A Real Star – Some Shine Brightly

William Holden star, Photo: Ron Irwin
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Beyond the media images, have you ever wondered about what makes a real movie or TV star and how these people differ from us regular work a day folks?  

I have had several experienced that form my ideas about these people who seem beyond our reach. My first encounter with a celebrity took place when I was 13 years old and somehow, along with about six other young guys from the Chicago area, I was invited to spend 10 days with then very well- known singer and actress Jane Morgan at her summer home in Kennebunkport. Maine.  She was very nice to us and everyone else she met during our stay. Back in Hollywood her performances came at significant cost to those seeking her work. But in Kennebunkport she was in a summer stock theatrical show for which she received little if any pay. Why? Because as is true with every entertainer I have met, Jane Morgan loved to entertain and it wasn’t about the money but more about her love of the craft.  She even offered me a part in the play but being the stage wimp that I am, I declined. That is among many reasons, why I am not a movie star. In my observation, all entertainers have an unshakable and deep passion for performing.  When you see a movie or TV star, you see a person who is deeply passionate about what they do. 

Camera, Photo: Ron Irwin

As a teen, my personal passion was to go to Asia so I joined the Marine Corps and not long after I found myself in Asia.  I was able to leave my main post in Okinawa and travel over much of Asia on a helicopter carrier. One stop was Hong Kong. I had a few extra dollars from my days as a civilian so I went to the Hong Kong Hilton and rented a room for three nights – the amount of time I had off duty.  Then I went to a tailor shop and bought a suit. It was ready for me and laying on my bed when I got out of the shower. Later that night I went to the Opium Den Bar at the Hong Kong Hilton where I saw several other guys from the ship all in civilian clothes but our military stature shone through.  There was a guy sitting at the bar who caught my attention and he motioned me to go over to him so I did. He simply asked if we were Marines from the ship in the harbor and I confessed we were.  He then leaned over the bar and speaking to the bartender he said “Louie. for the Marines the drinks are on me tonight.” Then he turned back to me stuck out his hand and said: “Hi, I am Bill Holden.” About two years earlier he along with Nancy Kwan starred in the movie “The World of Suzie Wong.” Holden loved Hong Kong so much he bought himself a condominium there. We partied hardy on Holden’s dime until the sun came up. Greedy, self-possessed and arrogant? Nope, not this movie star who hung with a bunch of young Marines and treated them very well.  

My life after the Marines was tumultuous at best.  By around 1983 I gave up my law practice and moved with my son Ronnie to Burbank, California not knowing one damn thing about Burbank, California.  Slowly it began to dawn on me that this city was arguably the real Hollywood. It is home to Disney Studios, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and immediately next to Universal Studios. Yep, I realized that I landed right in the heart of the beast.  After a few years I gravitated towards the one performing art I actually enjoy, talk radio. With a wee bit of luck, I eventually ended up with a one-hour program every weekday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on KFOX 93.5 FM. But what was there to talk about? Given the time slot it didn’t take long for publicists to start calling me.  One of the first suggestions was that I interview some young actor who had just returned from making what was sure to be a hit movie in Australia. The actor’s name was Mel Gibson so certainly, he was my guest. You may have seen him in such hot movies as “Mad Max,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Brave Heart” to name but a few of so many.  I only had that one meeting with Mel but he came across as genuinely friendly and sincerely appreciative of my having had him on my radio show. Again, I saw no sign of arrogance, just a pleasant and clearly talented young man.  

As my show continued I had several other “stars” on my show including A. Martinez known for many television shows including “Santa Barbara,” “General Hospital” and “L.A. Law.”  His appearance was prompted by my beautiful bride Nenita. One day she was watching TV and I noticed that she was totally engrossed. I asked: “So who is that?” She responded “A. Martinez.”  I asked if she would like to meet him and she said “You can’t do that.” So, I smiled and called the guy I knew was his publicist.  I asked if A might want to be on my show. Two days later I took my wife with me to the radio station and we met A. Martinez in the green room. Mission accomplished, happy wife.  The interview was fun as well.  

Every time I had a guest who was a soap opera star the phone board would instantly light up always with eager women.  One time one of my guests, during a commercial break, laughed and commented on how crazy those ladies were but that was a good thing because it provided him with a great income while doing something he really enjoyed.  Now imagine that, doing something you love and getting paid very well. You can’t ask for much better than that. When not performing he was just a happy working man. 

After a few years of actually living and working in Hollywood, I was beginning to get a completely new take on the realities surrounding the concept of star status.  To me it became clear that a movie or TV star is  a man or woman who has an abundance of talent and irrepressible passion. Even great talent can be marred by laziness with the result that you will never win in Hollywood or pretty much in anything else.  

Back in the days before my wife gave me the option to either quit my cigar smoking or quit her – I kept her – I was a regular at a cigar store close to our home.  One day a man walked in and I could feel an immediate energy bump. He was a very pleasant guy just looking for a few cigars and enjoy a little chit chat with the other guys in the store.  This was anything but a fancy cigar shop. It was attached to an auto repair business, so very blue collar. There I came to learn that this particular customer was Chick Venerra, a movie star.. I did some research and what I learned was amazing.  

Chick Venerra, Photo: Courtesy of Chick Venerra

Chick Venerra began his acting career on Broadway including a significant role in the huge hit “Grease.”  After moving to Hollywood he landed roles in such super hits as “Yanks” where he worked with Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave, Wiliam Devore and others.  Later he worked with Ruben Blades, Ricahrd Bradford, Sonia Braga. Julie Carmen. Melanie Griffith and others in the hit film “The Milagro Beanfield War.”  Chick has also worked on many TV Series including “JAG,” “L.A. Heat,” “Chicken Soup For The Soul,” “That’s Life,” “Static Shock” and “Animaniacs” to name but a few.  

A number of years ago, Chick launched an acting school he calls “The Renegade Theatre.”  For a while my daughter, Kari, was one of his students. (She has yet to become a known actress in large part because for now her passion has shifted to a new pursuit still very much in the entertainment industry but very much off camera.)  To watch Chick impart his love of the art, his passion, skill and commitment to his students is deeply moving. It is impressive that the one thing Chick always displays is a sense to total reality. Sure the act is make believe but in the case of Chick Venerra thisl actor is absolutely real.  Should you want to listen to a recent radio interview with Chick Venerra just click here  As I consider, what is a “movie star?”  I believe that a movie or TV star is a man or women with skills – yes – but beyond that unswerving drive and passion for the art, and for the most part, they remain grounded in reality and mostly kind. 

In contrast,there are the wannabes who lack any sense of reality but with a passionate desire to immerse themselves in the glitz and the glam far beyond what they will ever in fact achieve.  One of the most glaring examples of this kind of actor/actress was a woman I had briefly as a PR client. She came off with an air of a very spoiled super star, a demeanor totally absent from the real super stars I had met over many years.  I invited her to a party with many local media folks, a great way to get some press. She showed up one and half hours late. Next, I arranged for her to be on a live TV show. She showed up 30 seconds before going on air. That was a huge slam to the host whom she never even thanked.  I fired her as a client. Then I went back and looked at her IMDb again. She had 14 credits; not bad for a start but I looked closer and discovered she had been uncredited in 13 of the 14 meaning she only actually appeared on screen in one totally unknown movie. Yet she came off with an attitude filled with arrogance. Exactly what the real stars rarely, if ever, display.  

Ron with Emmy, Photo: Courtesy of Ron Irwin

The difference between what makes real “stars” and those who are not is similar in the important respects to accomplished medical doctors, school teachers, businessmen. lawyers and even good mechanics.  They are sincere and real and driven by a powerful passion to engage fully in their chosen work. At the end of the day they are what we all are, people. This remains true even when the characters they portray can are super human.   

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