If something dark was looming, I wasn’t aware of it. Not yet. Not now. I stood on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, wearing obscenely expensive sunglasses. It was September of 1997, and my employment contract with Columbia TriStar Television was about to expire. I’d been invited to fly out to L.A. for some important meetings that would determine the next move in my soaring career. A seat at the Emmys was an extra perk, a glamour ticket in Hollywood.
I certainly looked the part: a thousand-dollar tuxedo, cuff links from Neiman Marcus, a Rolex Oyster Day-Date, Ferragamo shoes, and, of course, those sunglasses—three hundred bucks’ worth of eye candy.
I had “arrived” according to Hollywood’s standards, often calculated by one’s ability to spend outrageous amounts of money on items of little substance. Even knowing that, I was a repeat offender. And I loved every glistening gold dollar of this good life. After all, I’d earned it. In my tenth year with a major television studio that had promoted me five times, I’d climbed all the way to executive vice president, pulling down a big salary with incredible bonuses. My job allowed for marvelous vacations, dining in the best restaurants, and shopping at the coolest boutiques. I always traveled first class (concierge level, of course), and I received a car allowance that paid for my BMW 540i and later my Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. I owned a six thousand-square-foot house, complete with a home theater and sound system that would straighten the hair on your legs. And, oh yes, I rode a Harley-Davidson—just because I could.
If I saw something I liked, I bought it. If something could make me look better, I got it. If a hotel wasn’t up to my standards, I found a better one. It was all about having the best. Not bad for a small-town kid from a blue-collar family in Illinois whose daughters make fun of him for having worn the same plaid shirt in his first- and second-grade class photos! Standing on the red carpet was an exclamation-point celebration of a once-lost kid who now looked so sharp.
Of course, there was something else. My life was furiously driven by something deep beneath the surface. Something I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
Trying to survive in the television industry is like being on the TV show Survivor. You’re on a team, but the truth is, it’s every man for himself. With an average of four shows to pitch each year, I was giving more than a thousand presentations annually. It wasn’t brainiac stuff, but it was incredibly nerveracking. I had to be “on” all the time; tens of millions of dollars were riding on it. Sure, some days it was glamorous, but the second I closed a deal, I would start stressing about the next one. I felt only as good as the last big thing I landed. This despite some of my successes—Married…with Children; Mad About You; Walker, Texas Ranger; Ricki Lake. Of course, there was also that big one—Seinfeld.
My job was to license the rights of television programs to broadcast stations across the country, otherwise known as syndication. Whoever figured out that television audiences would watch the same program a second, third, or even seventeenth time was a genius. Syndication is highly profitable—and cutthroat. With only so many clients in each city and twenty other shows competing for the same limited time slots, it’s impossible to sell your show in every market. The expectation, however, is that you will. Every major studio had more than a dozen of us hired guns. We traveled to all 211 TV markets, four days a week, fifty weeks a year, from New York City all the way to Glendive, Montana, and every trip was destined, on some level, to fail.
But—and this is a big but—the money was fabulous. And most of us hired guns lived beyond our means, believing that as long as the money was coming in, the physical and emotional toll was worth it. Believe me, it is very difficult to walk away.
Much as I reveled in my red-carpet moment, I knew it was just another part of the dance. The invitation—the whole weekend for that matter—was one more perk the studio had pushed in front of me, knowing I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, refuse their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was all calculated. They had me right where they wanted me. I was a guy once obsessed with a worn-out plaid shirt, who hailed from a town whose chief industries were canning peas and spinning yarn, and now I was raking in lots of dough (and needing it to keep up my lifestyle), rubbing elbows with American entertainment royalty, and looking like a million bucks.
One of the keys to successful red-carpet walking is to do it slowly, especially the final twenty yards before you get inside. The proper walk is important, because you’re supposed to project an aura of appreciation tinged with indifference, but never gratitude and certainly not awe. As an old coach once told me, “Joe, if you’re lucky enough to wind up in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.” I played the part pretty well. I had rehearsed for this moment endlessly. I knew how to cruise through a five-star hotel lobby and into a waiting limousine with just enough mystery that I looked like I could be somebody famous.
Illusion is important in Hollywood. It’s carefully crafted on-screen; it’s carefully cultivated offscreen. I’d gotten the hang of it.
There on the red carpet, my lovely wife, Carmen, stood by my side, just as she had during my entire climb up the professional ladder. She was a rock and looked like a rock star. Among many things, she was an incredible mother and kept the family running like a finely tuned machine. “Very special,” her dad once told me, as tears welled up in his eyes. “That Carmen…she is a special one.”
Even though Carmen’s presence helped me project my grand illusion before the eyes of others, she was skeptical of the life I’d pursued. She had seen the wear and tear resulting from the demands of the job and tried to suggest that I needed more balance in my life. Carmen feared that I was being ground down to nothing and didn’t understand why I kept renewing my contract. She would encourage me with her cheerleader smile, attempting to give me confidence. “Joe, you’re a talented guy. You can do other things…” But I was like a suicide bomber who didn’t have the wires connected quite right, and I was determined about my mission. Even if it killed me.
I suppose I knew that I was pushing too hard. Earlier that week I had met with the head of television for the studio, and he asked me the classic interview question: “Where do you see yourself five, ten, or fifteen years from now?” I told him bluntly I wanted his job someday. It was positively ludicrous to think I could handle this guy’s responsibilities. He was ridiculously smart and operated as if ice water ran through his veins. It sounded good when I said it, though, and it was probably what he wanted to hear. Again, illusion.
I knew I was driven. But I had to be. The industry was intense: the farther you advanced up the ladder, the fewer the jobs—very few lateral moves. It was all about the next job, and there were only about six jobs at my level in the entire studio system. There was no workplace Zen back then. It was all tension, all the time. If you weren’t stressed and strung out, you would be replaced. Some guys could handle it—thousands of canned speeches, smiles, fake laughter, and contracts. I felt I could too. I was holding it all together. Besides, everything I held dear was riding on my ability to continue to climb, to succeed: my house, my car, my family’s future, my reputation. My sunglasses. The moment I stepped off that tightrope, it would all be gone, handed to the next guy in line. Every day on the job at the studio was, to my mind, another day I might be found out.
Some years before, to deal with the stress, I had tried seeing a shrink. There I’d learned a few things about myself, primarily that I had equated my success and lifestyle with my value as a husband, father, and head of household. I suppose I was looking for validation, approval, something to fill me up.
At one point the psychiatrist looked into my eyes and said, “Tell me about your father.” No one had ever gone there before, and I didn’t know what to say. So I never went back. I didn’t want, nor could I even begin, to have a conversation about my father. Not with anyone. Really, it wasn’t such a big deal, or so I thought. Everyone was chasing something they wanted, the good life they desired, the status that would garner respect. I was no different. What if there were stresses? I just needed to manage them better.
And I felt I had. Look where I was! The sun was shining. Carmen was by my side. I was at the Emmys in Hollywood, about to re-up with my studio. I had made a name for myself.
We turned and began our slow, convincing stroll into the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for the commencement of the ceremonies. Yet, walking through all that dazzle and glitter, I could not see on the horizon the storm that was about to engulf my life. Through my sunglasses, the world looked sunny and rosy. But behind those lenses, my eyes betrayed lines of anxiety, worry, and stress.
We are so blind to our own stuff, blind to the storm bearing down on us. In fact, I was already adrift. I just didn’t know it.