PART ONE OF TWO PARTS
By Damon L. Jacobs
If there is such a thing as a modern day cowboy in New York City, James DePaiva would be it. He is brutally honest, impossibly handsome, jarringly tough, yet surprisingly sensitive. And although you are more likely to find him driving his motorcycle around town instead of a riding a horse, you absolutely won’t be able to resist his no-nonsense approach to reviewing the past, acknowledging mistakes, and looking forward to a brighter future.
Please read on, Thinking Fans, to learn how this shy boy from Livermore, California, became the audacious cowboy who rocked One Life To Live in the 80’s and 90’s. (and was perhaps the last quintisentially great soap romantic leading man.) Then discover the lessons he learned from having to handle disappointment and defeat in the soap world.
I met James at a cafe on Manhattan’s West Side on a gorgeous New York spring day. He came riding up to the restaurant on his motorcycle. I didn’t recognize him at first because his helmet covered his head, and I didn’t know he drove a motorcycle. We sat outside on the patio facing the street, where such OLTL actors as Mark Lawson strolled past. James paused every 30 minutes during our lengthy talk to feed quarters into the greedy parking meter.
D: How did you get into acting?
J: Acting started in seventh grade. They needed boys to be in the play, and the girl I had a crash on was in it, so I said sure. I was very shy, but once I got on stage I loved it. I was a small character actor at the time. But over the summer I grew eight inches so I became leading man in eighth grade. I didn’t know there was any way you could do this for a living, and my father kind of established what I was going to
On the frustrating reality of the actor’s life: “What’s gonna happen is maybe one or two of us are going to fly to New York, we’re gonna go test against everybody else they found throughout the whole country, and then they’re gonna hire an actor that used to be on another show that just got out of rehab!”
be doing. So I didn’t consider college, I didn’t consider acting. When I was 15 my father said, “Would you like a car?” and I said, “Sure.” So he said, “Great, I found you one, and I found the job you’re going to get to pay for it.” I went to work in a music store, became an apprentice. I learned brass and instrument repair, sales, things like that. I was set up to buy the store, I was making payments on the store, when I realized I just can’t do this anymore. I thought I sucked as an actor, but I said, “I love doing it so I don’t care.”
D: How old were you when you fully committed yourself to acting?
J: About 22. My father died around the same time. He had a form of cancer that took him very quickly. He was 43. That’s not the only reason, though. I was killing myself with drugs. I realized I was just so incredibly unhappy. I realized if I was willing to kill myself because I was so unhappy then why don’t I go do something that makes me happy .. .and who cares what anyone else thinks? On that day I said, “No more drugs … except for drinking.” The second I stopped doing drugs I lost a lot of friends, and I became clear on what I wanted to do. One guy said, “Do this play for me, and if you do it I will introduce you to an agent in L.A. who will sign you, and I’ll introduce you to the casting director of General Hospital who will put you on the show.” So I did it, I met Marvin Page who was the casting director for General Hospital who gave me some extra work, and then under-fives, and then a principle role opposite Emma Samms.
D: What was the name of the character you played on General Hospital?
J: I gave him a name. It’s in the General Hospital book — General Hospital: The Complete Scrapbook by Gary Warner. Gary, a friend of mine who wrote the book, said, “We can’t put you in the book unless your character has a name.” So I told them my name was Eddie Holton, who was actually the name of my best friend of the crew at One Life To Live. If you look in Gary’s book you’ll see it. Instead of “Greenhouse Waiter” I was “Eddie Holton.” Then I was in L.A. where nothing much happened. I wasn’t doing a good job of selling myself. I was taking classes, but nothing was working. About that time I had a wife who decided it wasn’t fun anymore. She thought I would be a star and have this great life. So we went through a divorce. I was tired and miserable again, and I thought, “Why am I miserable again?” It was because I wasn’t acting.
D: How did you change that?
J: Well, I went to find a good acting school teacher and ended up with Stella Adler. I worked with her for many years, and that’s where I met my second wife. Then I met a man named Bob LeMond who at the time was a manager for John Travolta, Patrick Swayze, John-Eric Hexum, (the actor) who shot himself in the head. Bob sat there and told me everything that was wrong with me. It took about an hour. He said I had taken off all the edge of my personality, that I had become someone who was trying to make your mom happy or something. He said, “I wouldn’t have time to fix you.”
D: What was it like for you to hear that kind of feedback?
J: It was good. I knew I just needed to hear the bad stuff. Any director I would work with I would ask what I needed to work on, or what I needed to do to get better. I did ask one casting director, “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do, why am I not breaking through this wall?” And he said, “Sleep with a casting director.”
D: So I have to ask you …
J: No, I didn’t. Didn’t happen. What I did was looked at my personality and swung it 180 degrees the other way. I acted cocky, I added a little swagger. I acted like I had giant balls. My clothes became tighter, I worked on my tan more. And within two weeks I was getting screen tests. I got flown to New York three times to test for soaps. All of a sudden everything changed.
D: And all it took was a shift in your presence?
J: It was a change in who I was being. All I kept hearing was, “You need an edge, you need an edge.” I hated the term so much. Years later I bought an African grey parrot and named him “Edge.” I walked around New York with him on my shoulder so I could say, “There’s my Edge.”
D: So how did Max Holden come about?
J: I used to love soaps. I’d come home to watch them during my lunch breaks with my mom.
D: Which ones?
J: One Life to Live, General Hospital, and a little bit of All My Children. I loved the Luke and Laura years and all that, and lots of times I’d be taking a really late lunch to make that one. My boss couldn’t figure it out, “Why are you taking lunch so late?” My real favorite was One Life to Live. I loved the actors, and for me it was the most realistic of the ABC soaps. I had screen tested for a Procter & Gamble soap, and they came out of the booth and said, “You got it, you got it.” Then I would keep calling my agent who said, “We haven’t heard.” And I started watching the show to get familiar with it … suddenly I see Larry Lau in the character.
D: Jamie on Another World?
J: Yes, Jamie Frame. I called my agent and said, “I don’t think I got it.” So One Life To Live was screen-testing. And at this point I just decided that I’m going to do what I want to do. By then I was still doing what I thought they wanted to see. I had just given up hope so I said, “I’m just here for me, I’m just here for my entertainment, so I’m gonna do whatever I want. ” I said this guy (Max) is a wild kind of cowboy, he’s like Starbuck from “The Rainmaker.” His opening line was, “Tina you just won’t believe what happened.” And she says, “Max, I’ve never seen you so wound up.” Now, this guy is crazy is to begin with, and she’s never seen him this wound up? So I just ran in, whooped her up, spun her around three times.
James DePaiva and Jessica Tuck of OLTL on the right, Tristan Rogers and Edie Lehmann of GH on the left. 1989 TV Guide cover story by Connie Passalacqua, a.k.a. Marlena De Lacroix.
There was a monitor where we could watch each other audition for this role. This one kid comes in and he’s just so excited and happy, and I’m just this grumpy old curmudgeon. He said to me, “We do this and then one of us gets the part?” I said, “Sit down and shut up. This doesn’t mean anything. What’s gonna happen is maybe one or two of us are going to fly to New York, we’re gonna go test against everybody else they found throughout the whole country, and then they’re gonna hire an actor that used to be on another show that just got out of rehab anyway!” (laughs) No offense, Larry! My wife (at the time, Hee Haw actress Misty Rowe) called me later, and told me I got the part. Then she told me she’s leaving me because she’s not going to New York. I thought, okay, that kind of takes the fun out of it. She’s changed her mind later, though. Max was just so overwhelming, it took from 0 to 1000 in one minute. (This was in 1985.)
D: How was that for you?
J: Very odd. My wife wasn’t too happy about it. She’d walk out on me when people would ask for autographs. Then people start to do the whole degrading you thing. See I always wanted to make people happy, and I’m trying to get over that. But people would say the cruelest things to you. I assume they’re just projecting their own insecurities. There was a woman at a fan event who accused me of not signing an autograph because she was fat. And basically at those things you have a lot of people coming at you shoving pieces of paper at you. You don’t even look at faces, you just try to sign as many autographs as you can as fast as you can so people don’t feel like you’re snubbing them. So that really hurt. It was getting used to the cruelty of fans, in addition to the adoration. That’s why I stopped doing appearances, I realized it was taking too much out of me. Some people get regenerated by being around people like that. I don’t. It just pulls the life out of me.
D: Your wife at the time stayed in LA. while you worked in New York?
J: She stayed in L.A. most of the time. She would come out here (to New York) sometimes. It was not a good thing for the relationship or the marriage. And I promised that after three years I would leave One Life To Live. So I did. I made the promise, and that’s what I did. By that time our relationship was an absolute mess. I went back to L.A., we had our daughter, and then One Life made me an offer I couldn’t turn down.
Friday: James talks about the joys of family life, dispelling lingering anger and facing destructive “shoulds.”
Damon L. Jacobs is a family and relationship therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve. He blogs regularly at www.shouldless.com.