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Are you a has been or washed up? Go appear on the Surreal Life. People consider Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, Ralph Macchio, Danny Bonaduce, and Gary Coleman celebrity has beens.

Home / Success & Failure  /
Would You Rather Be A Has Been Or A Never Been?
 Surreal Life

Has beens don't have it so bad unless they get obsessive about what they used to have

In the wake of the brand new remake of The Karate Kid, twenty-six years after I first saw the original on movie screens, I rewatched it with my girlfriend and her son.  Though I'm sure this was not the intent of the filmmakers at the time, the film captures the very different feeling and atmosphere of the mid 1980's.  It also captures something else:  a teen-aged-looking Ralph Macchio, aged 22 at the time, at the peak of his acting career.  Macchio went on to star in a few Karate Kid sequels and a few other pics in the mid 1980's.  His last big screen part was in 1992's My Cousin Vinny in a supporting role.   By most conventional assessments, Macchio, now pushing 50, is considered washed up.

We can cite countless other examples.  Think of Gary Coleman, mega-star of the late 1970's and early 1980's in Diff'rent Strokes, whose career languished in the toilet thereafter.  Danny Bonaduce's most popular acting gig was playing Danny Partridge in The Partridge Family between 1970 and 1974.  Nancy Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board's daughter, had a singing and acting career in the 1960's.  That career was over by the mid 1970's.   In 1995, she posed nude in Playboy as one means to get attention to promote her 'comeback' album.   

In some way, I think we, the average Joes of society, get some perverted pleasure seeing people once on the top of the world now running up to us like lapdogs trying to get back into our good graces.  It makes us feel justified with the average heights our own lives have probably risen to.  How else can you explain the success of a show like The Surreal Life, which brings together celebrities past their prime living together in a Los Angeles mansion?

It's interesting that we don't usually apply the term "washed up" or "has been" to those in other fields whose greatest achievements are behind them.   In business:  Sabeer Bahtia co-founded Hotmail and sold it to Microsoft for $400m at the end of 1997.  Jared Polis made over $100m when his Blue Mountain Arts was sold to Excite@home in 1999.  Although Bhatia has gone onto other business projects and Polis has become the first openly gay man elected to the House of Representatives as a freshman, neither has since scored as lucrative a financial payout as their successes more than a decade ago.  Yet neither would ever be described as a has been. 

In sport:  baseball player Ted Williams retired at age 42 and lived another 42 years before he died.  No one ever called him washed up when he was in his 50's or 60's.  Homerun dynamo Hank Aaron retired at age 42, too, and he's still alive as of this writing.  No one accuses him of being washed up.   Or Jack Nicklaus.   Or Michael Jordan.   They're heralded as heroes, some of the best who've ever played their respective sports. 

It appears that one only gets mocked as a has been if s/he attempts a return to the limelight long after the former glory days have faded, a phenomenon more common in the field of entertainment than sports or business.  The once-upon-a-time A-list celebrities who appear on The Surreal Life all have something in common:  a desire to reignite their fame and fortunes to where they were in their primes.  They will go to any lengths, foolish or tawdry, to get today's public to embrace them.  Reality television is the meal ticket for many of these has beens, as it's so easy and inexpensive to get a reality show on the air.  My Fair Brady (Christopher Knight a.k.a. Peter Brady),  The Two Coreys (Corey Haim and Corey Feldman), The Anna Nicole Show (Anna Nicole Smith), and Re-inventing Bonaduce (Danny Bonaduce) are all trash that once tarnished the airwaves.   A dozen or dozen-and-a-half episodes get cheaply made before audiences lose interest in the has beens' servile maneuvers to relaunch their fame.  Dustin "Screech" Diamond is the most pathetic example.  He'll go to any lengths whatsoever to keep his name in the tabloids, from appearing in his own low budget porno to writing a tell-all book that disses all his former Saved By The Bell co-stars.   

But make no mistake.  The has been phenomena isn't limited to movie and pop stars.   Muhammed "The Greatest" Ali could have remained the greatest had he kept his boxing gloves in the closet after he retired in 1979.   When he unwisely came out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Burbick in 1981 and lost, people were calling him a has been. 

You can't be considered a has been until you've already been successful.  Christopher Knight was successful  as an actor -- in the early 1970's.  The two Coreys were, too -- in the 1980's.  Muhammed Ali couldn't have been humiliatingly defeated twice if he hadn't already been crowned as a king.  If you're on top of the world in whatever your field of expertise, there's only one direction left to travel later, and that's down.

So it's actually rather brutal when the public condemns a former success story for either trying to make money off his previous fame or character or for taking another stab at reaching the peak.  Another way of looking at it is to say that these people are being penalized for having once been successful.  I have no doubt that if Hollywood agreed to make a reality show about me, the show would be as terrible as Christopher Knight's, the two Coreys', and Anna Nicole Smith's.  The difference is that I am not previously a household name.  I couldn't be mocked as a has been.

Is that any real consolation?  If you were given the choice to have been ultra successful in some endeavor in the past, at a level you probably could not surpass today, or to have never achieved any major level of success up to this point, which would you take?   It may seem like a question with only one right answer.  Who wouldn't opt to have been at the top of the heap at least at some point in their life rather than have not achieved any notable success? 

Think hard before you answer.  For many, achieving the peak of one's success in the past distorts the rest of their life for the worse.  Gary Coleman comes to mind.   He was perpetually unhappy after Diff'rent Strokes was canned and his career ended.  He died a bitter man at age 42.  Some could argue that Gary was bitter because his parents filched most of his millions.  In answer to that, I'd say that it's quite possible to be a rich has been.  If someone is so closely identified with a prior success, it's because he's not reaped bigger honors later.  He will be seen as a has been regardless of how many millions he may have tucked away in the bank account from the early score.   Bob Dylan is one such example.  He's got plenty of money, but he'll never again achieve the heights he climbed to in the 1960's and early 1970's. 

Macauley Culkin of Home Alone fame is another.  His movie career is unlikely to regain the luster it possessed in the early 1990's.

 Of course, the penniless candidate stands the better chance of being called washed up. Those who get rich from their earlier successes appear less desperate during attempts to relight their torch's flame than those who never amass lots of cash, and desperation is part and parcel of the has been.  But it's still possible to be desperate -- desperate for fame usually -- if you're rich. 

To honestly answer the has been vs never been question for our debate, we must remove money from consideration and assume that past mega-success has not left behind an enormous bank balance in its stead.  Without that assumption, most anyone would choose to have achieved past mega-success, the younger the better, simply to set them up financially for life and remove life's desperation, and that ignores the real issue we're discussing.  It can be an enormous burden knowing, while still relatively young, that your best years are behind you.   Without that thought hanging over your head, maybe you could empower yourself enough to realize that your best successes may be ahead of you.  Dreams of success for the future provide more fuel for further goal achievement than obsessions about unsurpassable successes achieved long ago.  Personally, I'd rather know (or delude myself) my peaks are ahead.

There's nothing wrong with reaching the pinnacle at a young age as long as you don't spend the rest of your life obsessed with getting back there and valuing your very identity on how close you get.   Plenty a past success in one field prudently moves on to pursue a different sort of success in another.  The financial payouts in the new career field may never match what they were earning before, but since a different yardstick is being used, it doesn't matter so much.  Carol Potter, who played the matriarch on the original Beverly Hills 90210, set up a counseling practice.  Wayne Rogers of M*A*S*H  fame, became a successful investor, actually earning more from his investments than he ever did on the TV show.  So did Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter.   It's difficult to call any of these people has beens because, for one, they all achieved success in their new fields and, two, none of them are appearing in the public eye juvenilely trying to get back something they once had. 

To be fair, the masses condemn anyone publicly trying to be something they're not.   If I were to suit up as a twenty year old, visit a college fraternity party, and try to pick up young co-eds, I would be viewed by the co-ed peer group as a washed up has been -- a has been of youth in this case.   When Michael Jordan quit basketball in 1993 and tried to make a go of it in baseball, he was hooted a has been athlete.  This was not really accurate.  Jordan was still an accomplished basketball player when he went back to play for the Chicago Bulls in 1995.  He just wasn't up to the same standard in baseball, and the public saw him as trying to be someone he wasn't. 

When I was a child and acting inappropriately, my mother, probably like millions of mothers worldwide, barked at me to act my age.  What she meant, more specifically, was that I should act like someone of my age, background, culture, station, and so on.   And, at heart, this is how and why we label people as has beens.   They're trying to act like the people they were, not the people they currently are.  Were the actors in The Surreal Life to instead appear in minor supporting roles in a network drama, no one would remark they were washed up.     

By this measure, Ralph Macchio of Karate Kid fame may very well be past his prime as an actor, but he's not a has been.   Macchio realizes he's been typecast but at the same time he embraces the role that typecast him and, in a recent video, makes fun of it.  The true has been would've been begging studios to produce The Karate Kid In Middle Age. 

If you liked reading this, consider:
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 The Complete Article Index