After Deadline revealed last weekend that the 80-year-old Don Phillips died of natural causes on Thanksgiving Day, two actors whose careers he played a key role launching have written a tribute for us. Phillips was renowned for his eye, in casting and/or producing such films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon (he encouraged holding out for relatively unknown John Cazale to be available), Animal House and Melvin and Howard. Phillips was integral in Matthew McConaughey getting the breakthrough role of Wooderson in the Richard Linklater-directed Dazed and Confused, and Sean Penn getting the Spicoli role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He also produced and help raise the funding for Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner, starring another Phillips discovery, Viggo Mortensen. The essay switches off from one actor to the other, with McConaughey starting us off.
My phone rings. It’s Sean Penn.
“Don’s gone,” he says.
“Shit,” I think out loud.
Don had started things for both of us. And we weren’t alone. Don was the guy who gave so many young actors their first shot at the stars.
It was around 2:16 in the morning on the night Don and I met. We were riding in the backseat of the cab that was heading across town to drop me off at my apartment.
“You ever done any acting?”, he asked as he passed the joint my way.
“Well, I mean, I was in a beer commercial for about two and half seconds, more of modeling job but…”
He pulled a mini spiral notepad and pen from the breast pocket of the weathered blue blazer he was wearing.
“Come to this address, 9am, I’ll have a script waiting for you.”
About 5 hours later I drove to the addy, stepped inside, and was immediately greeted by a young woman, “Matthew?,” she asked.
“Uh, yeah, I’m here to pick up a —–
“Script from Don, yeah, it’s right here,” she said as she handed me a script, Dazed and Confused was on the title page. A handwritten note was as well.
Matthew, great night last night, you’re the real deal man.
Here’s the script. The character’s “Wooderson.”
I think you might be right for this guy—He’s cooool.”
Who was Don Phillips?
The guy at the bar I introduced myself to on that long night all those years ago.
The guy I matched enough Vodka and Tonic’s with to get us kicked out of that bar at 1:30 because we were being “too loud” telling stories… or maybe it had something to do with Don standing on top of the bar to tell his.
The guy who didn’t go out that night looking for actors to cast, the guy who was looking for characters to meet.
The guy who rode with me in that cab home because we both knew we’d met a new friend.
The guy that wore the same blue blazer from that night for 12 more years until me and a few of his buddies bought him a new one.
The guy, who somewhere between 2:30 and 9 a.m., had not only organized to have a script waiting for me, but had taken time to write a handwritten note to me on it.
The guy who signed off “Love, Don” because he was a true heartist.”
“Yep,” says Sean, “…the guy who, after I’d thrown in the towel on a catastrophic audition for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, came running after me across the studio parking lot demanding I return with him to the casting office immediately and try again. The guy who’d convinced the producer, the writer, and the director, (all of whom had counted me out) that there was something more to see in me. The guy who’d call at all hours sayin’ “ShWaney!” (Don had an irreverence for names and often bent them into something ending in a Y). “I’ve found a beautiful project”, or, “I’ve got your first directing job financed.” And he did. The guy who I could never tell where, or which position, stood his greatest strength. Was it his heart on his sleeve? Or his sleeve on his heart? So simultaneously sensitive as he was thick-skinned.”
I chime back in.
“The guy whose couch I slept on for three months for free when I first got to Hollywood.
The guy who got me my first meeting with an agency and told me the night before, “Tell ‘em you wanna direct, they’ll want you as an actor even more.” He was right.
The guy that in 1998, six years into my successful acting career, told me, “Time to lower your handicap McConaughey,” and introduced me to who would become the greatest acting mentor of my life, the late Penny Allen.
The guy that loved a beautiful jump shot as much as Baryshnikov.
The guy who was “Uncle Don” to so many of us.
The guy who loved Dorothy until the day he died.”
Sean says, “He was definitely that. A one-true heart in every cell. And what love he had of overflow, he gave to actors.”
Sean and I resolve:
The guy who, at peace with moving on from this life whenever he was, “it was God’s will.”
The guy was Don Phillips.
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