[img_assist|nid=4773|title=Cornfield Indiana by Vincent Natale © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=175|height=132]Twenty years ago I was famous. Not so famous that my torrid affairs with young starlets were covered by national magazines, and being thirteen at the time, that wasn’t really much of a problem. I was famous enough that strangers followed me around the Montgomery Mall when I went shopping. Famous enough that even now, a lifetime away, I can still Google “BJ Schaffer” and find web pages ranging from IMDB to Wikipedia that relate to acting jobs I did before I was old enough to drive. It is a surreal thought that, a hundred years from now, all of this information will exist in some massive computerized database, and there will be no mention of anything I’ve accomplished since. I could cure cancer, win a Pulitzer, run for President, and someone, somewhere, would shrug and say, "Yeah, but didn’t he used to be on TV?"
I have no one to blame but myself. When I was nine, I suddenly decided that I wanted to be an actor, and my parents were crazy enough to listen to me. We were directed for advice to the only person in my hometown with any professional acting experience. Bill Hickey had appeared in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” as an extra for about half a second, and was therefore qualified in our eyes. He told me to learn to sing, dance and act. If I got good enough at any of those three, the rest would fall into place.
Strangely enough, Bill was right.
I haven’t thought much about this stuff for nearly twenty years, but by my recollection I won two major dance competitions, which secured me a meeting with Cathy Parker Management. She began getting me auditions, and in short order, I’d appeared in over twenty national television commercials, performed in two major productions at the Walnut Street Theater, done a skit on Saturday Night Live, and worked as a regular cast member on the Nickelodeon series “Don’t Just Sit There.”
My mom recently visited the Walnut Street Theater, and was shocked to see my photograph is still hanging in the lobby. I guess the cleaning person never got the memo advising them to take it down.
By the time I was twelve, my name appeared in the Horsham Township “Who’s Who” Directory. It was a red booklet with the names of all of the important people in that small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. It was the same town where my dad had been born and raised, and where he served as a police officer. My grandfather and uncle lived there, too. Small towns have a strange way of reacting to celebrity. It’s slightly infectious. At ten years old, I was given carte blanche to cease attending school with any kind of regularity. The superintendant and I were on a first name basis. It didn’t matter what tests I missed, what school programs I did not get involved in, what educational foundation I lacked. They wanted me to perform at the talent show, which I did, dancing in a green and silver “space man” outfit designed by my mother. They wanted me to be in the school play. To this day, I can recite the lines of Prince Chulalongkorn, from “The King and I.” When you are an ascending star, just beginning to acquire the smell of that alluring narcotic "fame," it’s impossible for people to not want to attach themselves to you.
It was routine for me to go to school for a few short hours, then leave to be driven to New York City. I’d spend an hour in Manhattan auditioning, then return home. I did this several times a week, for about three years, until I finally began living in Manhattan. I remember my father looking at my first paycheck for “Don’t Just Sit There” in wonder. My weekly pay was roughly $1,800. My old man looked at me and said, “Jesus, B., you make more money than I do as a cop.”
I spent every night learning lines, or practicing scenes for auditions. We constantly plotted which career move needed to be made next. The beat did not slow down on weekends. These were devoted to dance, voice and acting classes. To this day, I sometimes dream of riding in an empty car for endless stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike. The road goes on and on and I never arrive where I am going.
By 1988, at fourteen, I was burned out. You can only spend so many hours on the Turnpike, eating rest-stop cuisine. You can only spend so many nights in motel rooms. You can only go for so long before the reality of adolescence sets in. When your laurels rest on being the Boy Next Door, it’s all downhill once your skin starts breaking out, your voice squeaks when you talk, and your body begins to change. Plus, there’s always another, cuter wannabe waiting in the wings. After four years of semi-celebrity, I just wanted to be a normal kid. That’s the sign they hang on you when you are a child-actor. “He’s such a normal kid,” they say. Bullshit. Normal kids play baseball. Normal kids get used to turning in homework assignments. Normal kids have friends. Real friends. Not phony show business friends.
[img_assist|nid=4776|title=Springtime Swirls by Allison Levin © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=175|height=198]Of course, when you remove someone from their natural habitat during the most fundamental years of their life, you can imagine it’s not the easiest thing for them to simply get back into the swing of things. When I returned to my hometown in the middle of 9th Grade, I found myself a complete outcast. People had developed deep friendships, forming groups based on shared interests, which I could not hope to penetrate. Students took tests that they’d had years to prepare for, even if it was by simply learning the discipline of doing their homework. I had none of those things. At that point, I could not even join a sports team, because, at the age I should have been trying out for varsity, I’d hadn’t kicked a ball or swung a bat since Little League.
By the time my peers began to consider which college to attend, I’d become so used to answering the question, "When are you going to go back to acting?" that I really expected to make a big return to show business. But the harsh reality is that contacts dry up fast in that world. Also, it costs a lot of money to go back and forth to New York City, especially when you have no income and have to begin worrying about paying rent, buying food, gas, etc. Unfortunately, at that point in my life, I had nothing else. By the age of eighteen, I had to seriously consider the fact that I was a Has-Been.
Nothing fills me with dread as much as the shows on VH-1 about former Child Stars who became drug addicts, or are still plugging away, desperately seeking to recapture that glimmer of fame. Eddie Munster is an old man. He still goes to conventions dressed up in his old costume, hawking autographed photos. Scott Schwartz, the kid who stuck his tongue to the flag pole in A Christmas Story and starred with Richard Pryor in The Toy, started doing porno. Even the more legitimate, mainstream performers like Britney Spears, or Lindsay Lohan. I look at what these poor kids have become, and I have to think that maybe, just maybe, if the people around them had waited to thrust them into the very adult world of the performing arts, they’d have a better foundation on which to build a decent life. Maybe not such a famous life, but a good, decent, normal existence.
These days I cringe when I hear friends talk about signing their kids up with a modeling agency. You know, the one where you pay thousands of dollars to have a "portfolio" made, and the agency promises to start sending your kids on "auditions." I always react badly when people suggest my kids have what it takes to "get involved with show business." Don’t I know that my son has the personality and looks to be on a sitcom and become America’s Boy Next Door? Of course he does. Don’t I see that my daughter is beautiful enough to sell oodles of Pampers or Gerber’s baby food? Of course she is. But that will never happen.
[img_assist|nid=4775|title=Blossom by Vincent Natale © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=130|height=221]Children should be children. They should play, learn, get scraped up and brushed off, lose big games, win bigger ones, dance with a sweetheart, lose him or her to someone else, get a better one later, have big sleepover parties, and grow up without the pressures of having a career, or the expectations of an entire small town to be successful.
BJ Schaffer is dead.
He was just a commodity. A face in a photograph, a television personality, a small blip on the bright, vast universe of Entertainment. You can know everything there is to know about him on the handful of web pages that still mention him, or bear his likeness.
Me? I’m a guy who worked at a gas station to make ends meet while I went to the Police Academy. I scrubbed toilets, worked landscaping and mopped laboratories late at night. At 34 years old, I’m a police detective who makes his living putting bad people in dark places. I’m a father to two children, and I can tell you that their love and admiration means more than the vacant adulation of the masses on any level. It’s been a long, curving road toward the man that I am now, and to be honest, I sometimes struggle with how to tell people that I used to be on television. It’s an embarrassing subject. My life is not a famous one, and unless you’ve been where I’ve been, you might not understand why I’m glad for that. Bernard J. Schaffer is a police detective in the Philadelphia Suburban Region. He is a lifelong resident of Montgomery County. His previous work has appeared in "American Police Beat Magazine," "Comic Zone," and "The Enemy Blog."