Question: I used to love the '80s show Riptide and really liked Joe Penny. Just out of curiosity, though, was that his first big role? — Dara P., Mason City, Iowa
Televisionary: "Big" is always a relative term, Dara. (Try telling some kid just out of school that a bit part on a TV series or a minor role in a major feature isn't big, for example.) Penny had already done guest work on such series as Nancy Drew Mysteries, Lou Grant and Archie Bunker's Place, and had even landed the role of Bugsy Siegel in the nine-part Gangster Chronicles before he and Perry King co-starred as two beach-bum gumshoes in NBC's Riptide from January 1984 to April 1986.
The thing was, Penny had been trying for the role of King's Cody Allen rather than the role he landed, that of Nick Ryder. "But we asked him back to consider Nick's part," co-executive producer Babs Greyhosky told TV Guide in 1985. "There was never a doubt Joe could handle the macho, cocky side of Nick, but we were also looking for a guy who could show a compassionate, caring side."
In the meantime, Penny was looking to beef up his finances and end the money struggle he'd been facing since he was a kid. His parents divorced when he was 7, his mom remarried and divorced again, and he was working at age 13 to help support his younger brother and sisters. He left home at 15 and shared an apartment with three friends while going to high school, playing football and moonlighting on a maintenance crew. "My high-school teachers didn't know about how I was living, or care, as long as I made the grades," he said.
Penny picked acting over junior-college football and, as I said, managed to get some roles, but the lean times continued. "I went to Joe's little Hollywood apartment one day when we were both broke," James Andronica, a writer-actor pal from Penny's Gangster days recalled. "He was rolling pennies into holders. He said, 'I've got about 40-bucks-worth here; help me roll and you can have half'."
Even so, Penny turned down work. "Joe wouldn't take jobs he didn't believe in," Andronica said. "He had a role set in a bona-fide TV-movie about couples on some island getting herpes. But finally he told me, 'This thing is ridiculous — I just can't do it.' When he told the producers, they thought he was crazy."
And while the money woes ended with the Riptide gig, the work didn't get much easier. As I've mentioned in this column many a time before, working on a TV series often involves long days. "I get worried," Penny said more than a year into the series. "I go home after work some nights and there's this deafening ringing in my ears. And I can't remember what I did that day. I can't remember what my lines were or what the last scene was, so I worry whether I did all right.... At the end of these 15-, 16-hour days, my body is still there doing a scene, but my mind creeps away, gets in the car and starts driving home."
Of course, the cash made it easier — but not that easy. "I'm getting paid very good money to come through week after week," Penny said, "[but] when I get home at night and stick a TV dinner in the microwave and I can't remember what the last scene was... man, it gets me worried."
Such conditions usually tear a set apart, or bring the co-stars together. Luckily for Penny and co-stars King and Thom Bray, who played computer geek Boz, it was the latter. "Perry's very tired, too." Penny said. "All three of us get irritated about something sooner or later. But, no baloney, I made a pact with Perry and Thom at the start that we'd pull together like the Three Musketeers, and that's the way it's worked. We give each other lines to keep us all involved in scenes; we make sure none of us is missing from any episode for very long; if one of us is down, the other two help him through."
Of course, such cooperation only goes so far and sometimes the stress was a little too much, like the time Penny got upset over the way a scene was edited, picked up his motel-room TV and tossed it out the window. Of course, his deeply embedded instinct for frugal living helped end such outbursts. "The next morning I wrote the motel a check for $350," he said. "Now I just scream into a pillow — it's much cheaper.