HOL­LY­WOOD’S GREAT­EST FAIL­URE

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS SAM ROWE POR­TRAITS STEVE SCHOFIELD

Strug­gling ac­tor Dennis Woodruff drives around LA invit­ing you to “Google Me”. We talked to him so you don’t have to.

Ac­tor, di­rec­tor, fe­ro­cious self-pro­moter — Dennis Woodruff is stitched into the very fab­ric of Hol­ly­wood. And yet, de­spite decades of try­ing, he still can’t catch a break. Em­pire joins him in LA to find out why the hell not

It was Christ­mas, 1957. Af­ter neatly wrap­ping the con­tents of his toy box — to dole out to fam­ily mem­bers in lieu of proper gifts — five yearold Dennis Woodruff was taken aside by his grand­mother. “Be proud of the fact you are a Woodruff,” she told him. “You are a very spe­cial per­son, don’t let any­body ever tell you that you’re not.” Mo­tion­ing to­wards the win­dow of her ex­trav­a­gant home, lo­cated deep in the Hol­ly­wood Hills, she added: “Your grand­fa­ther built Hol­ly­wood­land.”

In­deed, his grandad was real es­tate de­vel­oper S. H. Woodruff. In the 1920s he, along with a crack team of ea­ger in­vestors, trans­formed a hum­ble canyon in the foothills of Los An­ge­les into a bea­con of pros­per­ity, em­bod­ied by a row of 43-footh­igh sheet-metal let­ters that, as night fell, lit up the sky­line: HOL­LY­WOOD­LAND.

While Woodruff Sr.’s place in his­tory would be rel­e­gated to a foot­note (his “crown­ing achieve­ment” sul­lied by the Wall Street Crash, floods, fire, the loss of “LAND” to bad up­keep and in 1932 ac­tress Peg En­twistle leap­ing from the ‘H’ to her death), his sign re­mains a po­tent sym­bol of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try be­low.

As for young Dennis Woodruff, it was here, peer­ing out of the glass, in the shadow of his grandpa’s sign, that he de­cided: star­dom awaited. Af­ter all, Hol­ly­wood was his birthright.

SIX DECADES LATER, AND

the 88th Academy Awards are just days from tak­ing place. But while the usual Ar­mani-clad sus­pects will en­gage in their time-hon­oured skir­mish in pur­suit of a hal­lowed, 24-carat gold-plated man, there is one Hol­ly­wood res­i­dent who, as he does ev­ery year, will sim­ply watch it on TV.

“I do still won­der why I haven’t been in­vited to the Academy Awards, it hurts my feel­ings,” con­fesses Woodruff, now 63. “In re­al­ity I am a bit of an icon in Hol­ly­wood,” he rea­sons. “I live just around the cor­ner and they even have seat-fillers at the awards; why can’t I go?”

Though he does own an Os­car — it’s duct-taped to his car’s bon­net and cast in gold plas­tic — in­dus­try recog­ni­tion still eludes Woodruff. Yet this isn’t to say he is not a big deal in Hol­ly­wood. Far from it.

In a town bloated with an es­ti­mated 109,000 ac­tors — of which just 21,000 have had a pay­ing job and 80 per cent are un­em­ployed at any given time — Dennis Woodruff is some­thing of a cult hero. Stu­dio heads recog­nise his face (Woodruff’s been known to stand out­side the Para­mount gates with his head­shot on a stick). Celebri­ties do, too — Trans­form­ers ac­tor Josh Duhamel dressed as Woodruff for Hal­lowe’en in 2012. Other An­ge­lenos, mean­while, can’t make their mind up on Woodruff’s char­ac­ter. “[He] is pos­si­bly LAS most unique (sic) cre­ative lo­cal leg­end…” tweeted one last De­cem­ber; “Dennis is the prod­uct of dis­till­ing all the delu­sion, fan­tasy, des­per­a­tion and wrong headed tenac­ity in this city into a sin­gle hu­man be­ing,” went a post on Red­dit. But un­like the lus­trous in­vi­tees to the Os­cars, Woodruff is fa­mous for not be­ing fa­mous. And from a time when the phrase “re­al­ity star” didn’t ex­ist.

But does this make the spot­lighthun­gry film­maker LA’S great­est loser, a vic­tim of the Hol­ly­wood estab­lish­ment’s re­fusal to recog­nise his ta­lent? A mere hus­tler? Or does he il­lus­trate a tri­umph of spirit, the Amer­i­can Dream in glo­ri­ous Tech­ni­color, a plucky un­der­dog un­afraid to wres­tle the Hol­ly­wood ma­chine? One Wed­nes­day in Novem­ber, Em­pire tracked Woodruff down to his con­verted garage home to fig­ure out which.

THE FIRST THING YOU

no­tice about Woodruff’s abode is the fact that “garage” re­ally means just that. In the dimly lit, win­dow­less liv­ing room, guns dan­gle pre­car­i­ously from the wall, ten thick-backed Tv-sets are piled upon each other and Daisy — a res­cued Chow “mixed with I don’t know what” — snores nois­ily on the couch. “Did I tell you I’m from outer space?” booms Woodruff, by way of a hello.

As a con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist he con­fuses eas­ily, of­ten spin­ning off on wild tan­gents. But Woodruff’s en­thu­si­asm is truly bound­less, even if at times we see his self-con­fi­dence wa­ver. He ha­bit­u­ally asks Em­pire if he’s do­ing okay, are we get­ting what we need, has he an­swered our ques­tion prop­erly? Meet­ing him,

though, you’re over­whelmed by his al­most child­like zest for life; it is hard not to want him to suc­ceed.

When he was ten years old, Woodruff tells us, he was of­fered a part in a John Wayne film (he for­gets which). ‘The Duke’ was an ac­quain­tance of his grand­fa­ther’s, and wee Dennis was, he says, “re­ally good friends with his kids”. Af­ter he plucked up the courage to ask the Western icon for a role, Wayne wrote Woodruff’s mother a let­ter in re­sponse say­ing he’d found him a part. She was not im­pressed. “My mum got re­ally mad,” says Woodruff, mourn­fully. “She said I’d both­ered him and his fam­ily.” And just like that, the chance for child star­dom slipped through his fin­gers. “They were try­ing to shield me from the fact that Hol­ly­wood is a very su­per­fi­cial place,” Woodruff ex­plains, “and that no­body re­ally cares about you.”

But af­ter study­ing for an arts de­gree in the early 1980s (his teacher’s fore­most ad­vice be­ing that he should “go into drama”), Woodruff de­cided he could no longer re­sist his des­tiny, and sought act­ing work. Over the next few years he suf­fered re­jec­tion af­ter re­jec­tion, his agent, Jack Scagnetti, se­cur­ing him work only as an ex­tra. So next he dreamed up his “art cars”, which, with their many stick­ered slo­gans, ad­ver­tised him as an ac­tor for hire. It was a guer­rilla PR cam­paign he hoped would get him spot­ted by the very in­dus­try fig­ures that would oth­er­wise swerve his ad­vances. Yet still Woodruff had no joy, his cars hardly in­spir­ing con­fi­dence in those he was hop­ing would hire him. It was only then, while he was liv­ing in a trailer park and at his low­est ebb, that his brother Scott had a brain­wave.

“He said, ‘You don’t need Hol­ly­wood to come knock­ing on your door — you can do it all your­self,’” re­mem­bers Woodruff. It was as if a light had been flicked on in his mind: why wait for an in­vite from the estab­lish­ment, when you can cre­ate your own in­dus­try from the bot­tom up?

Spend­ing what few dol­lars he had left, Woodruff bought a cam­era, turned his car­a­van site into a mini-film set and started pro­duc­tion on Dennis Woodruff The Movie (1985). A documentary-cumshowreel, it mainly com­prised Woodruff’s TV ap­pear­ances — news pack­ages or in­ter­views that fo­cused on him and his wacky bill­board cars — in­ter­spersed with short, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal films: “all sorts of clips about my life and what I was do­ing at the time”. Woodruff’s neigh­bour kindly took on edit­ing du­ties. “It was a hit!” he ex­claims, claim­ing that 4,000 VHS copies were sold out of the boot of his car in just three months.

To­day, Woodruff pairs his dogged pur­suit of fame with a re­lent­less work ethic. Writer, di­rec­tor, pro­ducer and some­time-cam­era­man of his own DIY mo­tion pic­tures, Woodruff is a one-man movie em­pire — a “rebel with­out a crew”, as he puts it. With his eye to the lens of a bat­tered old cam­era, Woodruff’s record­light blinks ad in­fini­tum, hun­dreds of LA res­i­dents un­wit­tingly be­com­ing back­ground artists — some­times fully fledged char­ac­ters — in his movies. With no bud­get to speak of, any will­ing co-stars are fel­low hard-up ac­tors, per­form­ing in re­turn for the ex­po­sure, if not as a per­sonal favour to the man him­self.

Boast­ing a vast back cat­a­logue, the Woodruff canon con­tains 15 movies. Among his best known is Space­man (2007), the fran­tic tale of an alien’s va­ca­tion to Hol­ly­wood. In its 2011 se­quel, Space­man Re­turns, Woodruff ex­plains, “He comes back a sec­ond time, be­cause his planet is dy­ing as all the women have be­come les­bians” and meets… Dennis Woodruff, play­ing him­self.

But there’s more to his oeu­vre than such sur­real, low-fi capers. There’s also Ob­ses­sion: Let­ters To David Lynch (2008), which high­lights just how close he’s come to tak­ing a step up, and how frus­trated he is with his near misses. Woodruff re­counts a chance cof­fee-shop meet­ing in which he told the Twin Peaks di­rec­tor that he was liv­ing in his car — the one with “Cast Dennis Woodruff” scrawled on it — and said he would love the chance to prove him­self. And so he claims he was cast in a small, speak­ing role in Lost High­way (1997) as a prison in­mate, only to be cut (some­thing he didn’t dis­cover un­til he at­tended the film pre­miere). “I thought it was my big break,” he says. “I felt be­trayed, and I got mad at [Lynch], be­cause I felt I re­ally de­served that part. So to get even at him I thought I’d make a movie to prove I was a bet­ter film­maker.”

A suit­ably em­bit­tered piece, Ob­ses­sion sees ‘David Lynch’ (not the real one) ap­pear and slash ‘Dennis Woodruff’ (the one and only) into sev­eral pieces. Once wrapped, Woodruff hand-de­liv­ered a copy to Lynch’s home. “I never re­ceived any feed­back,” Woodruff says, with a smirk, though he does say that Lynch briefly spoke with him on his drive­way. “He said, ‘You should’ve told me, I could’ve helped you with the movie.’” Woodruff pauses, un­able to sup­press a gig­gle. “I said, ‘Well, if you did that, it wouldn’t be my vi­sion.’”

While such en­deav­ours failed to fur­ther his ca­reer, the knock­back which in­spired it barely dented Woodruff’s en­thu­si­asm for self­pro­mo­tion. Un­daunted, he has since made doc­u­men­taries on art, surf­ing, even a Spinal Tap-ish pro­duc­tion about him­self. Woodruff also shoots a Tmz-style Youtube show, in which he ap­proaches mem­bers of the LA pub­lic for rapid-fire in­ter­views. Amid the tourists, home­less and jog­gers, The Dennis Woodruff Show has even fea­tured Bill Mur­ray. How­ever, it’s worth not­ing the in­ter­view was the re­sult of Woodruff spot­ting the ac­tor on the side­walk and thrust­ing a Handy­cam in his face.

And it doesn’t stop there. Woodruff’s job is not done un­til he presses a DVD-R into his au­di­ence’s palm. Yours, for “a small do­na­tion” of five or ten bucks. In 2011, the Daily Mail made the as­ton­ish­ing claim that Woodruff lived in a car­a­van, yet earned £250,000 ev­ery year just from sell­ing his films. While he dis­misses the story as “em­bel­lished”, Woodruff says his on-the-street pat­ter earns him around “a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars” an­nu­ally. Some LA res­i­dents dis­miss his sales tac­tics as a mere twist on pan­han­dling, but Woodruff isn’t ashamed to show Em­pire how he op­er­ates, and sug­gests we tag along on his next sales ex­cur­sion.

LATER, BE­NEATH THE

azure LA sky, Woodruff read­ies him­self for work. Pulling up be­tween a Star­bucks and Ur­ban Out­fit­ters on Mel­rose Av­enue, he parks his in­fa­mous white Pon­tiac (li­cence plate: CAST DW). It’s one of many four-wheeled busi­ness cards strewn with slo­gans: “Buy my movies”, “Give me the part” and, for the sake of diver­sity, “Help all an­i­mals”. He drags a gold lamé jump­suit over his shirt and paint-flecked shorts, com­plet­ing the look with a mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met adorned with “jew­els” (a nod to Space­man).

To­day rep­re­sents Woodruff’s first out­ing in months, ow­ing to a sab­bat­i­cal (his mum, brother and dog — another Daisy — all passed away dur­ing the past year). Woodruff re­trieves a fat wedge of mer­chan­dise from a satchel, his hands aquiver. But af­ter a few false starts, with passers-by star­ing straight through the 63 year-old alien on the pave­ment, it’s Em­pire feel­ing anx­ious. Per­haps he’d fare bet­ter had he not left Daisy in the car. The vet-sanc­tioned cone does make her ap­pear in­ter­ga­lac­tic. Then…

“Dennis! S’up dude, how are you?” Bounding out of Star­bucks, LA na­tive and bud­ding hip-hop artist Draino Cor­leno pulls Woodruff in for a firm em­brace. Is he a fan? “Hell, yeah! His movies are rad, bro. Dennis is a fuck­ing awe­some un­der­ground film artist. Se­ri­ously, this is the big dude right here.” A re­lieved smile spreads across Woodruff’s face. “I told you I was fa­mous,” he chirps.

Over lunch (ham­burger and fries, plus an ex­tra patty wrapped in tis­sue for Daisy), Woodruff makes a con­fes­sion. “I was re­ally ner­vous when I got out of the car. It’s been a while and I had a lit­tle stage fright,” he says earnestly, be­tween spurts of ketchup. “Now, all of a sud­den, I feel re­laxed. I love peo­ple. I’m a peo­ple per­son. This is what I’m sup­posed to do.”

Although to­day’s take amounts to just $10, Woodruff in­sists sell­ing his films isn’t as im­por­tant to him as ad­ver­tis­ing him­self. Be­sides, the in­her­i­tance from his mother al­lowed him to in­vest in a car deal­er­ship a few months back, and he’ll soon sign the pa­pers for a loft apart­ment, which he paid for in cash. “When she died,” he tells us, “my mom said, ‘You bet­ter not blow all this money on mak­ing movies...’” Woodruff, it ap­pears, is re­spect­ing her re­quest, and will be rent­ing out the apart­ment. He says he prefers to stay in his garage, which costs very lit­tle: about $650 a month rent. Any­way, “Any garage is just a house with­out win­dows or a kitchen.”

The self-ad­ver­tis­ing is work­ing, he as­sures us, and he reels off a list of ad­mir­ers. The Vice Chair­man of Nbcuniver­sal, Ron Meyer, called him “very tal­ented”, Woodruff in­sists. The Pres­i­dent of Para­mount, “the next Char­lie Chap­lin”. James Cameron once bought a movie. And stars own­ing Woodruff-orig­i­nal art­work (another pas­sion of his) in­clude Nic Cage, Paris Hil­ton and Quentin Tarantino.

He also high­lights his other no­table flir­ta­tions with the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. Upon be­ing spot­ted on an LA street by Tom Green, Woodruff was asked to star in a hand­ful of the co­me­dian’s skits (in­clud­ing one bonkers sketch whereby Sad­dam Hus­sein — played by Woodruff — threat­ens to blow up Los An­ge­les, only to be un­masked as a Swedish lob­ster by Green and skate­boarder Tony Hawk). Woodruff was per­son­ally in­vited to cameo in LA Love, a mu­sic video by self-pro­claimed fan Fergie, steal­ing the show dressed as Space­man. There was even a nod to his in­fa­mous cars in Vol­cano (1997).

Though Woodruff at times seems frus­trated by the fact his fame mainly re­volves around his lack of it, there’s no mal­ice to­wards the ac­tors who scaled the lad­der in­stead of him, nor those who re­gard him as an odd­ball. While out on the sun-baked board­walks of Los An­ge­les, his films un­der­arm, Woodruff is sim­ply ea­ger to please and be recog­nised, rel­ish­ing ev­ery hug, high five and car honk. The cash doesn’t hurt, ei­ther.

But when a cus­tomer ex­changes a crum­pled $5 bill in ex­change for a DVD, its ti­tle scrawled on in Sharpie, they’re not in­vest­ing in in­de­pen­dent cinema. Not re­ally. They’re plac­ing their faith in Woodruff him­self. The un­der­dog who wears a glossy space­suit, and point-blank re­fuses to give up his dream. And why would he? Hol­ly­wood is in his blood.

FOR MORE DENNIS WOODRUFF, HEAD TO DENNISWOODRUFFSHOW.COM.

Above: Dennis Woodruff at­tends ‘his’ star on the Walk Of Fame. Only a mat­ter of time. Clock­wise from top right: The multi-hy­phen­ate hits the streets of LA for more mad­cap vox pops; Space­man SFX; the Tmz-style Dennis Woodruff Show; Fergie as Ange­lyne (see side­bar, right) and Josh Duhamel as Woodruff on Hal­lowe’en, 2012.

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