Columns > Published on August 30th, 2012

The Good, The Bad, and The Sadly Deluded: Actors Who Write

If there’s one commodity actors are not short of, it’s ego. The trouble with egos is that they’re very like the insatiable plant in Little Shop of Horrors (feed me Seymour!): demanding of constant sustenance. Acting is rarely enough for most actors. In their search for a bigger share of the spotlight, some actors turn to directing, some to music. Some even turn to art.

And some – inevitably - turn to writing.

Viggo Mortensen produces poetry of such earnest dullness that reading it is like having beige cushions thrown at your head.

Look at me! I’m a franchise!

William ‘shame is for other people’ Shatner will do pretty much anything for an audience. This includes exploiting his backlist with a ruthlessness that would make a gas frakking operation look like environmental activists.  Shatner has co-authored twenty two novels, nine based on his own special version of the Star Trek world (known to aficionados as the ‘Shatnerverse’). The other 11 are also based on Star Trek, but are called TekWars to make it less obvious.

It’s hard to upstage Shatner, but franchise exploitation is Pamela Anderson’s area of special expertise. In 2004, Anderson published her first foray into literary fiction: the simply, but persuasively named Star. Featuring a young woman – the eponymous ‘Star’ - who drags herself out of obscurity and into a part on a TV series called Lifeguards (a helpful clue there about who the book is based on), Anderson’s novel is refreshingly frank about the assets on which her/Star’s success is based. There are two of these assets. And they live on her/Star’s chest.

You think I’m being unfair? Here is a sample from the book:

"Well, well, well," [Lucille] said, rocking Pamela/Star gently. "You're not dying, you're just growing up. Looks like you're finally going to get some boobs. You're becoming a woman, honey. You're blooming!"

And bloom she did. Her breasts came on suddenly and tenaciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. The hard bump turned out to be one of a pair of unruly and self-willed nipples.

You’d almost think the nipples wrote the book. Actually, the book might have been better if they had (Tenacious breasts? Really??). That said, Ms Anderson’s business acumen is way sharper than her (or her ghost’s) writing. Star made the New York Times bestseller list, just behind that years offering from Stephen King.

Look at me! I’m an artist!

Sometimes ego isn’t just about spotlight, it’s about being taken seriously. Actors like Ethan Hawke and James Franco fancy themselves as more than just pretty faces. Both are probably also convinced that it is their mastery of the written word, and not their box office appeal, that cinched their publishing deals: The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday for Hawke and Palo Alto Stories  for Franco.

But maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe Hawke and Franco didn’t get published because of their chiseled jawlines and established fanbases. Maybe they deserve a place in our literary canon.

You be the judge:

But you gotta understand, everything in my life feels different. I just want so badly to know if you like me. And I know how asinine that sounds. (The Hottest State)

...it can be so boring being you sometimes, and if you were the most special thing like that, it could be really great, but maybe some people say the same thing about you, and you want to tell those people: 'No, you're stupid, it's no fun being me.' (Palo Alto)

Hemingway can rest easily in his grave. This is the type of English-majorish dross that should end up not just at the back of a drawer, but in a landfill.

Viggo Mortensen, who likes to tout himself as a poet, also deserves a mention here. Aragorn fans, hoping for cloaks and elves, will be very disappointed to discover that what he produces is verse of such earnest dullness that reading it feels like having beige cushions thrown at your head.

Look at me! I’m weird!

Ego-driven mania can get very strange. Postcards From the Edge made a good film, but Carrie Fisher’s brand of self-exploitation resembles turning over rocks to see what crawls away from the light. Alcoholism, overeating, pill popping, sexual misadventures. It’s all out there, legs akimbo. Billy Bob Thornton covers much the same territory with his memoir A Cave Full of Ghosts.  If Thornton is to be believed, his upbringing was a Faulkneresque rogues’ gallery of turtle-cooking uncles and FBI raids. The truth is probably a good deal less interesting, but Thornton (who did win an Oscar for the screenplay of Slingblade) has forged a career from being off-kilter and isn’t about to ruin a good thing by becoming normal now.

But ego at its weirdest comes in the form of OJ Simpson’s single foray into the world of literature. If I Did It was pulped when Rupert Murdoch took the unusual decision that making money was less important than becoming an industry pariah. Not so surprising when you learn that in it Simpson presents himself as the victim in his marriage (the poor lamb), then goes on to explain how he would have killed his wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, if someone else hadn’t done it first. In other words Simpson’s cry for attention goes like this: Look at me! I’m a murderer!

Look at me! I’m actually a writer!

It isn’t all ghostwritten tripe or angsty ramblings, though. Very occasionally, an actor’s belief that they have something to say and that the written word is the best way to say it isn’t just the product of an overactive sense of self-importance. John Lithgow writes wry, funny books for kids, David ‘Remus Lupin’ Thewlis produced a comic, if minor, riff on the art world –The Late Hector Kipling - and Hugh ‘House’ Laurie’s crime novel The Gun Seller may have moldered in remainder piles in the UK, but sold over 100,000 copies in France, where the Gallic weakness for rude Englishmen guaranteed his success.

But top prize for literary chops goes to Sam Shepard, star of The Right Stuff and most recently on-screen in Ryan Reynolds vehicle Safe House.  Shepard did a stint as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, his plays have been produced Off-Broadway,  and he’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is, in short, the real deal.

And he lived with Jessica Lange. And his band, The Holy Modal Rounders, appeared in Easy Rider. And he played banjo for Patti Smith.

Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Are there any actors turned writer whose work you love/hate? Let us know.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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