The Actor's Detective

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Remembering Kathryn Joosten

I was sad to hear of the recent untimely death of character actress Kathryn Joosten.

You might not know her name, but she was one of those actors that as soon as you see their face you say "Oh, I know them!" Joosten was best recognized for her performances as Mrs. Landingham, the President's assistant on "The West Wing" and as sassy neighbor Mrs. McClusky on "Desperate Housewives" (a role for which she earned two Emmys.)

For years I've been pointing to Ms. Joosten as a shining star for anyone who feels that they are too old to pursue their dreams, or that opportunity has passed them by. You see, she did not begin her climb to prominence until well into her 50's.

A successful nurse from Chicago, by the 1970's Kathryn Joosten was married and had two children. When her husband left her in the 1980's, she had to struggle to raise her two kids alone. She did this by holding down several jobs.

Unhappy with the situation she was in, inspiration struck, and she decided - at age 42 - to pursue her dream career as an actress. Joosten packed up and moved to Orlando, Florida, where she got a job as a street performer at Walt Disney World. After three years in the Sunshine State, she moved 3,000 miles away to join the legions of hopeful actors seeking work in Hollywood.

Everyone told her that at 56 years old, with barely a whisper of a resume, the odds of building a career in film and television were a million to one or more, but Joosten had faith and a vision of success. Soon, she was booking small roles on television shows and casting directors took notice. Once they discovered her niche, she became an "overnight" sensation in her 60's.

Sadly, cancer ended Joosten's life too early. "Housewives" had ended its run (fittingly, with a dramatic and moving farewell to Mrs. McClusky) just weeks before and she would definitely have had other opportunities to shine. Her legacy has lived on, however, in an unexpected way.

Within hours of her death, social media sites like Facebook began filling with tributes to her, and fans created a page highlighting her amazing road to success, despite the naysayers. (I posted it below) 

Those that had only seen her on TV were made aware of the story behind her accomplishments. Kathryn Joosten now serves as an inspiration for anyone, young or old, reaching for the brass ring. 

Never, ever give up on your dreams!

A celebrity phone call in response to my letter

Jay Leno

I was absolutely stunned when my phone rang and the voice on the other end was none other than the host of NBC's "The Tonight Show", Jay Leno.

I shouldn't say that I was completely surprised, as I've always read that Mr. Leno was one of the nicest guys in the entertainment industry. For him to pick up the phone and have a fifteen minute conversation with someone who just sent him a letter is what astounded me. That's unheard of, and I genuinely appreciate it. (I told him that I will someday return the favor and thank him personally as a guest on his show.) It showed me that writing letters to celebrities really works.

Because I wasn't expecting his call, I didn't have any means of creating an exact transcript of the phone conversation, but here are some highlights of the pearls of wisdom that Mr. Leno had to share with me:

- Work, work, work! (Mr. Leno's work schedule is legendary, as he rarely takes a day off from his show, and also does hundreds of stand up dates throughout the year. His theory is that work is the only way to build up necessary skills and experience that books alone can't convey.)

- Keep yourself grounded in real life, don't get lost in the business. Whether it's hobbies or a family, just have a life outside show business.

- Be yourself! Earn show business type money, but don't live a show business lifestyle by blowing it all on frivolous things.

- If you can be an actor or comedian for seven years without something stopping you, then you can make it in the business. Most people are stopped short by negativity, doubters, addiction, distraction, pessimism, self defeat or other things. Overcome those barriers and you'll do well.

- Never turn down a gig unless it goes against your personal beliefs. Work is work and every experience will bring you further along.

- Always keep your personal feelings and politics out of the discussion when you are performing or hosting. Don't let people know what your true opinions are or you'll lose some of your audience.

I sent him a thank you card as soon as our conversation was over.

A response from a Star Trek legend

Walter Koenig

Most famous for playing Ensign Pavel Chekov on the classic TV series "Star Trek", Walter Koenig is an accomplished actor and author. He sent me a very nice reply to my letter asking him about the ups and downs of a career in show business.  This is what he had to say:

Dear Chris,

Thanks for your note. Obviously, there are no easy answers to building an acting career. If there were I wouldn't have experienced years of unemployment at different stages in my life.

If there is any one thing I can tell you it's to create your own opportunities as much as it is humanly possible. That would involve taking classes for networking as well as growing, audition for every play that comes along and checking out the independent film making scene in New York and surrounding environs. I know there are groups on the West Coast like Filmmakers Alliance which is an acting-writing-directing-producing cooperative. People there get together to work on their own and others low budget projects. Anything from short-shorts to docs and features are made through these kinds of collectives. You meet people, learn how to make your own projects and the films do get seen at festivals, etc.

I'm not sure I have words of encouragement that can be generally applied as a blanket statement. Some things work for some people and some things don't. 

Perseverance, no matter how you manage it, is the primary quality, aside from talent, that you must have. Perhaps knowing that everyone suffers rejection in this business will be somewhat consoling and, then again, perhaps not. My ego is as easily bruised as the next person's and I've suffered feelings of total defeat, feelings that at the time had me on the brink of quitting forever. 

On the other hand, there is some kind of mechanism operating in my brain that allows me to languish in consuming self-pity for a few days and then lets up sufficiently to try again. There is no exercise, ritual or mantra that I use for this to occur. It just happens, so I'm no good at offering a way to others of climbing off the canvas again and again over the course of many years to keep plugging away. You have to find it in yourself.

I believe you are in your forties, so I imagine that by this time you've come up with your own way to deal with vagaries of show business career experiences. I guess the one thing I would suggest, as I have suggested to others, is to always have another means of making a living (like writing a book) not only from the aspect of economic survival but as something which, while supplying you an income, will also support your self-esteem. It's extremely important to keep your confidence up while pursuing your passion and that comes from inner strength.

When things were at their worst for me career wise - which was after the TV series was canceled - I gave myself the regimen of sitting down several hours a day and writing. It brought structure to my life and gave me a goal that I could direct my energies toward. It doesn't have to be writing of course, it can be anything whether it's creative or not that gives you focus and some measure of satisfaction in the process of working at it. It will also, as I mentioned earlier, provide an income.

You might want to check out my autobiography called "Warp Factors, A Neurotics Guide to the Universe." It certainly holds no direct answers but it might give you some comfort knowing that you're not out there alone. It's probably available at for just a few bucks.

That's pretty much all I can offer Chris.

The best of good fortune to you.

Walter Koenig

I sent him a thank you note the next day