This “Unsavory Fellow” Has Some Colorful Hollywood Tales to Tell

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Storytelling seems to be the art form of our times. And when your life has been as much of a rollercoaster as Nick James’s, there’s only one thing you can do: write a one-man show about it. 

Unsavory Fellow, at Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, is the story of Nick’s inner drive to become a star, without the inner discipline to do the work required to become one. Along the way, it’s a wild ride.

The show opens with Nick dressed as a clown, quoting a poem from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. He sits at a mirror, removes the rubber nose, wipes off half the makeup, and asks his reflection, “Why do you do this?”  “You’re an actor. It’s what you do,” he answers himself.

Nick James in “Unsavory Fellow” – Photo by: Ian Zandi

During his lonely only-child boyhood in Cleveland, all he wanted was to grow up to be a black man, like Rooster, the street pimp in Baretta, and he dressed the part, replete with black fedora and purple feather. 

When his mother remarried, his stepdad moved the family to Santa Monica. The Pier! The Palms! The sand and sea!  It’s Paradise! 

Nick figured he’d find a new life, make new friends but had never encountered Surfers or Mexican gangs. He couldn’t have chosen a worse way to introduce himself to the laid-back beach town; dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, with slicked-back hair and super tight pants, he dances his way to utter humiliation: “Dude, we don’t disco here, we rock out.” (But man alive, does he have the moves!)

Nick James in “Unsavory Fellow” – Photo by: Ian Zandi

And after he gets beaten up in an alley, one of his tormentors, Mustache—who plays a different crucial role later in Nick’s life—invites him to take a slug from a bottle of booze, and his life changes instantly. Suddenly suffused with self-confidence, despite drinking so much of it all at once, vomiting on the girl in the desk in front of his, and blacking out in the bathroom, now everyone thinks he’s “rad.” 

THAT is the feeling he wants and he pursues it with a vengeance, often with dire consequences.

Nick has been told so often how handsome he is, that he’s a “natural,” so he believes stardom will thrust itself on him. It will take 15 years for him to realize alcohol, drugs, blackouts and bar fights won’t get him where he wants to go, but the adventures along the way each teach him a little more about doing the work. 

Nick James in “Unsavory Fellow” – Photo by: Ian Zandi

He learns about love and betrayal at age 15 with a donut counter woman more than twice his age; he appears in a gay porn magazine, was briefly a gigolo, and after being offered the opportunity to become a supermodel—but repeating his pattern of blackout drunkenness and brawls—found himself homeless in Japan.

What more could you possibly want? But wait – there’s more. There’s the redemption story that doesn’t completely resolve everything and almost results in disaster. 

But for that and all the rest of the experiences he reveals, you’ll have to go see Unsavory Fellow. 

After the show opens, Nick removes a little more than half of the clown makeup he’s wearing. It will become clearer at the end, but I found the half-covered/half-exposed face to be a poignant metaphor for Nick’s life and story. Go see it.

“Unsavory Fellow” continues at 8 pm Friday; 4 pm and 8 pm on Saturday through May 25, 2024 (check the website for added performances). Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Tickets: $30 ($5 off seniors/students/guild, and groups of 6 or more) at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com or by calling(310) 397-3244. Free parking is available on-site.