Born in Detroit, Max Thayer has appeared on stage, screen and television. After being drafted into the Army he served for three years and headed for Hollywood after his discharge. Conventional stage credits include: American Soldiers at the Hollywood American Legion, What Price Glory? for the Liberty Theater also at the Hollywood American Legion, and The ReBirth at Theater Unlimited. He has also performed in the acclaimed experimental theater production, Liquid Theater at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and got his start in show biz doing street theater in Venice California. Film credits include: Charlie Wilson’s War, SWAT, Iron Eagle, No Retreat No Surrender 2, Planet of the Dinosaurs, and American Gun in which he played James Coburn’s grandfather in a flashback sequence in that great actors last film. Television saw him guest star on Corey in the House, Head Cases, Benson, and Diagnosis: Dead or Alive. Max makes his home in Los Angeles where he continues to live and pursue the dream.
Justin Sloan: You are one of the few veterans I have interviewed (so far) who was drafted, and I wonder if that changes your perspective at all. To get us started, can you tell us about your time in the military?
Max Thayer: Vietnam and the draft changed everything in my 18 year old life. Vietnam changed the world. Unlike most of you reading this, I did not volunteer. After I got my notice, I saw an Army recruiter because I thought if I had to go I would do it on my terms. Draftees were required to serve 24 months but in order to get the job I wanted I had to sign up for another year. I had been working as a PA/mailroom boy for an ad agency in Detroit. I had my high school honey and ’61 Chevy Impala convertible and, I thought, a future as a copywriter. Life was sweet.
“Oh, a writer,” said the recruiter. “Why you can be a war correspondent. You’ll write for the military newspaper, The Stars and Stripes.” It appealed to my sense of adventure and I signed on the dotted line. After getting my civilian affairs in order and waiting a few months for everything to process I reported to the induction center downtown and spent the day and night taking tests and physicals and getting inoculated against every disease known to man. At around 3 am we started boarding the bus for Ft. Knox, KY and basic training. That’s when some sergeant pulled me aside and informed me that the Information Specialist class at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN wasn’t available quite yet and in order to keep my options open they had to revise my contract. Dazed, exhausted and blindsided I was in a quandary. I think most of you know the drill. I won’t go through the hoops and ladders of the fast shuffle but I ended up taking Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Ft. Sam Houston, TX as a 91A10, Combat Medic. Because of the revision in the contract the only thing I was guaranteed was a 13 month tour of duty in Korea. To this day I am convinced that it saved my life. My company graduated in September of ’66 and half were assigned to the 1st Air Cav. If you look at the history of that time you will see why I said what I just said.
Camp Santa Barbara, HQ BTRY 3rd BN 81st ARTY near the Korean DMZ wasn’t bad. I was attached to the 10 bed medical dispensary and handled sick call, CQ at night and the occasional field maneuvers that went on during the cold war games.
They had the M-107 Self-Propelled 175mm and the nuke capable M-110 203mm. Besides freezing in the winter with 20 below weather, my ears are still ringing from the tremendous concussions of those guns going off. But I was alive.
I finished up my enlistment at Ft. Lewis WA. ETS January ’69.
JS: How did that experience change you?
MT: How did it change me? For one, I never went back to Detroit. Everything I had back there was gone. The house I grew up in, my car, girlfriend and even my poor old dog. The world was changing in a way no one could have imagined and I wanted to catch up. It’s hard to convey the confusion and uncertainty of those times without sounding like some geezer looking back at the Wild West. But damn boys, LA in ’69 was a hell of a party. I didn’t have a clue where I fit in and I didn’t know what I wanted. But I knew what I didn’t want; putting on a suit and tie and going to work 9 to 5.
JS: What did you do to make your transition smooth? How did you find the opportunities you have been involved with so far, and what can you advise other military men and women do to land roles?
I had always loved watching movies and just before I got out I saw “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. I had never thought about acting as a way of life before but I was so enthralled with the experience of that film, so eager to be part of that storytelling process that the possibilities of acting for a living lured me to Hollywood. I also didn’t have the faintest glimmer of how it worked. I packed two footlockers with everything I owned into my ’67 VW and headed for California ready to take my chances on breaking into the movies. The only problem was I didn’t know a damn thing about acting, show biz, or life in general. I was 22 years old and on my own for the first time.
This little story will give you an idea how totally ignorant I was about the whole thing. I slept on my cousin Tom’s couch in Culver City for a few days before I got a place of my own. MGM (now Sony) Studios was right around the corner from his apartment and I drove over to see about a job. I parked in front of the Thalberg Building and walked up the steps into the reception area and asked the woman at the desk for an application. Reaching for a stack of forms she asked me what department. When I said acting she laughed out loud. It doesn’t work that way she gasped. She laughed me right out of the building. I’d never been so embarrassed in my life. And I didn’t know why. I thought you’d fill out a form and they’d send you to a room or a hall where you’d wait with a bunch of other hopefuls for some bigshot to come and pick you out. They’d take you to one of those huge structures on the lot where they made movies and tell you where to stand and what to say. Couldn’t be that hard could it?
Adjusting to civilian life was almost as perplexing. There were no support systems. No networking. No (horrors!) internet. I was on permanent OJT. Reality sunk in pretty fast when I had to come up with rent and groceries so I got a job as an apprentice carpenter. The army had taught me structure in my life and that served me well on a construction site. I was on time, didn’t mind the physical work outdoors and I got pretty good at slamming 16 penny nails into 2×4’s. I also started to figure out the ins and outs of making a living as an actor. I joined a improve street theater group in Venice and plunged into performing. It was a toe hold into show biz and I threw myself into it.
Let’s call this LA Phase 1( ’69-’71): I still was a long way off from being a professional actor. I goofed off a lot and did stints as a cab driver and digging swimming pools. LA was a big playground and I felt like the biggest kid there. The first place I got was a $100 a month duplex in Mar Vista with a sun deck and the last place, before heading off to New York, was a big old house in Manhattan Beach that I shared with 3 other guys.
Phase 2 (’71-’74): I followed a girl I fell in love with back to New York. We met in Manhattan Beach while she was on vacation and we ended up in a 3rd floor walk up with a bathtub in the kitchen on W. 83rd St. My experience with the theater group in Venice gave me the confidence to look through the actors want-ads in Backstage, the entertainment weekly in New York, and I spied something that caught my eye. An experimental theater piece that originated in Los Angeles and that I had seen there with my group was casting for the off-Broadway production. I got the part and started an education in theater through osmosis. I was introduced to the great plays and the history of theater. I started to fall in love with acting.
Spring of ’72 saw the show close and also the end of my romance with my girlfriend. A broken heart and the chance to backpack through Europe called to my sense of adventure and I answered with a vengeance. I started a globetrotting odyssey that took me to 3 continents and lasted 2 years. By the time I landed in Los Angeles in the fall of ’74, I was ready to begin the serious pursuit of acting.
LA Phase 2: By the time I was in my late 20’s I had done 3 years in the army, preformed street theater and off-Broadway on each coast, and backpacked around the world. It was time to dig in. By now I knew what a headshot was. I knew that was my first step in landing an agent. I also knew the agent part was a necessity. I had to raise a couple of hundred dollars for a photographer and I thought I had found the answer. I got a game show. It changed everything. Not only did I win $6,000 and a bunch of prizes, but an agent saw the broadcast and contacted the production company who in turn, contacted me. A week later I signed with my very first agent. It wouldn’t be the last because, as I learned over the ensuing years, agents, managers, and actors churn through each other like wheat through chaff. But I was on my way. I had done it. I broke into the movies.
I was also doing crappy jobs in between films. Rent and groceries remember? You couldn’t take a serious job that would hinder daytime auditions so you ended up telemarketing, moving furniture, bouncing, bartending, messenger, and a few others I have removed from memory. I don’t know how the people with families do it. Military training teaches us a logical, tactical approach to the absurdities of war. I’ve applied that to my approach to acting.
One of those approaches was keeping an eye what was happening in Hollywood by religiously scanning the “trades.” Variety and the Hollywood Reporter regularly posted actors want-ads and casting notices on the back page. Drama-Logue was a weekly devoted to the local acting scene that was also a good source of scuttlebutt. Old school manila envelope, stamped and addressed with an 8×10 and resume inside. If you weren’t mailing out at least 5 to 10 a week you weren’t trying. Now of course it’s ridiculously easy to do all that online. I have found that subscription services like Actors Access, LA Casting and Casting Frontier have paid off for me. It’s also so much more competitive. So hustle, with or without an agent, is still a major part of the deal.
From ’75 through ’80 I would star in 5, 35mm low-budget non-union movies. OJT all the way. They were what were referred to at the time as straight to video. But I didn’t care. I was making movies and loving every minute of it. I learned how to behave on a set. I was allowed to collaborate with the directors and re-write my dialogue and choreograph action and fight scenes. On one I became eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild as a Taft-Hartley because I could ride and do simple stunts on a dirt bike. I was also doing Equity-Waiver plays in tiny theaters in Hollywood and the Valley. I was learning to act and express myself professionally. I studied at various workshops and devoured books like Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. I totally immersed myself. I came to the conclusion that no particular school of acting was the superior or only way to do it. The Method and its off-shoots and various iconic teachers all had a valid point. Some people may wonder if their military training helps with their acting. Of course. Remember how you acted trying not to look scared? Kind of a joke but actually your senses, if a scene calls for it, have to be on call and ready to bubble to the surface. We’ve learned to suppress those things in the military so it’s something to work on unlearning. Make sense?
After five years of solid work and due diligence I was loping through Hollywood like a lone wolf devouring everything in sight. The spring of ‘80 saw me finishing a film, being a union actor with an agent in place and me feeling absolutely good to go. Isn’t that when it always happens?
A foolish move had me balancing myself on the railing of the second story balcony of my east Hollywood apartment. It collapsed and dumped me to the pavement. To this day I think I would’ve made it had I been wearing shoes. But socks aren’t very good shock absorbers and I crushed my ankles and heels. Yeah, ouch. It put me out of commission for a few years. As soon as I got rid of the wheelchair and crutches I tried going out on some auditions but just the simple act of walking was a chore and it wasn’t until three years later that I was really ready to try again.
Out of the blue a guy I’d worked with on my first film called me about a German production company looking for the lead for a movie shooting in the Philippines. The role was that of a Playboy photographer with his European models who discovers a local beauty in Manila. Don’t laugh you guys, it really happened. I gave them a killer reading and a month later I was on a plane. I won’t go into a lot of details but it turned into some of the greatest and wildest of times. I also resurrected not only my career but my life. That job turned into four more movies in the Philippines and one in Thailand and Hong Kong that made me the obscure cult B-Movie action star that I am today. And I say that with a very fond memory.
Again, things were rolling and definitely looking good. I had a great agent with a boutique office in Beverly Hills who was getting me out on some serious meetings. I had passed on a Charlie Bronson movie that was shooting on location in Colorado for a gig in the Philippines because 1) Charlie was taking too long to commit to a schedule and, 2) more money from across the pond. The only problem with this wonderful momentum was the screeching halt it came to in ‘88. I stepped off the plane from Manila the very day the WGA (Writers Guild of America) went on a massive strike that paralyzed the entire industry for 8 months. Here we go again.
JS: That is an amazing story! What about the network? Do you find that having this cadre of fellow military men and women available has helped, or is there not a sense of people helping each other? If there is, how should a military veteran aspiring actor reach out and conduct themselves? Do you have any advice for people aspiring to those positions?
MT: If there is one bit of advice I can offer to those aspiring to careers in the entertainment industry it would be this: That deal about there are no second acts in life? Complete bullshit. A resolute resiliency is what you come back with. Refuse to consider the facts of the preposterous proposition of actually making a living telling stories to your fellow human beings. Burn the boats on the beach and start hacking your way into the jungle. Be relentless in bouncing back from the disappointments. Have the patience of a sniper waiting for your chance and the discipline and training to book it. And, in the middle of all that you are going to need something else. That one indefinable ingredient known as luck.
I certainly have had my share. Lately it’s been through Veterans in Film and Television. The support systems available today to veterans is unprecedented. Never before has there been so many groups and organizations facilitated through the internet. Want to make a movie? Get a group of like minded friends together and shoot it on your smart phone in your living room. Post it on YouTube and you’re on your way. Digital photography has changed everything especially editing and location shooting.
Being part of VFT and the veteran community also has its responsibilities. If you go out on a job interview representing yourself as a vet…represent. Be a pro.
JS: Having acted on stage, in front of a camera, and as a voice actor, can you tell us about the differences? Do you approach them in different ways (aside from you physical appearance)? Having acted in a lot of projects, what have you learned over the years?
MT: I’ve had the privilege to act in three different media of acting. Stage, film and voiceover. Each has a distinct approach. A lot of film is through your eyes. A certain stillness must be incorporated that at first seems unnatural. And of course that’s part of the trick. Waiting for “action” to be called, you find yourself positioned in a way that benefits the camera and lighting, holding a posture for sound and what’s known as “cheating the eyes,” not looking directly into the eyes of the person you’re talking to while ignoring the crew surrounding the set. Now make your delivery as real as possible. That’s just some of the technical aspects without even incorporating the art of acting. Music helps me a lot when I’m setting a mood for myself. I can put on some headphones and disappear into my character while the crew bustles around me. Keep in mind, your job is not to be buddies with everyone in the crew. There’s plenty of time after you get the shot to tell each other how great they were. In the meantime do your job and let the crew do theirs.
With theater the word ensemble comes to mind. I learned more about acting doing one play than any movie I have ever done. Once you have done a substantial role on stage with the freedom to move around you will never be lost on a film set. Just keep in mind that there are differences. I came to Hollywood for movies and I still love doing them. It’s why I’m here. But every actor in the world knows that theater is the very seed of acting. Discovering theater was the beautiful surprise of chasing the movies.
VO, voice acting, voiceover. Whatever you want to call it, is for me, one of the greatest jobs in the world. Breathing and mic technique are the key. A friend I met doing a student film led me to a once a week radio gig for 8 years that we recorded in Burbank at the Marc Graue studios. I got paid to learn with a director who didn’t settle for mediocre. You caress that mike with a voice that would have the film or stage director urging you to speak up.
As with headshots, a VO demo reel has got to be on the money. Don’t get taken to the cleaners but know that a quality calling card is not cheap. Think of it as an investment. You are in the (insert your name here) business. Plan on spending a couple of hundred for headshots and close to a thousand with a reputable studio engineer for a VO demo reel.
One of the things that’s really changed about auditioning is the self-tape process. For a serious gig get a buddy who can shoot and edit your submission. I did and it paid off. But for the most part a smart phone selfie is the way it seems to be going. You have to keep it under a certain time limit in order to simply email it but I hope with practice I’ll get better. How are you guys doing on this?
I love the story telling process. Going to a good movie or play never gets old. But yeah, sometimes with all the experience of having been in on the process you can find yourself temporarily taken out of the movie by asking yourself about some technical aspect of a spectacular shot or leaning over to an industry pal during the screening and making a cynical or snide observation about some insider gossip. But it doesn’t change the overall movie/ play going experience for me. If it stops being fun it’s time to get out. Me? I’m not going anywhere.
JS: Thank you so much for your wonderful advice. Before we sign off, do you have one piece of advice you would like to leave our readers with? This can be something that I forgot to ask about, or a summary of your points above.
MT: You can take this as advice or a cautionary tale. I’m just telling you what happened. What you do with this information is up to you. I hope it helps and inspires you along your journey. As far as one last insight to leave you with, my natural response was some smartass bit like: Don’t cook bacon naked. Instead let me quote something I stumbled across on Facebook. I don’t know who the author is but I wish I wrote it:
There comes a time in life, when you walk away
From all the drama and people who create it.
Surround yourself with people who make you laugh,
Forget the bad, and focus on the good.
Love the people who treat you right. Pray for the
Ones who don’t. Life is too short to be anything but happy.
Falling down is part of life, getting back up is living.
For more information:
– A publication by Max, titled King Curtis’ Echo.
– Another one, titled To Avoid the Look, Say You Manage a Pet Store.
– AND a scene written by Max:
These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers.
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