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Shirley Jones, Marlon Brando and a Happy Life

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I recently had the pleasure to work as an actor opposite Shirley Jones. Shirley won the Academy Award for her role in Elmer Gantry in 1960. She may be better known these days as Mrs. Partridge, but she was a certified top-of-the-A-list movie star 50 years ago.

We worked together in the soon-to-be-released romantic comedy A Strange Brand of Happy. In one scene Brad Wise, the director, asked us to simply improvise a conversation to see what might happen. Brad knows that I am an improv guy and tends to give me a lot of freedom as an actor. We did the scene. And Shirley did great. But I will never forget what she said to me after the take.

"That was fun," she whispered.

I agreed.

"I've never done that before," she admitted.

"Never done what?" I asked.

"Improvised on camera," she said. "It was fun..."

She was 77 at the time. (An amazingly gorgeous 77.) This was her 90th screen credit as an actor.I was stunned. How could that be true? She had never been allowed to improvise? Ever?

At the end of the four-week shoot, Shirley told the director that her experience on our little indie film was one of the most rewarding professional experiences of her life.

Did I mention that she has an Oscar?. That couldn't be true. Could it?

It made me start to wonder how many people have never been allowed to improvise.... have never had enough freedom to have fun... have never felt the out-on-the-edge high that comes with making up life with someone else in an unknown moment.

There is a scene from On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint. It is one of the most famous improvisations in the history of film. About 45 seconds into the scene Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops her glove. The director should have called cut at that point. But he didn't. So Brando kept going. The following 90 seconds or so were completely improvised. It resulted in a brilliantly real scene, a very famously funny line ("the crickets make me nervous") and three Academy Awards.

One for Brando.
One for Saint.
And one for the silent director, Elia Kazan.

In my opinion, he may have won Best Director for what he did not do. He didn't say, "cut" when most every other director in 1954 would have. He allowed them to keep going.

So it goes with life.

I have a hunch that we all tend to yell, "Cut!" too quickly in life. Are we accepting the dropped gloves in our lives or allowing them to shut everything down? What amazingly fun and brilliant moments are we not allowing people to have as we stubbornly worship the pre-scripted future?

An improvised life learns to pick up the glove and keep going. The improviser finds truth, meaning and beauty after the moment everyone else yells, "Cut!"

Life is a story we make up together as we go along. For me, the moment I really started living is when I fully embraced that life is improvised.

Here's the trailer featuring Shirley and myself. A Strange Brand of Happy is coming to theaters nationwide Sept. 13.