Does Aretha Franklin have an avatar in Rodney Robb?
Better yet -- does Rodney Dangerfield? Fix him up with a skinny tie, a rumpled shirt, bug-out eyes, and I tell ya, I tell ya, that Rodney Robb gets no respect.
Well, respect this: As owner/president of the Actors Center and Baby Boomers Talent Management, Robb can count among his alums Seth Green ("The Family Guy"); John Gallagher Jr. (Tony Award winner now in Broadway's "American Idiot"); Morgan Turner (HBO's new "Mildred Pierce"); Bianca Ryan (winner, "America's Got Talent"); Michael Rady ("Melrose Place"); and Mark Indelicato ("Ugly Betty").
Robbed of respect? Robb of respect!
"Oh, that's just how I feel," Robb says, shoulders shrugged in a self-mocking schlump from the weight of the world.
Wait: The world's turning his way these days as Robb relatively recently expanded his Actors Center, a school set in Old City, to include baby talent.
And he knows from babies -- his own, Lori Weaver, who left the husiness, and son R.D., both born to and raised with talent management guru/wife Edie; R.D.'s made his own splash in the Beverly Hills pool of talent, first as an actor, lately as a producer and director.
As their dad directs me to a warren of rooms that make up the multistory school, Robb reveals a story fit for script treatment. "But nobody gives me any credit," he half-kiddingly complains.
It's a vintage whine from someone behind the scenes. But credit? They're all in the actors' bios spread from here to Hollywood: Now celebrating the Actors Center's 20th anniversary, Robb pries open his memory for pearls of wisdom and diamonds buffed into stars.
He's riding a comet: Robb's career history includes serving as a D.J., broadcaster, account exec for WPVI-TV ("I was the first one to ever do billings for a million dollars"); ad-agency entrepreneur, and one of the owners of a local outpost of a franchised acting school, Weist-Baron.
Robb, baron of beginning stars?
The title truly clicked when he founded the Actors Center, 20 years after he claims to have shepherded what would become the legendary local forum for young talents -- "The Al Alberts Showcase" -- on to the small screen at Channel 6. "Al used to say about me and the crew, 'My Rod and my staff, they comfort me.' "
That was just the genesis. The run belongs to the swift -- and the Swifty Lazars -- and there's no slowing Robb down, who refuses to reveal his age. Lightning rod for talent? "The kids relate more if they don't know how old I am," and, besides, he adds, he'd rather act their age than his.
"The most important thing we do is give kids self-confidence, self-esteem," an ironic comment coming from the "No Respect" raconteur. Or is that an act? Robb concedes you can't suffer from diffidence if you want to make a difference.
He made a difference for Mark Indelicato. The handsome 15-year-old star of TV's "Ugly Betty" -- his Justin Suarez was justifiably proud of his fashion statements that ended with an exclamation mark -- studied with Robb for five years.
How to put it delicately ... Indelicato recalls, "I was very intimidated at first. He is a very strict [teacher], but, when I got older I saw there was a method to his madness," says the actor.
With 20/20 hindsight, he says he sees that Robb was watching out for him. "Looking back, I know he was there for my best interests. Mediocrity was not an option," being the best was: " 'You have to work hard for what you want to have.' "
He's not wanting for work: Young Mark is now making his mark -- while being managed by Edie -- in a Pittsburgh production of "Oliver!"; the artful student playing the Artful Dodger.
From Rodney's place to "Melrose Place" -- it's been a smooth transition for Michael Rady, a radiantly reflective 29-year-old whose TV Jonah Miller has the jones for filmmaking. And Rady rates Robb as a reel find: "He's played a fundamental part in my career."
In a stab-in-the-back business, it's nice to know that someone's got your back; indeed, Rady writes off those who offer "pleasantries regardless of your worth" while Robb makes book on honest appraisals. Tom Stoppard wrote "The Real Thing"; Robb is just that, he avows.
Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes ... sometimes, that's just where they remain. Eyeing potential students, Robb reports "a very small percentage of them will go into the business."
"I've had kids stay seven weeks, some nine years; they're now doctors, lawyers" -- and playing them on TV, too.
It all hits home in so many ways. "Through my wife, I'm able to get to casting directors," claims Robb of wife Edie's Station 3 in New York and Los Angeles that has been a station stop for stars.
Robb doesn't discount his own push and shove: "I've been a salesman all my life," he says of a career that involved selling air time at $1 an hour for WIFI radio back in '59. His best sales job? Himself. "The most important thing I learned was never look like you need the job."
Looks like sometimes you may need a little mazel. Beginning at the Bourse, the center's opening night for a student production proved a watershed moment. "It's a sold-out show and the sprinkler system went on," drenching everyone.
Could have been worse; someone could have yelled fire in the crowded theater. "We had that, too."
At first he ran the school with a partner; the two were head-shot big shots, but split, he says, 86-ing in '96. "I started with four students and ended with 100."
Number him among the happy: "Over the years," he says, "we've had 2,000 come here to learn."
And what do they learn at the center, now located on the 200 block of North Third Street? There's training for voiceover; a black box theater for acting; commercial work; improv; movement; and stage combat sessions, all a blackboard bonanza helmed by six teachers.
Robb is the rebbe here, mixing movie-style midrash and advice on a business focused thousands of miles away, and as close as the nearby recording studio.
Jewish himself, Robb knows the old saw about Jewish parents, who, confronted with a child wanting to "put on a show," show the kid the paltry yearly actors' incomes tabulated by Variety.
"But, for the most part," he claims, "parents -- not just Jewish, but all the parents -- are supportive." He thinks. "OK, some do say to the kids when they get older, go and get a real job."
And some do. Seth Green, just a pipsqueak then and now piping-hot, went off for a while to be managed by Edie, who has managed to make a name so big for herself that the Hollywood sign seems to always point in her direction.
But it's not just the youngsters -- or the sessions for toddlers -- but "people in their 50s to 70s who come to class."
Class act for the new millennium?
Robb steals a look that says, "Remember, I told you this": Melanie Herrera. "She has a wonderful look. She's 17, Latino, Jewish. She's going to be a major star."
A chorus line of clients awaits. But possibly the best lesson Rodney offers is the way to keep a long-term and long-distance marriage hot in the spotlight that can earn anyone's respect. "Edie and I see each other only on weekends," he says of his honey. "Which makes each time we see each other like a honeymoon."