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Failure – a Masterclass

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

The Guardian’s podcast newsletter, which drops into my inbox every Saturday morning, recently alerted me to an interesting sounding new show. It’s called Dead Eyes and it tells the tale of Connor Ratliff who, twenty years ago, as an actor at the very start of his career, got fired from a small part in a big TV show. Not an exceptional story, maybe. Even a rather common occurrence in our largely unregulated and unreliable profession. The makers of the podcast admit as much. But the story is made more interesting when you hear that the director who did the firing was Tom Hanks – Hollywood’s good guy, not really someone you imagine doing another actor down.

The reason for the sacking was that Hanks, directing an episode of Spielberg’s HBO TV show Band of Brothers, felt that Connor had ‘dead eyes’ and wasn't, after all, right for the part he’d already been cast in!Anyway, after being ‘released’ from the TV show, Connor took several years off from the acting business to recover – as he puts it in the podcast, to return to acting with a state of mind in which the whole thing mattered less to him.

Dead Eyes (now in its second series) riffs on failure and what it’s like to have the trajectory of your fortunes radically affected by the small action of someone who, twenty years later, almost certainly hasn’t thought about the incident again. It made me reconsider an idea for a book I had a while back. I’d planned to analyse some of my own brushes with failure to try to draw conclusions, to learn from my mistakes while teaching others how not to make them, to exorcise demons, find closure, forgive enemies and move on.

Some contenders for the book would have included the time I got fired from a movie for which I was already in pre-production, the day I was banned from directing a revival of a musical I had originally directed and, when working on a show in New York, being asked by the producers to fire an actress I'd spent two months directing. (By the way, I didn't fire her).

In revisiting my low points, I also remembered my failure to make any money by writing a book. It’s paid me less than it cost to host its launch party, which was far from excessive. Was it bad luck, did I fail, or when I signed a contract that earned me nothing, was I just being a push-over? I also recalled the UK tour of an adaptation of mine from which officially I was to receive £13,000 in royalties. However, on the road, the producer lost his shirt and used my 13 grand to buy himself a new one. There are several other tales of, let's call it misfortune that I could recount.

My intention was to collate them all into a book which I would call Failure – a Masterclass. My aim was to adopt a light and hilarious tone, but my fear was that I might end up sounding sour-grapey for 200 pages and reinforce the idea of negativity by focusing exclusively on negative events. So, eventually I abandoned the idea. Another failure?

Connor Ratliff’s podcast, on the other hand, falls well on the light-and-hilarious side of things. He's not sour-grapey at all, and I heartily recommend his show.


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