brown mare.
More often, though, she was down, relegated to the confines of her bedroom, suffering from a mysterious range of maladies. In those days, I was too young to anticipate the high-highs and low-lows of someone with a depressive disorder, or to successfully navigate the unpredictable, violent swings that are borne of substance abuse. I just thought she needed my help.
“Corey?” she would call out, no matter where I was in the house. “Come in here and rub my feet.” I would trudge into the darkness and take her foot in my hands while she lay in bed, her forearm thrown over her face to shield her eyes from the light, her naked leg sticking out from deep beneath the blankets. She would cry and fidget and whine, and sometimes scream and curse and kick, even when I was brushing her hair or bringing her food or running her a bath. Those were the worst days—when her moods became like black holes, sucking the life from every corner of the house into that cold, dark room.
Sometimes her door would stay closed all day. If I had an audition, she might call my grandmother and demand that Boobie ferry me around town. If I wasn’t working, or if my grandmother was busy with Mindy, I would make my breakfast, feed the horses out back on the farm, and then retreat to my room, locked away for hours with my action figures, acting out elaborate fantasies, playing heroes and villains or cops and robbers or pulling them apart at the joints to inspect the elaborate system of hooks and rubber bands that held them together. I wasn’t allowed to have friends over, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the house. So, sometimes I just zipped myself in the giant gray suitcase, warm and dank, smelling of sweat and leather and the sea. In those early days in the Chatsworth house, I learned to entertain myself.
* * *
“You were supposed to be a blond.”
My mother is alternately scrubbing my scalp with her fingers and shoving my face under the faucet of the bathroom sink. The peroxide burns, and the smell is making me nauseous but, apparently, I was supposed to have been a blond-haired, blue-eyed child. Instead, she got stuck with me. With my head still wedged under the faucet, water rushing into my nose and mouth, she pauses long enough to wipe the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “This is who you were supposed to be,” she keeps telling me, though it’s difficult to make out what she’s saying with so much water in my ears.
The McDonald’s commercial has energized her, and she is full of ideas, plans, and strategies—besides just changing my hair color—to help me with my new career. For example, if I can learn a repertoire of folky songs, like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Jim Croce’s “Junk Food Junkie,” I will almost certainly book more jobs.
“You’re going to sing a song and they’re going to go, isn’t he cute?” she tells me, before locking me in my room with Mindy’s record player and instructions not to come out until I have learned every word.
Learning the words, however, is not the hard part—I have no trouble memorizing dialogue, even though I am only four. The problem is that I can’t carry a tune to save my life. My voice squeaks and strains. I can’t match the notes that I hear in the recordings.
When I emerge from my room to perform for her approval, she sighs. “You’re not much of a singer, are you?” It’s clear that she enjoys making fun of me. It’s obvious that she finds pleasure in making me feel inadequate. She points her finger toward the narrow hallway and sends me back to practice more—however long it takes, she says—until I get it right.
I can’t get it right, but I quickly learn how to stick my hands in the pockets of my Osh Kosh overalls at the end of an audition, don a sort of aw-shucks pose, and say, “Hey, do you mind if I sing a song for you?” Then I belt out some horrifically off-key, awkward version of “Put on a Happy Face” for a panel of casting directors. It works like gangbusters. I shoot ads for Apple Jacks, Colgate, Hawaiian Punch, Pan Am, Dole Pineapple, and Wyler’s Grape drink mix, one right after the other. By the age of ten, I will have filmed more than one hundred.
* * *
Mindy and I are generally responsible for making our own breakfasts—my mother, after all, isn’t a “morning person.” But the sugary cereals I love, the cookies and crackers and snacks, have started to disappear, hidden on a shelf high in the kitchen that I have to crawl on top of a counter to reach. One morning, my sister and I take our seats at the small round table and Mindy pours herself a bowl of Alpha Bits. I love Alpha Bits. I can spell all kinds of words in my spoon. I reach to pour myself a bowl when my mother, appearing out of nowhere, suddenly yanks the box from my hand.
“You can’t eat that,” she says. “It’s fattening.”
“Why does Mindy get to eat it?”
She turns and glares at me. “Because Mindy isn’t fat.”
Whenever we happen to walk past an overweight person while we’re out looking for strays, my mother physically recoils. “Fat pig,” she whispers under her breath. Her secret nickname for my father’s mother, admittedly a rather large woman, is Piggy Feldman. So I know that being fat is the worst thing you can possibly be. I do have round, chubby, cherubic cheeks, but I always thought that I would grow into them. Now she tells me that if I’m not careful, I’ll grow up to be a fat, disgusting pig, too. She lifts my shirt and pinches a fold of my skin between her fingers. “See?” she says. “That’s more than an inch.” (My mother is obsessed with the new “pinch more than an inch” Special K campaign; she’ll continue pinching me like this for years.)
Soon there is a new rule: No eating—at all—until she wakes up. This is especially challenging, because sometimes she stays in bed until two or three in the afternoon. I distract myself with my toys, or put on my grandmother’s Rubbermaid dishwashing gloves and tie a blue hand towel around my neck, zooming around the living room like a superhero, flying off furniture, trying to ignore the low, gurgling sound of the rumble in my tummy. And then I decide, after a while, that no one will actually notice if I quietly make myself a snack.
* * *
“Corey, get in here.” She’s in her room again, the door barely cracked ajar.
“Yes?” I retrace my steps down the hallway until I’m standing outside her door. She’s lying on her bed, half-dressed, watching a haze of gray static glowing from the television.
“Did you eat the cookies in the cabinet?”
I feel a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. “No,” I say, in a voice no bigger than a whisper.
“No? Why are there crumbs in your bed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, perhaps you’d like to explain. Did the dog eat the cookies, Corey? Did Shadow climb up into the cupboard?”
“Maybe…?” I venture, hoping she’ll let my thievery go.
“Don’t lie to me, Corey. You’re lying. Did you eat the cookies?”
“Well, maybe I ate one.”
“Maybe you ate one?”
“Which is it? One or two?”
I swallow, hard. “I ate two.”
She sits up a little at my admission. “Well, then, you’re grounded. Those cookies are not for you and you know it. So now I want you to come in here and stare at the wall for one hour. And you’re not going to have anything else to eat for the rest of the day.”
I walk slowly into her room and take my place in the corner. I look at my feet, at the wall, at anything but her. She drones on and on until I suddenly realize that I am afraid of her, that I hate her. Still, I want nothing more than to crawl into her big bed and watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, or listen to her stories about bunnies and parties and what her life was like before me.
“You have no right to disrespect me like this.” She’s in a rage now, huffing and puffing. “You ungrateful shit. How dare you look at me like that?”
“I’m not looking at you,” I say.
“Well then turn around and look at me when I’m talking to you! Do you have any idea how lucky you are? Do you realize that most women would die to look like this after two kids? Look at these tits,” she says, cupping her breasts in her hands. But I don’t want to look at her. I just want something to eat.
I thought back to the Baskin-Robbins commercial I had filmed just a few weeks before, to the mountains of pumpkin ice cream that had stretched before me, to the way the assistant director had smiled when he handed me a spoon. Actors are generally encouraged not to swallow on shoots like these; ingesting bite after bite, shooting take after take, would be enough to make most people sick. But I had learned a clever trick. I would only pretend to spit out my food in a napkin. That’s how I went through one-and-a-half gallons, secretly savoring every bite.
I knew my mother was getting worse, her behavior more erratic. I couldn’t, however, understand why. From my perspective, nothing much had changed, except that I was working more, booking more jobs, going on more auditions. And yet, she still knew how to turn on the charm, how to perform for people’s approval. She might have spent the entire morning in bed, calling me “fatso” and “piggy” and ordering me around the house, but then we’d drive to an audition and she would immediately switch gears. As soon as we stepped onto the parking lot pavement, she’d jerk my arm and say, “That’s enough now. Wipe off the tears.” Then we’d breeze through the door of the casting office and she’d be bright and buoyant, a giant smile plastered across her face. If someone inquired about my red eyes and blotchy cheeks, she’d simply shrug.
“I don’t know what he’s so upset about,” she would say. “He’s such a good actor, this kid. He’s so dramatic. Always acting. That’s what he does best.”
Copyright © 2013 by Corey Feldman