Rodney Dangerfield, I feel your pain. In the new movie State of Play, Ben Affleck plays a politician named Stephen Collins. Now, I know a thing or two about how studio lawyers vet the use of names in movies and TV shows. If there's even a slight chance that a real-life person with the same name exists, or if the character's name is the same as a well-known person, the filmmakers are urged -- often forced -- to change the character's name.
So I'm imagining the meeting with the legal staff and the creative team at Universal, the studio releasing State of Play:
Lawyer 1: Ben Affleck's character is named "Stephen Collins." Anybody have a problem with that?
Lawyer 2: Never heard of anyone with that name. Let's move on.
Director: Okay, Russell Crowe's character is...
Lawyer 3: Wait a minute..."Stephen Collins." That rings a bell...
Production Assistant/Lackey: Yeah. Didn't Stephen Collins play the dad on 7th Heaven?
Ben Affleck: Oh, come on. What's 7th Heaven?
Lawyer 1: Mr. Affleck, we need to be very thorough, very careful here. Can someone please look up "Stephen Collins" on IMDb?
Production Assistant/Lackey: I don't have to. I grew up watching 7th Heaven. It was the longest-running family drama in TV history. Stephen Collins played the father. He was the star of the show.
Lawyer 2: Yeah, but wasn't it cancelled a million years ago?
Director: Can we please move on -- ?
Production Assistant/Lackey: 7th Heaven went off the air less than two years ago. It still airs twice a day on the Hallmark Channel. And I have his page up here on imdb...Stephen Collins has starred in, let's see, five series, nineteen TV movies, eight miniseries, and a bunch of plays in New York. He starred in Spamalot last summer on Broadway.
Lawyer 1: Never heard of him.
Lawyer 2: Let's move on. Ben?
Affleck: I like my character's name. I don't want to change it.
Director: I want to keep Ben happy, guys. I don't think it's a problem. I never heard of the guy. Let's move on.
By the way, the last movie I had a starring role in, Because I Said So, was released two years ago by Universal and, while trashed by the critics, was one of the highest-grossing movies with a female star (Diane Keaton) that year. Almost all of Universal's promos for the movie featured my scenes with Diane.
What if Affleck's character's name had been, say, Harrison Ford? Of course they would have changed it -- hell, the writer would never have even considered it. Harrison Ford is a household name. Mine isn't. Okay, I accept that. How about...Richard Lewis? Nahh, they'd change it. Edward Herrmann, Noah Wyle, David Strathairn...they'd change it.
But Stephen Collins passes muster. No one on State of Play was concerned about having a major character in their movie with my name.
When TV Guide did an article a few years ago on the all-time top TV fathers, I came in at #11. At first, I was kind of insulted not to make the top 10. Then I found out who the top 10 were: Robert Young, Danny Thomas, Ozzie Nelson, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cosby...every single one was an icon. I didn't make the Top 10, but I felt just fine being in their company.
And more good news: on IMDb, they have this weird thing called STARmeter, where each actor's popularity goes up or down each week by a percentage. I have no idea how this works, but I'm happy to tell you that I'm up 13% this week. I'm guessing it's because someone is confused and thinks I'm in State of Play.
It's a tough business. Color me... humbled.
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