As you may know, I had parts in a couple of genre movies in the ‘80s that did exceptionally well: Aliens and Terminator 2, both directed by James Cameron. These were thrilling opportunities in their own right, of course, but what I didn’t know at the time was how those roles, the former shot in a couple of months, the latter in a couple of days, would be grafted to the rest of my life, thanks to the trans-generational loyalty of the science fiction fan community (fan is short for fanatic, in case you forgot).
In the late ‘90s, as my ‘80s star was waning, I learned how to supplement my dwindling income on the sci-fi/ fantasy/ horror convention autograph circuit–or as one of my friends called it, the Character Actors Petting Zoo. It’s a whole low-rent showbiz ecosystem with its own population of agents, promotors, and groupies running on the unpaid labor of an army of fan volunteers. One agent started as a celebrity guest herself: she’d been an alien on Battlestar Galactica. She figured that if she was there anyway, she might as well be collecting 10% from some of the rest of us. My first agent, Dennis, owned a comic book store in Detroit. He wasn’t the greatest negotiator, but my other options ranged from sketchy to manic. I felt bad when I finally fired Dennis a couple years later, but he shouldn’t have been being fellated by a fangirl behind a Jay and Silent Bob standee when I needed him.
As a featured guest, the con promoters fly you in and put you up. You start running into the other guests as early as baggage claim. A guy in a World of Warcraft t-shirt carrying a sign with your name on it takes you to your car. In Knoxville, I found Gary Busey arguing with the driver. A blonde lady was standing by looking slightly alarmed. Gary was expecting to have a car to himself so he could smoke his cigar on the ride in. He ended up sitting in the front seat blowing smoke out the window and muttering to himself while I rode in the back with the blonde, who was very nice and turned out to be Cherie Currie from the Runaways.
Sometimes they’ll feed you the night before the show. In Gothenburg, Sweden, I had dinner with Apollo Creed, Freddy Kruger, Worf, and the girl who got eaten at the beginning of Jaws. Other times, you get in late and have to make do with a bag of nuts and a gimlet at the hotel bar.
On show day you’re picked up again and taken to the convention hall, where you are led through, seemingly, every single service corridor in the facility to your table, which may be next to the tables of other actors who were in your notable movie or show. I’ve spent many hours in many different cities next to Mark Rolston, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, and other members of the Aliens cast. When the signing line peters out we might venture down the tables to be starstruck ourselves by a brilliant broadway actor who is here signing for his Dad role on a teen superhero show.
Some shows are busy, some shows are slow. I did a small show in Bournemouth, England. We did okay on Saturday, but Sunday was a graveyard. Our little celebrity section had a goblin from Harry Potter, a wildling girl from Game of Thrones, and a seasoned character actor who had been the third or fourth Dr. Who. We were swapping regional theater stories when a shy teenage boy approached the table holding an old black and white still. Spotting him from the corner of his eye the old veteran stopped in mid-sentence, drew himself up, and abruptly filled the room with resonant Shakespearean cadence: “EXCUSE me!” he said, “I have a CUSTOMER.”
Next month, Part II (the really famous people)