You Don’t Remember Me?

The scariest words in the English language are, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Well, maybe not the scariest. The actual scariest words are probably, “The chef doesn’t believe in printed menus, so I’ll just describe what we’re offering tonight,” but “You don’t remember me, do you?” is right up there.

I heard those words recently, at a meeting with the president of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood. I had been presented the customary bottle of water, guided to the plush suede sofa, and just at the moment that the small talk puttered to stop, he fixed me with a half-smile and dropped the bomb.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

I didn’t remember him. At all. But we’re roughly the same age, so our paths could have crossed and double-crossed lots of times: school, college, film school, the early days of our careers — really, when you think of it, the past is filled with dozens (maybe even hundreds) of moments in which one is, to put it delicately, not at one’s best. And if I’ve buried those memories deep in some unconscious well, they’re preserved in someone’s memory, like career-killing land mines, ready to be stepped on and exploded with a simple “You don’t remember me, do you?”

The great thing about working in the entertainment industry, in any of its many branches and tributaries, is that in this business they’ll pretty much hire anyone. But it’s also the not-so-great thing about the business, too. Because hiring and firing and success and failure are such wildly unpredictable events, you never really know if the assistant you just barked at, the actor you just fired, or the waiter you just stiffed might turn out to be, you know, somebody. Somebody important. Somebody who can eventually say to you, when you’re sitting on his suede sofa in his big office at the studio he runs, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I recently heard a story about a hot young producer and her assistant. Stuck on a story pitch, the producer decamped to a swank Las Vegas hotel, bringing along her assistant for some poolside brainstorming. As she floated, blissfully, in the hotel pool, her hapless assistant, clicking away on her laptop, sweltered nearby in the desert sun. As the summer heat approached 105 degrees, the producer looked up at her sweat-drenched, fainting assistant and said, airily, “You know, if you like, if you get too hot, you can dangle your toes in the water. Just don’t get the keyboard wet.”

There’s a lot about the universe that’s unknowable, of course, but there are three absolute certainties. One, there will come a time when that assistant, motivated by memories of heatstroke and a thirst for revenge, will have risen to a high and powerful post; two, there will come a time when that producer will be temporarily down on her luck and in need of a friend in high places; and three, the two will meet over a couple of bottles of water around a suede sofa. And by then it will be too late.

Rule one: Be nice to everybody.

Years ago, before he had reached supernova star status, Matt Damon once approached me, politely, on a flight from Boston to LA to ask if I wouldn’t mind switching seats with him so that he could sit next to his girlfriend. Not a problem I told him. He thanked me. And he made a point to come up to me, after we landed and I was straggling down to baggage claim, to thank me again. “I like that Matt Damon,” I said to myself — I sound a lot like an old lady when I talk to myself — and from that day on I’ve always rooted for him. I’m not planning on becoming an executive with a suede sofa, but I do participate in various guild and academy awards processes, and let me tell you: he’ll always get my vote.

For instance, once, at the Malibu Country Mart, Jennifer Aniston was extremely nice to my dog. So I actively campaigned for her to win the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy that year. Which she did.

And Jake Gyllenhaal, soon after the release of “Brokeback Mountain,” was especially considerate to me outside a restaurant in Venice, when our dogs’ leashes became tangled. At the time, my dog was old and sick, and had only a week or so to live. He seemed so genuinely concerned, both for me and my dog, that I immediately began emailing all of my actor friends in the Motion Picture Academy to insist that he be nominated for an Oscar. Which he was.

Rule two: Be nice to dogs.

In my meeting with the studio president, though, it turned out that he had me confused with someone else. Someone, apparently, early in his career had opened a door or made a phone call on his behalf, and he had spent the past eighteen years thinking that it had been me. Which it wasn’t, but I didn’t let him know that. I smiled and shrugged and said it had been a pleasure and started in on my pitch.

And that’s rule three: Always take credit.

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