Skip to main content

Behind the Lines with DR: Dirty Dancing at the Poker Table

Having heard I play cards, this big-time talent agent at William Morris invited me to attend his invitee-only poker game. No. This is not the high stakes game of recent gossip columns, populated by a former Spider Man and young moviedom heavyweights looking to lay both big money bets and supermodels. This was a one-off event held at a small rented club across street from Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Convenient, I thought, just in case I passed out from the altitude sickness sometimes suffered from close encounters with Hollywood hoi polloi.

I arrived early. I usually do. I’m a blue-collar screenwriter, which means I’m not cool enough to arrive late anywhere other than an appointment at the DMV. I was instantly greeted by a playmate-quality hostess poured into a sleek Armani suit. She instructed me to ask if there was “anything at all” I needed. A drink, I thought. Oh, yeah. And a smoke. I picked a mild heater from my host’s private humidor, ordered up a Dewar’s on the rocks and began to mingle with my fellow players. There were a couple of other agents, neither of who were intent on playing cards. They were in the club for a quick schmooze before motoring on to their next soiree. I gave a big hello to movie producer slash financier, Andrew Vajna (Conan the Barbarian, Total Recall, T2.) Shook hands with former agent, now producer and manager, Arnold Rifkin. Actor Harvey Keitel who, upon hearing that I lived in The Valley, announced to much amusement that he felt sorry for me. Ouch.


Patrick Swayze walked through the door, instantly assuming the pose of a man so uncomfortable he looked guilty of something. Some years earlier, Swayze and I had worked on a movie project at Fox. The moment Swayze recognized me as a friendly face he duct-taped himself to my side for the rest of the evening. I couldn’t shake him.

A different hostess appeared at my ear. Like the first hostess, she was also drop-dead-you-know-what, professionally coiffed in a chick-lawyer-fantasy-kind-of-way. She politely informed us that we would be playing shortly. And please, if there was anything we needed, just ask.

Enter Mel Gibson. Fresh off his stint in the remake of Maverick, Mel was ready to squeeze in some poker, cigars, and guy-talk between mega-hit movies. Another equally spectacular hostess wrapped in a designer suit showed us to the card table, reminding both Mel and myself that if there was anything we needed… anything at all… please ask. We said thanks and were seated. Swayze, who didn’t know a straight flush from his lizard skin cowboy boots, asked if he could sit behind me, watch me play and machine-gun me with questions. I obliged. This is when Mel jabbed me, slid from his pocket an accountant’s envelope crammed with what appeared like twenty grand in minty Benjamins. He asked, “So you think this is enough?”

“If that’s your buy,” I answered, “I’m at the wrong table.”

“Mel,” said Andy. “The buy in is only two hundred dollars.”

“Oh,” said Mel, who peeled off two bills and returned the envelope to his jacket pocket.

This is when I imagined a protracted evening with coats off and shirtsleeves rolled-up to the guns. If anybody would’ve dipped Mel’s coat pocket and liberated his cash stash… would Mel have ever missed it?

Reality returned and the poker game that followed was mostly vanilla. The biggest giggle was when the deal came around to Mel. As Maverick, his character required some prodigious hand action. Real card-shark stuff. But Mel dealt like a fifth grader with eight thumbs.

“Nice moves, Maverick.” I said to big laughs.

“Movie magic,” said Mel. “Donner gave me a hand double. Now, who needs cards?”

There came time for a meal break. A catered dinner was unveiled. I asked for another smoke which was delivered to me by a pretty, young, cigar woman in a red vest. My dinner was served by a different pretty, young woman in a uniform vest. As well as my drink. Pretty woman, perfect teeth, red uniformed vest. I desired. I asked. I was served. Just as advertised. But something was wrong with the picture. If I couldn’t put my finger on it, possibly it was due to the constant distraction from my poker protégé, Patrick Swayze. God rest his soul, Swayze couldn’t stop nattering at me about his sagging career. Somehow, somewhere, Swayze had confused me with his shrink to whom he could confess every actor’s fears and foibles.

“I’m not good at these things,” he said. “I’m not social. I don’t get out. I live in the Valley, for Christ’s sake.”

“I live in the Valley.”

“Exactly. That’s why we get each other.”

Swayze carried on, bitching about the lack of good roles he was getting offered. That all the scripts he receives have too many fingerprints on them from bigger movie stars.

“Yeah, I hear you,” I nodded.

What else could I say? I wanted to remind Swayze of the Fox script I’d written for him. A bang-up role that he (or his agent or manager or wife) decided wasn’t bang-up enough. Instead, the macho-star had chosen the role of Vida the transvestite in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. But I chose to remain polite. Antagonizing movie stars, even those on the decline, is usually a dumb-assed career move. That and I could tell the poor actor was in panic mode. He’d only attended the poker game at the urging of our host who, during daylight hours, doubled as his movie agent. He’d insisted that if Swayze was more social, producers and directors might think of him differently. Consider him for more roles. In Lala Land, out of sight was out of mind.

As a writer, I’d spent considerable time out of sight. My work hours were spent holed up in my cave and beating out movies on a keyboard. I certainly wasn’t playing “hire me” on the studio social circuit. Swayze made me wonder what the hell was I doing at the card game? Was the agent sending me a message that I needed to be more of a social gamer? Whoops. I was just there to play poker.

Figuring I was operating in territory outside my pay grade, I said my goodbyes and hoped to hell I hadn’t lost my valet ticket. Still, I couldn’t shake Swayze. If I was pulling the eject lever, so was he. Our cars arrived in tandem, but Swayze, who I’d begun to feel sorry for, needed to ask one last question:

“Is this the crap we gotta do? Is this the kinda play we need to make to stay on the dance floor?”

“I honestly don’t know, Patrick,” I shrugged. “We’re both married, and we live in the Valley.”

Swayze hugged me, insisted we had to keep in touch. Dinner at his ranch where our wives could meet. Sure, I said. And but for some late nights on cable TV, that was the last time I ever saw him.