Tough Love for Actors: Jon Stewart Before the World Knew Him

His phone calls to me came daily. Jon Stewart, long before his Oval Office meetings with President Barack Obama, was doggedly pursuing a meeting with a woman most people had never heard of, but whose work was enjoyed internationally.

It was the mid-1990s, well before The Daily Show. I was working as gatekeeper for the formidable and detail-diligent casting director Mary Colquhoun on the casting of Picture Perfect, starring Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Bacon, and written and directed by Glenn Gordon Caron (MoonlightingMedium). In fact, I was her gatekeeper on three films. Mary was strictly devoted to her English birth certificate. God save the assistant who didn’t adhere to writing all correspondence and deal memos in the Queen’s English. A generous heart buried in stone, Mary brought many of her assistants to tears, including (allegedly) Alan Filderman, whom she berated for tripping and injuring himself in her presence.

One morning during the casting process, Mary said, “There’s this fellow Jon Stewart. Find him. Set up a meeting.” As I wrote his then unfamiliar name ‘John Stewart’ on a slip of paper Mary commanded, “I believe the ‘h’ is silent.”

In sleuthing to find this then little-known actor/comedian, success came via the Screen Actors Guild. I was informed by the SAG membership rep that the ‘h’ in Jon’s name was indeed nonexistent. The phone number SAG provided began with a 201 area code: northern New Jersey. Stewart hadn’t any representation.

During our first conversation, I was surprised when Jon informed me, “I’ve been waiting for your call, Paul.” He was, as he is today, exceedingly proactive in attaining goals. He’d leveraged his network of fellow actors and comedians to get himself into studio executive offices, including Mary’s. Jon wasn’t shy, nor was he obnoxious. As I discovered over a month of phone conversations, Jon Stewart was, as he is today, a gentleman. Stewart knew the game of courting gatekeepers and he mastered it well.

However, on a near daily basis, I had to call Jon Stewart to apologize and cancel his scheduled meeting with Mary and Glenn Gordon Caron. Caron’s daily calendar changed more often than a chameleon’s skin during Holi, India’s spring festival of colors. We were stuck in a cycle of scheduling, canceling, and rescheduling, but Jon never voiced frustration. Snarkiness? Wonderfully, yes. But he was never disparaging or ill-tempered. He privately displayed the humor the public has since enjoyed for years. Jon was also keen on insight.

He knew who else we were seeing for the love interest of Jennifer Aniston’s character, flooring me when he made an inquiry as to how far along Caron’s interest was in Jay Mohr. Then, as now, he was apparently passionate about staying well-informed.

Eventually, Stewart didn’t wait for his phone to ring with my cancellations. I remember early morning calls from Stewart, one starting with, “Are we on today, Paul? Or is Glenn Gordon Caron doing a steam with Bacon?” Our formal and brief business discussions evolved into lengthy chats. There was never malice or bitterness in his subtext. Jon knew how to play the game of patience. When Mary would inform me that “a ring needed to be made to Mr. Stewart,” to once again cancel, I dreaded being the bearer of disappointment. But I knew he would handle the momentary setback with humor and grace, and I partly looked forward to the laughs he would elicit from me.

Jon finally had his meeting with Mary and Glenn Gordon Caron, but as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, Jay Mohr won the role.

The eventual outcome of Jon Stewart’s patience and proactive perseverance has been the opportunities he’s created and/or encouraged elsewhere. His present day success did not come from a sensibility of entitlement. Humility, ambition, humor, diligence, and an eagerness to show mutual respect propelled his desires to the destinations within his heart. Jon Stewart’s viewers will now have to be the patient ones. We await, eager to see where his humor, humility, and charm takes him next.

I miss our calls, Jon. And I’ll miss your visits four nights a week to my living room. But at least we both still have New Jersey.

(UPDATE: Alan Filderman states, “Don’t know where the trip and injure story came from. Not true. But [Mary] did make me cry!”)


Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher, and former actor has spanned thirty years. He’s worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul’s taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU, and speaks at universities including Elon, Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author ofACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor.For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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