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My ‘Zoo Story’

by Josh Kesselman

The one question I always get when meeting new people is “How did you get into this business?” What they are really asking is “why in hell did you choose a business where you spend every moment of your waking days on the phone telling stories or sitting in meetings listening to stories?”

My parents divorced when I was 7 years old. They were married 25 years. My two older siblings had already moved out of the house, so my younger brother and I unfortunately got the brunt of the divorce.


Josh, Jack (“Pops”), Jonathan Kesselman
Photo courtesy of Josh Kesselman

Our dad remarried a woman with her own kids and my brother and I ended up living with our mother for the majority of the time. Our dad would spend the weekend with us and he took us to see every movie under the sun. My greatest memory as a teenager was when Pops took us to see Die Hard. What a movie! I felt so close to my father walking out of that theater. We talked for hours about everything! “Man oh man — it’s amazing how a movie can make you feel — I want to be a part of that.”

At age 15, I got a job working tickets and concessions at the Sherman Oaks Pacific Theaters. I loved it! I saw everything and ate popcorn until I was blue in the face. I even enjoyed wearing that red vest!!

At age 16, I discovered sports and put my heart and soul into the sport of football. Movies became an afterthought, until I hurt myself in college and my football career came to an end. That same month, my father passed away from a stroke. 1993 — not a good year. With no football in my life and memories of watching film after film with my father, I knew that whatever I did next had to prepare me for my future. A future inspired by my father.

Cal Poly, where I was attending school, didn’t have a film program. What could I possibly do at Cal Poly to best prepare me to land a job in Hollywood? Theater? Here’s a picture for you: Me, a jock, flattop haircut, muscular (at the time) stepping into my first theater class. Needless to say, I was a bit out of my element. The biggest thing my father instilled into my brother and me growing up was “find something you love, do it well, and never give up – no matter what the obstacles.”

Directing 101: Produce, direct, market a one-act play assigned to you in a black box theater on campus that seats about 70 people. Enter Doctor Malkin. People just called him “Doc.” He wore thick glasses and had two patches of hair on both sides of his head. The patches were never combed. Doc took one look at me and decided that I represented everything he hated about his childhood. To me, I was sweet revenge. He assigns me Zoo Story by Edward Albee. A play with 4 and a half page monologues, two characters, a small set – I can do this. Just cast one great actor and I will crush it!

I hold open auditions and a 35-year-old local non-student comes in and blows my socks off. I cast him immediately. We rehearse and rehearse but he just can’t learn his lines. Two nights before opening night he finally gets through the entire play “off book.”

Opening night. Lights are up. Packed audience. His wife and kids are sitting in the front row. Lights go down. He struts out – says his first line “I’ve been to the zoo” and then it registers . . . he looks up at the lights, into the audience and then finally at his family staring at him with pride in their eyes. He freezes. People shift in their seats. And then he blurts out what becomes the most embarrassing moment of my amateur/professional career – “Oh shit, I forgot my lines.” The crowd gasps. Doc snickers. I freak! I jump over two rows to my stage manager (who sits completely frozen) . . . I rip the book from her grasp . . . turn the pages to about half way through the play and I throw out a line. Miraculously, he picks it up! He finishes the play. Nobody has any clue what they are watching but he finishes. Voice cracking the entire time. People uncomfortable in their seats.

Cut to – backstage. He is a mess. First and only time time I have ever seen a grown man cry like that. He was crushed. He was quitting. No more acting for him. And then it dawned on me — we had one more performance . . .

So, it began – my first relationship with talent. I sat him down and we talked. We talked about his dreams, his aspirations, his regrets. What did he want to get out of this? How can we fix what had happened tonight?

I promised him I would work my ass off to prepare him for next week’s performance. I was not giving up on him. I needed him – we needed each other to right this disaster. We had a second chance!

So we spent day and night getting it right. I even had him perform the entire play with lights in his face in front of his family. He was grooving. His confidence was back.

Second night. He nailed it. Actually, he was flawless and the play was a hit. I did my job and he did his. Success!

Doc gave me a C– in the class. It didn’t matter. I learned a lot and I loved making a difference for this man. I felt fulfilled by it. Thank you Doc Malkin for helping me find the career path that was right for me. Thank you Dad for being my inspiration every day. I miss you . . .

Josh Kesselman

About Josh Kesselman

The author is a manager-producer in Beverly Hills, CA.

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