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For a Child Actor, the Tears Didn’t Come Until It Was Too Late

For one brief moment I considered running back to the soundstage, but the rules-obeying Hunter nerd in me felt it was a breach of propriety. Instead, I went into my trailer and howled into my elbow. My mother came in and said, “I thought you were great!”

“But I couldn’t cry!” I cried.

The role went to Alyson Hannigan, who would later go on to international fame for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “American Pie” and “How I Met Your Mother.” As much as it hurt telling my parents that I didn’t get the part, I felt the worst when I told my math teacher, who said, “I’m sure you would have been the best.”

I had become inspired to be a professional actress after doing some unpaid community theater near our apartment in Brooklyn Heights and being bitten by the proverbial bug. Then a friend of my parents told us that the experimental theater club La MaMa was casting children for a new play. I auditioned in a gritty downtown loft space and found out a few days later that I had gotten the part. As I recall, the play involved gunshots, a man with a crow’s tail and an original rock score.

My salary was about a thousand dollars for the run and I had to join Actors’ Equity. When I got the card in the mail, I felt I was on the way to becoming a professional. My parents had to open a special account that prevented them from stealing my earnings — because of child-labor protection laws that passed after Jackie “The Kid” Coogan turned 21 and realized that he didn’t have any money left. He sued his mother and former manager for his earnings, and in 1939 the Coogan Law was born; it has since been revised to provide better protection.

Because my entry into child labor was unionized, I never felt mistreated. Equity set rehearsal breaks, meal breaks and the minimum turnover time between rehearsals. Our union liaison, or “equity deputy,” was a male cast member who played a heavyset housewife wielding a rolling pin. After I told him I was terrified of the loud sound of the blanks, we worked out a routine backstage in which I would plug my ears while he enveloped me in a bear hug. It did not occur to me that being hugged by a guy in drag in the midst of an onstage gun duel was not an ordinary 12-year-old’s experience.

A few months after the La MaMa play, I got an agent and landed a part in a show about an Irish Catholic girl in 1960s Boston who has a dysfunctional relationship with her mother. We did South Boston accents and said “Jesus H. Christ” a lot. During that show’s run, I began training for my bat mitzvah. One night in the dressing room, about an hour before the places call, I inserted my Torah portion tape into my Walkman, put on headphones and began chanting aloud in Hebrew. My 40-something co-star Marylouise Burke tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Honey, it’s very pretty, but it’s a little distracting right before we go on.” My cheeks flushed with shame, and I never brought the tape to the theater again.

Because my father was the Mama Rose of stage dads, he fetched me from late-night rehearsals and shows to make sure I was safe. It didn’t always help. One night, around 11, as we waited for a No. 1 train at Canal Street, he was mugged before my eyes by a man who said he had a gun in his pocket. My dad still came to pick me up the next night, but we walked to a different stop. To be a stage parent in New York in the ’80s was to put your life on the line.

While balancing my acting career with Hunter, I often felt as if I was in two worlds. I did homework during rehearsals and handed in pages that smelled like cigarettes. I learned that actors can’t help with math (some have dropped out of high school), but they can help you with your Miller or O’Neill.

Because I had a hobby unusual among Hunter students, I felt insulated from academic pressure. If I scored badly on an exam because I’d gotten home at midnight after a performance, I reasoned that the trade-off was worth it. Friends came to see me in strange plays and said, “You were amazing, but what was it about?”

Over the years since the “My Stepmother Is an Alien” screen test, I told myself that I didn’t get the part because I didn’t actually want it. I didn’t want to be a child star; I wanted to be a theater actor in New York, a far worthier goal.

My experiences taught me to be adaptable, take criticism and accept that sometimes there are more people onstage than in the audience. They also made me a lifelong theater fan. And they probably turned me into a writer, because I was in a world where the playwright, and not the director, was God, and you delivered lines as written.

But a quarter of a century later, do I wish I had gone back to that Columbia soundstage, hot tears rolling off my chin, and said, “Mr. Benjamin, can I just do one more take?” Every single day.

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