For Schaumburg native Michael R. Carlson, "I get by with a little help from my friends" isn't just an expression from a Beatles song; it's the key to his showbiz success.
The 2002 Schaumburg High School graduate spent two years as a Harper College student before finishing his degree at Illinois State University. Then he left for Los Angeles.
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Key influencesSchaumburg native and TV commercial star Michael Carlson said he's been lucky to have had a couple of mentors while growing up in the Northwest suburbs. He said that Jan Kayson, art teacher at Hoover Elementary School, was an early advocate for him.
"She was very supportive and very helpful to me," Carlson said. "She really encouraged my creative endeavors and I liked her a lot."
Carlson also cited Schaumburg High School's legendary music instructor and show director John Van Hook as a key influence in the arts.
"I was in a couple of plays he directed and I loved working with him," Carlson said. "It was always fun. Working with John Van Hook was a special thing."
A mere five days passed when he received a voice-mail message from comedian Pauly Shore. It was a job offer. A "friend of a friend" recommended Carlson to him.
"So my dad (Jeff Carlson), who had been helping me move in, drove me out to the Hollywood Hills to Pauly Shore's house to work for about five hours on his Internet comedy material," Carlson said.
"It just came out of the blue. It was very weird. It was very cool."
"Weird" and "cool" sum up Carlson's acting career so far. He's clocked 12 television commercials and more on the Internet, and he's already making a living at something he loves.
"I had done a lot of acting and editing of TV shows in college," Carlson said. "I just wanted to give it a shot and see what I could potentially do out there."
After working with Shore for about a year, Carlson snagged a job as a production assistant on The CW network lot. Mostly, he delivered stuff to executives.
"But the important thing was I was working on a lot for the first time," he said. "And I wasn't very far from that fountain they used at the beginning of 'Friends.' I could drive a golf cart over to it. That was the coolest thing for me."
Then came a series of odd jobs. No, really. Odd jobs.
He edited clips for strange TV shows, such as "Wacked Out Videos." ("Mostly clips of men getting hit in the groin," Carlson explained. "People falling off skateboards. Kids falling off roofs.") He did this for about two years along with editing footage for "Sports Crash."
While Carlson slogged through these early jobs, he was also taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Those came in handy when the struggling performer made his first TV commercial.
"A friend asked me to come with him to an audition, so I went with him," Carlson said. "I got the job. He didn't. He didn't even get a callback!"
The commercial was for a line of GE electric cars. The multimillion-dollar project involved a five-day-long road trip up and down the California coast.
"Talk about being tossed into the deep end of the pool," Carlson said. "They would just shoot footage of me driving for hours. They shot so much footage that's now just sitting in a hard drive somewhere. This was all for a 30-second TV commercial."
Carlson's friends advised him to get involved with commercials first, because "you can actually make a living doing them."
Next up was a Miller Lite commercial directed by Peter Farrelly, the director of "There's Something About Mary" and "Dumb and Dumber." Carlson admitted, "It was a little intimidating."
His most challenging commercial, for DirecTV, is airing on network TV stations now. He plays a guy who hang-glides into some power lines.
"That was a little bit scary," he admitted. "We were in a parking lot and they tied me into the harness and put me 15 feet into the air. So I was just dangling for like an hour or two. I'm already a nervous kind of guy. I was hoping this thing would hold me up. I didn't want to do a face dive on the pavement 15 feet below."
One of the reasons Carlson has had such unexpected success might be he's a nice guy. At least that's what an L.A. store clerk said to him.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she asked. Carlson asked her why she said that.
"Because you're nice," she replied.
Carlson is so nice, he didn't want to mention the good qualities of his fellow Chicagoans out of concern he might offend his L.A. and New York friends.
"I will say that people from Chicago are more attentive," he said. "They listen. They send off a warmer, more inviting vibe. People from L.A. and N.Y., uh, well, let's just say it takes a second to warm up to them."
Carlson considers his commercial career a steppingstone to his bigger goals of acting and writing for TV and the movies.
"I've been lucky to have a commercial acting career where I can make a living doing something as silly and fun as that," he said. "I get paid to do the fun stuff I used to do with my high school friends."
-- Dann Gire
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for suburbanites now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting profile, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.