A Life of Bit Parts
©2010 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2010 MTV Networks
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Synopsis: What if Daria had been a scripted, live-action TV show? Where might the actors be now? Through an interview with his sister, we look into the life of a one-shot actor whose character everyone recalls.
Author's Notes: Roentgen proposed a PPMB Iron Chef for April 2010, in which writers created fake interviews with people who took part in an unscripted reality show that we today know as Daria. I got part of the instructions wrong, as it turned out, but here is the interview anyway.
Acknowledgements: Thank you, Roentgen!
“He liked being called Tommy,” his younger sister remembers. “He was a really big guy, kind of intimidating and scary if you didn’t know him, especially with his broken nose and all, but inside he was this really laid back guy who loved working on his car and getting bit parts in action movies. He wanted people to be comfortable around him and just relax and have fun. He was such a sweet guy, but you wouldn’t have believed it just looking at him. He’d have made a great Terminator.”
Elizabeth Sheridan is the only living relative of actor Thomas Sheridan, who played Tommy Sherman in the memorable Daria episode, “The Misery Chick.” With a little help from the Screen Actors’ Guild, I was able to set up an interview with her at her three-bedroom apartment in a quiet part of Van Nuys, California. She shares her space with three adopted stray cats: Tiger, Leopard, and Goofball.
Elizabeth, who prefers to be called Lizzy as much as her brother wanted to be called Tommy, is not unlike her brother physically: tall, sandy hair, confident smile, keeps in shape. She looks like she could beat me arm wrestling in her sleep. Tall as she is (five-ten in bare feet), she always looked up to Tommy, who was five years her senior and seven inches taller.
Thomas James Sheridan was born September 12, 1973, in Bakersfield, California. Two years later, his family moved to Glendale, a suburb north of Los Angeles, where his sister was born. A Wednesday's child, Tommy’s life had enough woe for six people at once. His father abandoned the family in 1978 before the birth of his sister; his working mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1982.
Tommy and Lizzy went to live with a maternal aunt in San Bernardino, but the aunt and Tommy did not get along. Tommy was placed in foster care through his middle and high school years, where he became a star athlete in his junior and senior years.
“Because of that Daria thing he did,” says Lizzy, “everybody thinks he played a lot of football, but he didn’t care for it. He was a powerlifter in high school, unlimited class. He won three regional meets and got himself in the paper all the time. I watched him clean and jerk two-thirds of a ton over his head at this one meet. I mean, holy shit! That just left everyone in shock. I mean, you watched him do it and you still couldn’t believe it. The papers said he was like a real-live action figure, kind of like the Governator.”
She laughs at that. “He really could’ve had a big ego about that, but he was always making jokes about himself, making silly poses to poke fun at how tough he looked. He never took himself seriously. Everybody loved him.”
Tommy graduated near the top of his class in 1991. “Right after he graduated, the first thing he did was come to see me,” says Lizzy. She shakes her head as her smile vanishes. “I wasn’t having too good of a time. My aunt’s boyfriend was causing lots of problems, drinking a lot and fighting with me and my aunt and everyone. He’d get himself arrested, but then he’d be right back a few days later. My aunt couldn’t say no to him. It was hell.
“So Tommy showed up and got into a fight right off because my aunt’s boyfriend didn’t want him around. That’s how Tommy’s nose got broken. He never had it fixed, I don’t know why. After that first punch Tommy messed up my aunt’s boyfriend pretty bad. He hit the guy maybe twice and put him in intensive care for a week. That guy looked like a rag doll when it was over. Tommy didn’t like to fight, he really hated it, but if someone started one he finished it up for them pretty fast.”
Assault charges were not pressed after a police investigation. Lizzy was removed from the home by child protection services. Eventually she came to live with her big brother Tommy in North Hollywood.
When he turned nineteen, Tommy inherited a small trust fund established by his mother before her death. A gifted mechanic already making good money at a race-car repair shop, he moved into a bigger apartment closer to work so the siblings had more space. It’s the same place in Van Nuys where Lizzy now lives.
Instead of capitalizing on his powerlifting abilities, as many encouraged him to do, he started auditioning for parts in small-budget and independent movies. Lizzy grins at the memory. “He got a lot of little Hollywood jobs. How could you turn him down? I mean, he was built like a bulldozer, but he was so funny and always made everybody laugh. He almost always had some job going as a local extra.”
Tommy’s big break (“big,” that is, for bit parts) came when he was cast as one of the dino-hunters in Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. He’s one of the vehicle drivers in the rodeo-like dinosaur roundup scene. He went to the island of Kauai in Hawaii for filming. “He managed to sneak me out there for a while to be with him,” Lizzy laughs. “I couldn’t talk about it for years ‘cause I was supposed to have been in school, but I kind of ‘got sick’ and he flew me out. That was the most fun I’d ever had!”
Tommy Sheridan showed no interest in trying out for major roles: “He liked it just fine there in the background. It gave him more time to fix up his car and go on dates.” Tommy claimed to have had an uncredited role in the first X-Files movie, but Lizzy hasn’t been able to spot him despite the many times she’s watched the film. “His part’s probably on the cutting room floor,” she concludes with a sigh. “At least he got paid good. He was still pretty proud of the work because he liked the show a lot.”
It was around this time that Tommy snagged what was arguably the most significant role of his career, playing the arrogant Tommy Sherman in the final episode of Daria’s first season. He stayed in New York City near MTV Studios for several weeks during the filming. “I was out of school by then, working two jobs,” says Lizzy. “He tried to get me to fly up there, but you can’t cut jobs like you can cut school or else you’re out of work.”
She finally came to NYC when Tommy finagled a round-trip ticket for her, and she met some of the Daria stars at a cast party for the end of the first season. “Trent Lane was really terrific,” she recalls with a giggle. “Ohmigod, he was such a dish, plus he was just the most super nice guy. He could ham it up just like Tommy could. He and Tommy got to be real buds.”
Lizzy is less sanguine about other cast members, but refuses to dish dirt on anyone in particular. “There were some really good people in that show, and there were… there were some others. It’s like anywhere you go. Trent, though, he was definitely the best.”
Lizzy admits she is not a big fan of “The Misery Chick.” “I saw it a few times when it came out, but I haven’t seen it in ages now. He was really good in that. He was exactly the kind of guy everybody loves to hate. He really had it down. The joke was, though, he wasn’t like that at all. It was kind of amazing how he could turn that on and be someone else completely different from who he really was.” Tommy picked up a comic habit from the show, which was the way in which his character, Tommy Sherman, “would strut down a hallway like he was the king of the high school. He’d do that and everyone would start laughing. It was so funny.”
A parents’ group concerned about the moral lessons that young people learn from watching TV gave that episode a special award, in part for Tommy’s performance. “They said he showed the dark side of being a high school hero without making it attractive for kids. He handled it just right.”
Lizzy stops smiling and bites her lip. “I didn’t like the part where he got killed, though, even though you never see it actually happen. I know it’s off-screen, nothing really happened, but I’d turn off the TV before it got to that part. I didn’t like that at all.”
Life became busier after that episode aired. Tommy was able to get credited minor roles in three hit movies in a row: Gladiator, The Mummy Returns, and Minority Report. “Oh, God, he was in heaven. He was in all these great movies and having the time of his life. He lived for that kind of thing. We didn’t see each other so much because he was traveling all the time, but he still came back when he could.”
In 2001, after finishing with Minority Report, Tommy began to think of bigger roles, but not in the movies. “He paid his way out to Connecticut to see the guys at the World Wrestling Federation and talk to them about getting on their wrestling shows. He said they were impressed with him, but he had no real experience at it. Even as strong as he was, without wrestling training he might accidentally hurt someone or get hurt. I mean, I know it’s more acting than real, yeah, but they really have to know what they’re doing. It’s kind of like live theater, but dangerous.
“He called that weekend and he was kind of bummed about it, but he never stayed down for long. He said he’d try some other things and see what happened.” After sightseeing in New York City and briefly visiting with Trent Lane, who happened to be in town at MTV Studios at the same time, Tommy spent Monday night in Manhattan, then drove to Newark International Airport the next morning and turned in his rental car. He then boarded a flight back to San Francisco to be with his sister for his 28th birthday the following day.
That day was September 11, 2001. The flight he caught was United 93.
Lizzy is quiet for a long time at this point. “I was still asleep when it happened,” she whispers, looking at a window. “He couldn’t have called me anyway, he didn’t have a cell phone. He never liked using those. He used to complain that someone would always call him when he was busy doing something else, so he got rid of his phone but he let me keep mine. I didn’t find out about it until I turned on the news before I went to work that morning. I just sat there in the kitchen, watching the reruns of it, over and over and over.
“It didn’t hit me even when they said on the news that Flight 93 had gone down in Pennsylvania and everyone on it was dead that he was gone. I thought maybe he missed his flight, maybe the plane had landed okay after all, all sorts of crazy stuff. I think I was really crazy for a while, seeing and listening to everything and wondering where he was.
“Then Trent called me about noon. He told me to sit down. I knew right away something was wrong from the way he talked. He said he had checked and found that Tommy was on the plane, Flight 93, and he didn’t...” Lizzy swallows and covers her mouth and looks away. Even now, eight years later, tears run down her face as she sits and stares at the apartment window and the buildings beyond. I wait as she sits, the pocket tape recorder still running, nothing being recorded.
A few minutes pass before she gets up to get a box of tissues. After she wipes her eyes and blows her nose, she goes on. “Some friends of mine tried to pay my way out to the crash place, but I wouldn’t go. I just couldn’t. I finally had his funeral when the FBI said they had some… some material that was his. The DNA matched. There was hardly anything left. I went ahead then and had the funeral with nothing in the coffin except some little bits that used to be him. I don’t know how I made it through that. I hardly remember it now. I don’t know why.”
She reaches for another tissue. “You know,” she says, “they had that thing a few years back where the FBI collected all the families of the Flight 93 victims, and they played the cockpit recorder for us and some of the 9-1-1 calls. Some of the families got to hear what their loved ones said, but I didn’t hear Tommy. In a way, that wasn’t a surprise. If he knew something was going wrong, he wouldn’t talk. He’d just sit and watch and listen and wait until he thought he could do something about it. Then he’d move, and there was nothing that could stop him. Nothing.”
She exhales heavily. “The only part I think might have been him was on the cockpit recording, near the end when you hear the sound of someone hitting the door from the passenger section. That’s a really loud noise, and whoever’s hitting that door hits it over and over and over and over, really fast and hard like a pile driver, until the terrorists say the door’s caving in and they’re going to crash the plane. Then it sounds like the door does break open, a bunch of the passengers are yelling, and you hear the terrorists start screaming like they’re in pain. It happens right before the crash. It’s really confusing to listen to on the tape, there’s so much else going on, but that’s what it sounded like to me.
“That might be the only part that was Tommy. If he was anything, that had to be him right there, tearing open the door and getting in there with the terrorists. Tommy wasn’t dumb. He had to have known what was going on from the other passengers, about New York getting hit and everything, when they were organizing to retake the plane. If he got his hands on a terrorist, that guy would be gone like that.” Lizzy snaps her fingers loudly. “You have no idea how strong he was. I almost never saw him when he was mad, but you can’t imagine how strong he could be when he was fired up. You… you just can’t imagine.”
Trent and a couple of other Daria stars came to the funeral. One of them was Tom Sloane, who joined the cast two years after “The Misery Chick.” “Tom was really sweet,” Lizzy says, and a small smile appears on her face. “He and Trent helped me out financially with the funeral, and then some. I could never repay them for everything they did. They were the best, God bless them.” It was Trent that suggested the song that was played at the funeral: “One Sweet Day,” the same song played at the memorial service for Tommy Sherman in “The Misery Chick.” Lizzy says the song was perfect. “Trent played it for us while someone else sang it.” She starts to say more but stops and pulls another tissue from the box.
A certain irony has made itself known about Tommy’s film career and what happened at the end of his life. “I didn’t think about it until a few years ago,” she says, “but in every movie he was in, Tommy’s character died. I mean, it’s almost funny, really. Maybe it is funny. He died in that Daria episode, he died in that Jurassic Park movie when the velociraptors got him—he never lived through any of the movies he was in. What was it, that movie about the mummy, he gets killed in a sword fight, and so on, every single time. It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s funny, given what really happened to him, but I think about it sometimes and wonder why that came out the way it did. I guess I’ll never know.”
These days, Lizzy Sheridan works for a special support group that helps the families of slain Los Angeles police officers. She also works for a second group that helps the families of soldiers killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She drives her big brother's car, a restored 1972 Mustang, bright red, with a racing engine. One day soon she plans to fly to Pennsylvania and see the place where he and the others on Flight 93 died. She can't say when she'll go, but she knows now that she's going, and there she will say her last goodbyes.
“I’m not like Tommy,” she says. “I can’t do what he did. This is all I can do, a little and there and not much else. It doesn't seem like a lot, but that's okay. I finally got my own trust fund that my mom left, and I can afford to do what I really want to do instead of wait on tables forever. Helping out the families of those who stood up for the rest of us and died doing it, that’s what I want to do. It’s my bit part in everything, my part in all that's left of the world now that he's gone. It's not much, but if I never get do anything more than this, it will be enough.”
Original: 04/07/10, 05/01/10