SENIOR TRIP: FORTY YEARS OF FRIENDSHIPS
From the blurb on the back of its plastic VHS tape box: “A busload of fun-loving high school seniors is on its way to New York City — so watch out New York! The venerable Mickey Rooney and teenage heartthrob Scott Baio star in this freewheeling adventure that this senior class — and New York City — will not soon forget.”
Heads up: this column isn’t about a piece of theatre, although being in an off-Broadway play that ran only a week is the catalyst for all that followed. Forty years ago this month, I filmed a CBS-TV movie called Senior Trip, shot on location all over New York City (no sets were built). And with April ending today, I couldn’t let the month go by without a shout out on this significant anniversary to all the friends I made then, many of whom are still part of my life today.
It was a heady time. I had just turned twenty-four years old and was a struggling actor living on my own in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side off Central Park West. My rent (don’t laugh) was $250 a month (I said don’t laugh). Seriously, I worried how I was going to pay it. My day job paid $100 a week, meaning more than two weeks of paychecks went towards the rent, which is pretty much the same ratio in 2021. But the month of March had been a good one for me, financially and personally. For a brief moment, I felt as if I had the world by the tail as I was appearing in my first off-Broadway play, The Buddy System, at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Bleecker Street, the historic home of such great productions as The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards. I loved going to work; my first time employed in New York as a working actor.
But The Buddy System was no Iceman Cometh. As I mentioned, it closed in a week. We opened on a Monday night and after unanimously poor reviews, limped on through the following Sunday with no one in the audience. But during previews, my then-agent (doing what a good agent is supposed to do) personally brought Howard Feuer to the show. A well respected casting director, Howard thought I was right for a TV movie he was prepping. A short time after we closed, I got the call to audition for Kenneth Johnson, a writer-director from L.A. whose credits at that time included monster hits such as The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman, both of which he created. This was before Google, so had I known this before meeting him, I might have been a little intimidated. But no worries. Ken made me feel so relaxed as he did something that maybe one other director has done in my entire career: he read opposite me playing all the other parts. It allowed for us to really connect in the room and he later told me that after I left, he turned to Howard Feuer and said, “That’s our guy. Don’t bother to read anyone else today.” Howard told him they had a dozen other actors scheduled and Ken said, “Have them read for something else.” He was that sure. And I was the first one to read the part of Bob, a teenager with dreams of Broadway in his head.
Ken was right. Without knowing me, it was a perfect fit. In fact, the scene I read was the brash teenager performing in the back of the bus, something I used to do all the time when I was a kid. As Robert Mitchum used to write on the pages of his scripts (when the moment called for it), N.A.R. — No Acting Required.
The plot of Senior Trip dealt with a group of high schoolers who travel from Youngstown, Ohio for a class senior trip to New York City. We meet them on the bus getting a bit of their backstories and, once they hit Manhattan, the adventures begin. My character was teamed with another aspiring performer, a singer named Judy. And what good fortune that I should have been paired with a nineteen-year-old who had only recently arrived in New York from Chicago to begin her career: Liz Callaway, future Tony nominee and singer extraordinaire. Liz (who turned twenty while we filmed Senior Trip) already had another job booked for the fall, as she was going to be part of the ensemble of Merrily We Roll Along, which everyone believed at the time would be the next masterpiece from Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince (that story would require a column all its own). And, coincidentally — but maybe not considering the level of young talent available back in 1981 — Senior Trip had two other original cast members of Merrily in the back of the bus: Jim Weissenbach, who many theatergoers that caught Merrily in its tumultuous preview period saw play the show’s leading role of Franklin Shephard. Jim and I had become good friends during the filming and I got to see him play Frank twice before he was replaced by his understudy. I’ll never forget the early morning phone call from him when he told me the story of Prince letting him go as gently as possible, considering the high stakes involved.
Another good friend I took from Senior Trip (and another future Merrilycast member) was the very young Jason Alexander, not yet twenty-one. We took to one another instantly, so much so, I attended his wedding a short time later (he was unable to attend mine as he was in deep rehearsals for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1988, for which he would go on to win a Tony award). And how about this? Jim Weissenbach, who left the acting world after Merrily, became Jason’s agent, responsible for booking him on a new TV series; one that Jim and I sat in the audience for when its pilot was filmed. Yes, Jim and I were present when Jason got his first laugh as George Costanza on Seinfeld.
Producer/writer/director Ken Johnson was also responsible for future employment for three of Senior Trip’s cast members: Faye Grant, Jeffrey Marcus and myself. Faye would later star for Ken in the mini-series V in 1983, and go on to play Lina Lamont in 1985’s Broadway version of Singin’ in the Rain. And in 1989, Jeffrey Marcus and I were cast as part of the ensemble of Ken’s most excellent sci-fi series Alien Nation, which ran on Fox from 1989–90. Its die-hard fans turned it into something of a cult classic which resulted in five television movies (all directed by Ken) made between 1994 and 1997, which brought the entire cast together again.
Senior Trip also boasted the talented Robert Townsend, who has been a major force as a writer, producer, director and actor in a host of projects over the years, beginning with Hollywood Shuffle (1987); Vincent Spano, already a Broadway veteran of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning The Shadow Box at age fourteen, would later star in a number of films like Baby, It’s You and The Black Stallion Returns, and our little group was rounded out by James Carroll and Randall Brooks, the elder statesmen of the Senior Trip cast (I won’t mention their ages). Man, did we have a blast.
Last, but not least, there was the star-billed Scott Baio, Chachi himself. Twenty at the time, he had already launched to fame when he was cast on Happy Days, the highest rated show on television. Seriously miscast in Senior Trip as a hemophiliac teenager hellbent on making business connections while in New York City, the extent of his acting was summed up by a pair of glasses he wore to show how intelligent he was. A serious pain in the neck, Baio was always looking at the clock for when he could leave the set, and most famously, in our big scene together decided he didn’t have to stay for my close-up. After a master shot is done with both actors in the frame, it’s pretty traditional to turn the camera around on each actor for their close up, with the star going first. But after he was finished, Baio informed us he was done for the day and left (such was his “star power” at the time). I was a bit confused by it all, as it being my first film I had no idea whether this was kosher or not. But Ken (bless his heart) whispered in my ear “I’ll be better,” which he was. So, when you watch my close ups, I’m acting with Ken Johnson.
Here’s a photo I’m pretty sure was taken the first day of shooting in front of the Met. See if you can spy most of the actors I’ve mentioned (yes, Jason Alexander has a full head of hair).
My character got to go horseback riding in Central Park (sweet Liz Callaway broke a finger falling off her steed) and, again with Liz, met Mickey Rooney (as Mickey Rooney) backstage at Sugar Babies, which he was then playing to sold out audiences. That was a memorable day and night, as we shot at the glorious Mark Hellinger Theatre, which has been the Times Square Church since 1989, no longer hosting musicals of the caliber of My Fair Lady. We were there until five or six o’clock in the morning, and believe me, I covered every inch of the Hellinger. This is where Liz sang her heart out onstage for an audience of one (Mickey), part of the film’s tug-at-your-heart plot.
When it was over, we all said we’d stay friends and I’m here to tell you it actually happened. I also bought myself a present with the $4,000 I made for four weeks’ work — a 19" color television for my apartment! I think the $350 I paid for it was the single biggest purchase I’d ever made at that point in my life. I also paid for new headshots. Here’s what I looked like, happy and prosperous (for a time):
We’re all young once. And with Senior Trip alive and well on YouTube, I guess I can stay young till the end of time. So, to Ken Johnson and all the friends I made back then, thanks for the memories.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here on Medium and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.