Blog archives for the September, 2015.

September 14, 2015

Life with Lucas

“How a mosquito bite turned Richard Lucas into a Super Agent” written by Mark Leiren-Young (Reelwest Magazine, Summer 2015)

My first encounter with future Canadian super agent Richard Lucas was in 1981, when I attended a play he’d directed at the University of British Columbia. Lucas was a seasoned Master’s student delivering his thesis production – a modernized take on Moliere’s classic comedy, The Misanthrope. I was a smart-assed undergrad reviewing for the campus paper. Over thirty years later I can still conjure flashes of the show Lucas staged in the Dorothy Somerset Studio. It was colourful, vibrant and funny and I have vague memories of the upbeat, energetic, musical score. I was delighted and terrified to discover my review for The Ubyssey now exists online – until I saw that I began by saying what a shame it was that more people wouldn’t get to see the show I described as a,” dynamic comedy with a lot of style and a lot of flair.” The review went on to use the word “fun” a half dozen times.

The only other production I still remember from my brief stint as a student reviewer is Last Call, the professional debut of Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald, who’ve gone on to become two of Canada’s most acclaimed theatre creators. I remember thinking Panych and MacDonald were going places. I thought Lucas was too. I expected him to graduate to a major Canadian theatre company.

Instead, I didn’t see him again until just after Expo 86. He wasn’t directing anymore, he was an agent running his own small talent company out of an office in Gastown.

In July, 2014, his not-so-small company took-over JR Talent and Muse, Lucas moved to Victoria (although he’s still working with his company every day) and agent Eric Edwards took over as Lucas Talent’s leading man (his official title is president). “It seems like we’re the second largest agency in Canada now,” says Lucas. “I think Characters in Toronto is a little bit bigger than us.”

I knew Lucas was one of Canada’s top agents, I knew his clients loved him, but I’d always wondered what happened to the promising director I’d admired at UBC.

Meeting in his classic oh-so-British English Cottage style home in Victoria to discover how Lucas Talent became western Canada’s largest agency, I finally found out why Lucas left the theatre. We were in his cozy living room and a framed script page signed by comedy legend Lucille Ball was resting on his piano. Since I had a hard time believing that an agent who reps some of Canada’s biggest stars was easily starstruck, I was curious about the story behind the only autograph he ever collected. It turned out the Lucy story is the Lucas story.

After directing The Misanthrope, Lucas went on the road doing the dinner theatre circuit as an actor and director, working with Lucy’s longtime on-screen foil, Gale Gordon (best known as the banker Mr. Mooney in The Lucy Show). If you’re not old enough to recall Lucy, she was wacky and Gordon was her perpetually-exasperated straight man.

“Gale kind of stopped yelling at her and started yelling at me,” says Lucas with a laugh. “We did these shows in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg. He went around yelling at me in different shows. I was making the big bucks.”

Lucas planned to save all his money, then return to UBC to finish his oral exams. “In my time to get a Master’s degree – in addition to all the course work and two thesis productions – you had to have a working knowledge of a second language. And you had to do oral exams from basically Aeschylus to modern day and get quizzed in front of a panel.”

Everything changed when he was getting yelled at by Gordon in Winnipeg and Lucas lost his voice. Literally. He’d been stung by a mosquito – and it wasn’t infected with gamma radiation.

“I just about died,” says Lucas. “Me and ten cows got encephalitis and I had to learn how to walk and talk all over again. My brain and my nervous system were fucked… Did you ever see the movie Awakenings with Robert De Niro? Yeah? That’s encephalitis.”

His life – and career – were shattered. “I couldn’t walk or talk very well and I couldn’t act again because I would have brain seizures and slur my words and not walk straight.” He certainly couldn’t finish his degree, because he could no longer read. “The words would jump around on the page. I couldn’t drive because my brain would tell me the light was red when it was yellow. It was really scary,” says Lucas. “It was really scary.”

Instead of returning home from a successful tour, Lucas returned to Vancouver for rehab and slowly regained the ability to read, write and walk. Even after  he recovered, Lucas no longer felt sure enough on his feet to step back on stage. He had to do something different, something that wouldn’t require a return to the spotlight.

In 1986, Lucas began working part-time, lining up talent for Expo 86, Vancouver’s upcoming World’s Fair. This led to his first full-time job since getting sick. He was hired to produce on-site entertainment and program the comedy venue known as The Flying Club. His gig included booking comedians like Rosie O’Donnell and casting his own made-in-Vancouver version of Second City. “I dealt with Vancouver agents, trying to get as many B.C. people as we could in the company. It was a great company.”

Great is an understatement. The Second City material the troupe was given to launch their show was stale, but the talent Lucas put on stage was astonishingly fresh. His players included future comedy stars Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Patrick McKenna, plus a pair of now ubiquitous Vancouver comic actors – Gary Jones and Denalda Williams.

“I was literally dealing with agents from all over the world – Japan, Germany, L.A., everywhere, and the ones in Vancouver weren’t that great. So at the end of the fair, my boss, Nancy Boake, came up to me and she said, ‘What are you thinking of doing after the fair?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure, but I see there’s film and television work starting to come in and I have some good contacts and the agents in Vancouver -’”

Boake finished the thought for him. ‘You need to open an agency,’ she said, ‘You’d be really good at it, you should.’ So I did.”

Just before his job ended at Expo, Lucas took a quick vacation to Los Angeles. “That’s how I got to meet Lucy.” Lucas was visiting Gordon on set when the grande dame of comedy came over and introduced herself. “Lucy sidled up to me and she said, ‘Gale’s never had people on set all the years I’ve  worked with him. You must be pretty special, honey. Do you want me to sign something for you?’ And I went, ‘I’d love that.’ So, she ripped off —” He looks towards the memento resting against his piano.

“That’s the front page of Gale’s script for the week. It’s not the last episode that they ever shot, but it’s the last one that ever aired. And she signed it for me. It was pretty cool.” Then Lucas returned to piloting the Flying Club. His Expo job wrapped Oct. 13th. Lucas Talent launched two days later.

His roster included actors Lucas knew from programming the Flying Club and from his days as a student at the University of Alberta (where he’d done his undergrad). “Because I’d worked professionally acting and directing already, I had a lot of contacts. So I opened up with names of people who casting directors already liked and knew, so even if they didn’t know me they had to deal with me because I was their agent.”

His first official client was one of the comedians he’d booked into Expo – Rosie O’Donnell. Lucas offered to be her Canadian agent and even though she didn’t need much agenting in Canada, O’Donnell agreed and Lucas Talent had a headliner. There were eleven other clients on a brochure he produced to announce his agency’s existence, including his Second City vets Stiles and Williams and his U. of A. classmate, Frank C. Turner.

“The actors felt that I, you know, spoke their language,” says Lucas.

Turner credits the theatre background with his longtime agent’s success. “Having worked as an actor for a few years he has a great understanding of the peculiarities of the actor’s life,” says Turner. “He’s also one heck of a negotiator. Actors make very poor self-promoters. He really goes to bat for his clients.”

Asked what makes a good agent, Lucas has his pet theory ready. “There’s a book that’s a bit of a bible that Michael Shurtleff wrote called Audition and I think that sums it up best. He says – and I’m not going to quote it exactly from memory – but he said that all agents are shits but, if you’re lucky, you’ll get one with a mothering instinct. That kind of sums it up. I think one of the reasons that we’ve been so successful, and why those other companies were happy to join us, is because we have a great reputation. We’ve never screwed anybody. We work ethically and we know we have a really, really good reputation in the business. I like to sleep well at night. I’ve never done anybody out of a dime.”

Mothering definitely comes with the job. “Part of the excitement of the business is trying to help people make good choices and to grow a career and stay mentally, and emotionally, and money-wise, healthy. And our business is really hard. We try very hard, but we’ve had three clients along the way who sadly have committed suicide. Dear, wonderful, young people. Most recently, Cory Monteith was a Lucas Talent client when he got Glee, and just the nicest kid in the world. He was banging pots and pans in our taping room for his audition. And another, I don’t know if you remember Julie Patzwald. She won lots of awards and was very well-known. You know, these are wonderful young people who just…” He takes a moment to find the words.

“Our business gets ugly sometimes, so we really do try to take care of people as well as we can. You try to steer people the right way. I’m not going to tell anybody what their values are or aren’t but, you know, we tell our clients, ‘Don’t ever do anything that hurts your soul. You’re allowed to say, no.’”

Part of protecting a client is covering their butts in contracts – and making sure the contracts keep their butts covered regardless of what the director wants them to do. “Another good story, I won’t mention names, but a client who is well-known and had a leading role in a well-known series shooting in Ontario phoned and said, ‘They’ve just given me a new scene. I’m nude and it’s a love scene with another woman.’ And I was just like, ‘no fucking way, not in a million years.’”

Lucas called the producers to discuss the script – and the deal he’d drafted.

“I ripped them up one side and down the other. ‘Read the contract, we don’t do that unless you present it to us and it’s discussed. She has full approval if something like that happens blah blah blah blah blah.’ Never heard anything back, checked in the next day, ‘How’d everything go?’ She said, ‘Oh, it was fine. They were good with me, but that poor other girl, they made her take all her clothes off and do some nasty stuff.’ So that’s why it’s worth having a good agent.”

Lucas says moments like these are why agents have to pay attention to every clause in every contract. “Some of those contracts, they can be like 40 pages of gobbledygook in terms and conditions, and standard terms. I find that a lot of people don’t read them. To me, it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I love those things.”

In order to have the time to study those jigsaw puzzles, Lucas says his agency is careful about who they take on – and always limits the size of their roster. “We’re not the Sears catalogue of talent.” But their catalogue seems to have someone for every casting agent.

It’s tough to turn on the small screen without spotting at least one Lucas client in a leading role. Louis Ferreira is the male lead on CTV’s Motive. Matt Frewer is on TNT’s The Librarians, SyFy’s Olympus and Cinemax’s The Knick. Sophia Lauchlin Hirt is another Olympus goddess. Mitchell Kummen and Rhys Bond were just cast as leads in UP TV’s Ties That Bind. Paul Johansson played Ferg Donnelly on Mad Men. And Emily Bett Rickards is leading lady Felicity Smoak on CW’s Arrow.

Lucas says his agency grew in part because people asked to come on board.

The company began representing writers in 1991, when Dacia Moss asked to become his first literary agent. Moss has since retired and Anna Archer now reps offscreen talent like directors, writers and editors.

Edwards joined nearly twenty years ago after a stint with Toronto’s Livent. He was sent to Vancouver to keep an eye on the Ford Centre. Then Lucas had an opening for a new assistant. “And lucky me,” says Lucas. “He applied and moved on up from there. Eric is awesome.”

Lucas shared an office with JR Talent for five years. “We just loved them and they wanted to be part of Lucas. And then we reached out to Muse Talent, which is an awesome agency that Kim Barsanti had started and we worked out a deal where they happily joined us and that’s how we became so much bigger.”

Lucas says the timing of the expansion made sense for everyone.

“Our business is just like the market, or real estate, or the dollar. Everything comes up and everything goes down, right? And we felt we were at the start of   another up and it was time for us to make some big moves and we guessed right. Last year was a great year and this year isn’t any better, but it’s still good. So we guessed right on the dollar and call me smart, call me lucky, whatever you want. The dollar went from around par down to eighty cents. And in our

business I don’t give a shit what anybody says, it’s about the money, it’s always about the money. People can talk about, ‘we have lovely crews, we have a great talent pool, blah blah blah blah blah’ it’s all about the money.”

Since taking over JR and Muse, Lucas Talent now has 15 agents and Edwards offers up the client stats: “We have approximately 450 actors in total on our combined rosters who act in films, TV, on stage and in commercials. Each agent looks after their own, smaller number of clients. We have an exclusive  roster of 25 writers, directors and picture editors. Our background division represents 225 extras.”

As an agent, Lucas is resigned to the idea that most of the work for his clients is in the service industry and that a key to keeping careers thriving is staying visible and viable in the US. Lucas says it’s vital to make sure clients like Tricia Helfer (Killer Women) don’t disappear from the American radar. So even when he books Helfer on a Canadian shows he wants to insure that it’s on the air in the US. “As much as she loves Canada and is a proud Canadian, she’s worked too fricking hard to not have a platform in US television.”

As a fan of Canadian culture, Lucas keeps hoping local shows and companies will catch fire, but over almost thirty years in the biz he’s watched a lot of sparks fizzle out. “I wish I saw signs that we were growing our industry,” says Lucas. But after rattling off new players he’s rooting for, he follows with an even longer role call of the departed.

“There are some wonderful people trying to make it happen, but 85 per cent of our work right now is about the US and they’re here with the tax credits and the 80 cent dollar. I wish I could see it change, but I don’t see it changing, which is sad. I’m trying to think of something positive to say. The thing that has changed most is people like myself and other people in the industry who have made a living from it, but it makes me sad that we’re not more evolved with our homegrown product.”

One thing that has changed. Lucas finally delivered one last thesis project to UBC (a 55 page paper on The Misanthrope) and received his Master of Fine Arts degree in 2012.

Now he’s living another dream. He moved to Vancouver Island, in part to go back to school at the University of Victoria to get his PhD in Theatre. This time he’s not directing. He’s sharing some amazing stories he’s come across about an unknown part of Canadian theatre history. The working title of his thesis – The Untold Stories of LGBTQ Pioneers of Canadian 20th Century Theatre. “I’m jazzed about this,” says Lucas with a huge grin on his face. “I’m having a ball. I’m having the best time of my life right now, just being able to kinda keep my hand in the things that interest me.”

His fave stories of Canada’s LGBTQ pioneers include the implausible tale of a Quebecois drag phenom he learned about years ago from a former  boyfriend who grew up in Laval. “You can do the movie script,” says Lucas with a laugh. “A drag queen being chased by the Gestapo. Son of an Italian count. Gets on a boat to Canada and becomes a famous drag queen performing for integrated audiences and becomes a star playing the female leads in straight plays under the name of Gilda. But we don’t know anything about her,” says Lucas – frustrated that this potential icon has vanished from our collective memory. Once again Lucas is set to fulfill what seems to be his true destiny – making other people he believes in famous.

(Original Article viewable at http://reelwest.com/reel-west-magazine )