The Five Stages of an Actor’s Career

Cary Grant? Mary Astor? Hugh O’Brian? Danny Doakes? Herschel Bernardi? Anonymous?

hughhollywood02

Dear Quote Investigator: I read an article last year about celebrity lookalikes that discussed the different stages of a Hollywood career. I remember a few of the stages:

Get me John/Jane Smith.
Get me someone who looks like John/Jane Smith.
Who is John/Jane Smith.

How old is this joke? Do you know the name of the first actor or actress who was mentioned in this humorous sequence?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI was printed in the syndicated Hollywood gossip column of Mike Connolly in September 1960. This clever template describing the trajectory of recognition for a celebrity was sent to the columnist by the actor Hugh O’Brian and his name was featured repeatedly: 1

Hugh O’Brian gave me the following points—as The Five Most Important Stages in the Life of an Actor:

(1) “Who is Hugh O’Brian?”
(2) “Get me Hugh O’Brian as the star of our next picture!”
(3) “Get me somebody who’s a Hugh O’Brian type.”
(4) “Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
(5) “Who WAS Hugh O’Brian?”

O’Brian had a long and successful career in the movies and on stage though he never achieved the iconic status of superstars like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. His most famous role was the lawman title-character in a top-rated television series set in the frontier West called “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” which was first broadcast in the 1950s and 1960s. O’Brian was conscious that fame was sometimes short-lived, and he helped to popularize the adage outlining the five stages. It is also possible that he coined it. Special thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg who located this key citation.

In December 1960 another version of the template was printed by a columnist named Kay Loring in the Chicago Tribune. This instance was sent to Loring by a humorist named Quin Ryan: 2

The five stages in the life of a Hollywood star:

Who is Danny Doakes?
Get me Danny Doakes!
Get me a Danny Doakes’ type!
Get me a young Danny Doakes!
Who is Danny Doakes?

The “Danny Doakes” mentioned here was not an obscure actor; instead, Danny Doakes was a variant of Joe Doakes which was a term used to designate an everyman. Joe Doakes, Joe Bloggs, Joe Blow, and the term John/Jane Smith are similar expressions that function as generic referents.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1961 an Associated Press news story contained a quotation from an actress named Dolores Faith, and she reacted to her Hollywood success with circumspection by citing the template: 3

The lovely young actress of “Wild Harvest” comments: “I always remember what Hugh O’Brian said about the five stages of a movie actor’s career, as seen by a producer,” They are:

“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”

In 1963 an expansive collection of biographical notes and gossip called the “Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables” was published. The introduction written by Cleveland Amory printed the five stages with Hugh O’Brian filling the exemplar slot as above. Here is the comment immediately preceding the list of stages: 4

And a celebrity can be an extremely transient commodity, indeed. … let us quote John Collins, the great English critic. “The world, like an accomplished hostess,” he once said, “pays most attention to those whom it will soon forget.”

In August 1963 the Los Angeles Times printed the sequence with an indication that it was well-known in the acting trade: 5

There is a trade joke, says actor Herschel Bernardi, about the five stages in an actor’s life. With a producer doing the talking, it goes like this:

1—”Who is Herschel Bernardi?”
2—”Get me Herschel Bernardi.”
3—”Get me a Herschel Bernardi type.”
4—”Get me a younger version of Herschel Bernardi.”
5—”Who is Herschel Bernardi?”

Every performer, of course, would like to get to class two and never graduate.

In 1965 the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Hugh O’Brian and the actor employed the adage about the five stages using his own name. He also told a funny self-deflating anecdote set in the 1950s. In the following passage the name Natalie Wood referred to a popular film actress: 6

‘Earp’ was number one in the ratings and I went back to New York in triumph. Two limousines met me, and all the agents, the sponsors, everybody. … Well, I was going up in the elevator with two old ladies in flowered hats. They whispered to each other and then one got up the nerve and said, ‘What’s your name.’ I was feeling very full of myself and I said. ‘Natalie Wood.’ The lady turned to her friend and said, ‘You see, I told you he was in show business.’

In 1967 the Los Angeles Times published another article centered on Hugh O’Brian that mentioned an upcoming theatrical performance. The trope about the ascending and declining stages of a career was included in the story together with this remark: 7

“Right now,” he said a while back, “I’m in the ‘Get Me Hugh O’Brian’ stage, but not far enough in.” He has made the rather surprising total of 26 films, most recently “Africa Texas Style,” but none yet that could be called Class A in terms of budget and expectations.

By 1971 the aphorism was used in the memoir of an actress who had appeared in motion pictures for decades. Mary Astor started her career during the silent film era, and she was best known for her femme-fatale role in The Maltese Falcon: 8 9

There is a very old joke in the profession about the five stages in the life of an actor. Supply the name of any well-known player, and the producer/director/casting office says,

1.Who’s Mary Astor? 2. Get me Mary Astor. 3. Get me a Mary Astor type. 4. Get me a young Mary Astor. 5.Who’s Mary Astor?

I was between stages 4 and 5, and I was troubled and angry and unhappy about it

In 1973 a reference titled “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” included the adage and presented Hugh O’Brian as the exemplar. Here is the prefatory remark: 10

An anonymous wit classically detailed the five stages in a star’s life, as seen by a casting director:

Skipping forward to 2001, the business periodical “Fast Company” quoted the influential consultant Michael Hammer who applied the aphorism to a novel domain: 11

Business ideas, Hammer says, follow the same trajectory as Hollywood stars. Stage one: Who is X? Stage two: Get me X! Stage three: Get me a young X! Stage four: Who is X? Reengineering, and perhaps Hammer himself, is teetering between stages two and three.

In 2011 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an abbreviated version of the saying: 12

Someone – was it Cary Grant? – described the arc of celebrity in three steps: (1) Who’s Cary Grant? (2) Get me Cary Grant! (3) Get me a younger Cary Grant.

In conclusion, this amusing and cautionary five-step framework entered circulation by 1960 or earlier. The first known version was given to a columnist by the actor Hugh O’Brian who shrewdly highlighted his own name.  O’Brian was an important nexus for the popularization of the adage, and QI believes that he is the leading creator candidate

(Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located the September 1960 citation.)

Update History: On March 16, 2013 the citation dated September 23, 1960 was added to the article, and part of the text was rewritten. The footnotes were re-formatted to use numbers.

Notes:

  1. 1960 September 23, Pasadena Independent, Let’s Make Love But Money Too by Mike Connolly, Quote Page 15, Column 7 and 8, Pasadena, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1960 December 13, Chicago Tribune, Front Views & Profiles by Kay Loring, Quips from the Mailbag, [Letter from Quin Ryan], Page B9, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1961 August 27, Dallas Morning News, Actor’s Career in Five Stages (Associated Press), Section 5, Page 4, Column 4, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1963, Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables, Edited by Cleveland Amory with Earl Blackwell, Section: Introduction by Cleveland Amory, Quote Page vi, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1963 August 18, Los Angeles Times, Actors and Egomania by Art Seidenbaum, Page D1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1965 July 05, Los Angeles Times, ‘Wyatt’ Shooting Up Summer Stock by Charles Champlin, Page D9, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  7. 1967 December 01, Los Angeles Times, ‘Cactus Flower’ to Star O’Brian by Charles Champlin, Page E16, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  8. 1971, A Life on Film by Mary Astor, Chapter: 14, Page 194, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Mary Astor, Page 30, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives a 1967 date for the book “A Life on Film” and the Mary Astor quotation)
  10. 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Page 169, [Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London], Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 2001 August 31, Who Has the Next Big Idea? by Daniel H. Pink, Mansueto Ventures. (Accessed online at fastcompany.com on February 26, 2012)
  12. 2011 August 20, Philadelphia Inquirer, Blogosphere: Excerpts from the blogs of Inquirer critics by Carrie Rickey, Page C.1., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)