Lou Criscuolo, resting.

My first agent passed away this week.  Lou Criscuolo was his name.  He was 80.  Even now when I say his name I can’t help but say it in his voice, his unmistakably Lou Crisuolo voice.  Everyone who knew him and is reading this right now is saying his name in the Lou voice.

Lou Criscuolo.

He represented me when I was still a baby in college, in Wilmington, NC, so young and so green.  But he was most known for founding and running The Opera House Theatre Company, which he did for 30 years after moving from New York in 1983 to be in the Thalian Hall production of ‘Remembered Nights’.  He was a salty old man, his voice thick with the most incredible New York accent I’ve ever heard, and it sounded like he swallowed a handful of pop-rocks when he spoke.  Everyone in town knew Lou.  He was a theatre legend, and such a great character.  He liked me.  He was very sweet to me.  And he was the type of man who didn’t throw around ‘sweet’ very easily.  He was the type of man who gave it to you straight, and harsh.  He was equally intimidating as he was warm and huggable.  Or at least to me he was.  I bet if you were to ask other people how they would describe Lou, none of them would use the word, sweet in the sentence.  But I had a soft spot for Lou, he was always warm to me…in that charming, grumpy old man kinda way that I simply adored.  He actually reminded me of my late Great Aunt, Carrie Maie.  (My daughter’s middle name comes from her.)  Carrie Maie was the Southern and female version of Lou Crisuolo- told you like it was, didn’t hold back, cussed like a sailer, could always laugh at themselves (and you), and generous as hell.  So maybe that’s why I liked him…I felt like I understood him, and he me.

I will never forget my first meeting with Lou.  I had sent my headshot and resume out to several agents and heard back from Lou first.  He called me on my house phone and we spoke for a couple minutes, then made an appointment for the next day.  I remember thinking how easy and fast that was.  I drove across town the next day to the Opera House Theatre, I was extremely nervous, anxious and excited.  I walked in to his office and he had me sit down on the couch and we just…talked.  He asked me what I had done before, and I answered with the naive enthusiasm of a recent high school theatre star.  It was a very short and casual conversation.  And he took a long pause, looked over my thin resume and horrible headshot, sighed and said,

‘Well.  You any good, kid?’
I was so young, so nervous, so lacking in any official confidence whatsoever but, without a beat or breath, stared him in the eyes, through those thick, black glasses of his and said,


‘Yes sir, I am.  I’m really good.’

And he stood up, shook my hand and that was that.  No reading, no audition, just based on a short conversation and simple Q&A, he saw what he needed to see.  Over the next couple of years he sent me out on TV and film auditions, where I learned the hard way how NOT to audition.  I learned how to work this business simply based on Lou’s blind faith in me.  He booked me for a commercial I didn’t audition for early in my senior year and told me all I had to do was show up in normal, presentable clothes and be prepared to ‘be a customer in a burger restaurant’.  So, I put on my most presentable and normal burger-eating clothes and showed up to set the next day.  I walked up to introduce myself to the directors and producers and the director pulled me aside and said,

‘So, your agent told you what the commercial was about, right?’ 
‘Well, yeah…he told me I was eating burgers.’
‘Oh.  OK.  Well..that’s true but… 
And here’s when the man took off his baseball cap and scratched his head, seemed pretty uncomfortable with what he was about to say to me…
Have you ever seen ‘When Harry Met Sally’?’
‘And you know that scene with Meg Ryan in the diner?’
‘OK.  Well, that’s what we’re doing here.’

And then for hours upon hours after that, in front of a room full of old men, women (and children) I faked many-an-orgasm whilst eating a giant hamburger until the sun went down and we lost the light.  They ‘liked my look’ so they kept me afterwards for print shots and then later that night I drove home lightheaded and full as hell.

I never found out if Lou knew what the premise of the commercial was or if he just wanted to test me.   I’d like to think he wanted to test me.  Seems like a Lou thing to do.  And I would like to think I passed.  Whenever I would go to his office to pick up or drop off a check, Lou and I would talk on his old couch in his old office and he would tell me all the upcoming projects he had coming up that I would be perfect in… He was just a wonderfully, uniquely sweet old man who was very, very good to me.

After I graduated and wanted to spread my wings a bit, I had to call and end my relationship with Lou.  I was signing with another agent who worked outside of Wilmington who could offer me more auditions.  It was one of the hardest conversations I’d ever had to have.  I didn’t want to leave Lou, he was so good to me.  But I knew it was the wisest choice.  I remember sitting on the front porch swing at my Wrightsville Beach house, dialing his number on my house phone, hearing his gravely voice say hello, then hearing it smile when he found out who was on the other line.  And then I started to cry as I stumbled on my words, I was so scared I was going to disappoint him.  And when I was done, he said to me,

‘You’re making the right move.  You’ve outgrown me, kid’

I thanked him for everything, and that was that.  I felt him hug me through the phone and that was the last time I ever spoke to Lou.

So many years and agents and projects have passed me by since Lou gave me my first chance.  I was 18 when I first met him.  I’m 33 now- a mom, a true grown-up, no longer pounding the pavement, no longer seeking the approval of agents and casting directors and producers… But I will never, ever forget that man.  Because, without even knowing it, he taught me that if I could get the approval from a man like Lou Criscuolo, I was prepared for just about anything.

Thank you, Lou.  Thanks for believing in me, kid.

This ‘interview’ video right here (link below), shot for the Wilmington Theatre Awards a couple years ago, gives you a pretty good idea of who Lou was.  Popped collar, big black glasses, cigarette always close by, sitting comfy on his couch, always up for a performance… It made me smile pretty hard when I watched it.

And here’s another, showing a very young and handsome Lou, acting in the 1963 television show, ‘Naked City’.
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