Actors Playing Themselves

Among the motion pictures bring released in the summer of 2013, is the film “This is the End,” starring Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and James Franco. The unique aspect of this comedy is that all of the principle actors in the movie portray themselves, or at least a remote version of who they are. This approach has been a popular trend, mostly on television, for the past several years, as many celebrities have appeared semi-regularly on various programs playing fictionalized , and often, unflattering versions of their true identities. James Van Der Beek (“Don’t Trust the B… in Apartment 23”), Will Wheaton (“Big Bang Theory”), Seth Green (“Entourage”), and Regis Philbin (“How I met Your Mother”) have all made the sitcom rounds giving over the top performances, spoofing their show business personas. Of course, a few personalities have made creating humorous send-ups of their lives the basis for an entire series, as witnessed by Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes.” Although this may appear to be a recent development, the idea of a celebrity playing his or her self is a concept that dates back over 90 years.

Magician Harry Houdini used his fame as a master illusionist in the 1920’s as the basis for several silent films which starred the magician as himself, using his stage skills to solve crimes Decades later, both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, having established themselves as the motion picture industry’s top screen cowboys, began to exclusively play characters the shared their well known names. In fact, in some of Roy’s later films, the scripts acknowledged that he was a well known movie star, who still found time to battle cattle wranglers during his spar time. Obviously, fact and fiction were being blurred, and even a young boy like me wondered how many cow thieves existed in California during the 1950’s. And why wouldn’t Roy just call the police?

It was Jack Benny who really seemed to straddle the fence between real and fictional, as his long running series seemingly gave us a behind the scene glimpse of his private life. As a kid, I marveled at who much attitude Jack’s butler Rochester seemed to get away with, and wondered how his long suffering girlfriend, Mary Livingston, put up with him. It was only as an adult that I learned that Rochester was actually an actor named Eddie Anderson, and never lived with Jack Benny, unlike Mary Livingston, who did live with Jack, probably because they had been married for several years.

Of course the all time best example of people playing somewhat altered versions of their real life selves was the classic sit-com, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Starring all four members of the Nelson family, “Ozzie and Harriet” certainly had viewers convinced they were watching a typical American family go through life on a weekly basis. The Nelsons were a real family, and even the indoor sets used on the program were based on the Nelson’s real Hollywood home. But how closely did the show depict the Nelson’s actual life? Well, first of all, they appeared to be living an upper-middle-class existence, unlike the rich show business individuals they really were. Ozzie Nelson seemed to be without a job, constantly hanging around the house, avoiding any possible chores Harriet tried to give him. The real Ozzie was a workaholic, serving as director, producer, writer, as well as one of the principle performers on his show. But the biggest disconnect had to do with Ricky Nelson and his music. “Ozzie and Harriet” often featured Rick fronting a rock and roll band, usually playing in front of the number of people it took to fill his living room. In reality, Ricky Nelson was one of the biggest recording stars of the late 1950’s rock and roll era, and was selling millions of records during his years on the show. Having his records featured on the program certainly didn’t hurt Rick’s record sales, and his presence on the show obviously helped with the ratings, a kind of synergy that worked for another series, that debuted in 1966, the same year “Ozzie and Harriet” went off the air.

Although “The Monkees” was to be a TV show about a fictional struggling rock group, producers at Columbia Studios originally wanted to cast an existing band to star on the NBC series, but most groups were already signed to a record label, prompting the production to use four guys who had never previously worked together. Inspired by the Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night,” “The Monkees” was a comedy show, using music recorded by Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork throughout the 30 minutes, a forerunner to the music videos that came into vogue a decade later. Having the four men use their own names on the program turned out to be a good idea, as “The Monkees” soon became one of the most popular recording acts in the country, and fans were never asked to remember more than four names. Eventually, “The Monkees” became a touring band as well, playing reasonable versions of their hits onstage, despite Jones and Dolenz having limited instrumental skills. Ironically, Dolenz-Jones-Tork and Nesmith kept the group together even after the show was canceled, with two or more of the members performing together right up until Davy’s 2012 death. It would almost like if the cast of “Cheers” opened a bar after the completion of that series.

However, I would guess that the most successful television show featuring a star portraying a facsimile of his self was “Seinfeld,” where Jerry Seinfeld was featured as a character that shared Jerry’s real life name and occupation. In the “Seinfeld” universe, Jerry was a fairly successful comedian, living in a one bedroom apartment in New York City, hanging out with ex-girlfriend Elaine, longtime buddy George, and his neighbor from across the hall, Kramer. Although his three companions were fictional, Jerry’s lifestyle depicted on the series may have accurate at one time, but as “Seinfeld” became a hit show, the real Jerry Seinfeld was worth millions of dollars, and no longer had people like “Newman” anywhere in his life.

Reality shows involving everyday people have flooded the airwaves over the past decade, making it, at times, even more difficult to dissemble what is real and what is scripted.. And while that’s been happening, network sitcoms, such as “The Office,” and “Modern Family” are presented in documentary style, reflecting, I think, the notion that everyone of us probably think their lives are interesting enough to be televised. This concept was the inspiration for a movie, “The Truman Show” (1998) where Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) was raised from infancy to adulthood in front of a television camera. The film’s twist was that Truman was the only person unaware of the situation, as his hometown was merely a giant-like bubble filled with hundreds of actors pretending to be his friends and neighbors. When Truman discovers the ruse, he opts for a regular life, and sets out for the real world. One wonders how many of us would have done the same.