It’s not all that surprising that Chris Brown and Frank Ocean got into a brawl in L.A. two weekends ago. Partly because, well, Chris Brown. But mostly because the fight reportedly started over a parking spot. In hierarchical Hollywood, where one gets to stow one’s ride is no small matter. Long before he started talking to chairs, Clint Eastwood once rammed his vehicle into a car that had taken his reserved space, then allegedly had to be restrained after threatening to smash its windows with a hammer.
The Ocean-Brown throwdown was over a parking space at a Santa Monica Boulevard recording studio, but it’s movie and television studio compounds where spots become most contentious. Their vastness contains many opportunities for a performer to feel slighted. “It’s both ludicrous and completely accurate to say a studio parking spot is a measure of your self-worth,” says Stephen Tobolowsky, a veteran character actor whose credits include The Mindy Project, Justified, Californication, and Glee. Actors lowest in the pecking order are often forced to park in remote lots alongside sunburned tourists. Unless the shoot is at CBS or Fox, where unknowns suffer even greater indignities. “They recently built new spots that are even further than where the audiences park,” says Tobolowsky. “I actually once got angina walking from CBS parking to the set.”
Actors with recurring roles on a show get to park on the studio lot, but not a spot with their name on it. Those are hard to come by even for so-called series regulars, says one talent agent, “because when it comes to parking, the stars literally circle the wagons.” Parking politics get especially fraught among members of ensemble casts. During the early days of Glee, parking was ad hoc at the Long Beach high school where the series was then filmed. “But by season three, the show had moved onto a studio lot,” Tobolowsky recalls, “and you had the cast parking in three different parking areas depending on how cool they were.” Lea Michele, Jane Lynch, and Matt Morrison could pull up right next to their trailers. Tobolowsky (who played meddling former Rhythm Explosion musical director Sandy Ryerson) belonged to the middle caste, whose members got passes they could wave at the entrance to their more remote lot — an advantage over extras and day players, who had to queue up at the gate and check in with the guard.
An ironic aspect of the rule of thumb that "the bigger the star, the closer the spot" is that those same stars are the least likely to drive themselves. Or feel confined to using legitimate spots at all. One story has it that when Frankie Muniz turned 16 while filming Malcolm in the Middle, he got a “crazy car — it was from The Fast and the Furious and autographed by all the stars, I think,” a former television executive recalls. One day, Muniz parked in a no-parking zone, which he was asked to vacate. He tossed his keys to a production staffer “and was, like, ‘Can you move that for me?’ That was the day he kind of started to become a diva,” says the exec. “Until then, he’d been super-nice.” Some stars, aware of the vibe a prime spot conveys, opt to eschew the perk — Harrison Ford, for instance, insists on parking among the key grips and caterers in the general lot. Other celebrities, in this age of TMZ, are happy to enjoy a space next to the door, so long as they can do so anonymously. “Will Smith certainly doesn’t want you to know where he’s parking,” says a producer. “People like that, they’ve all switched to numbered spots.”
With such parking luxuries out of reach for him, Tobolowsky has come up with a way to minimize hassles. When he’s working — and his status on that studio lot is therefore temporarily secure — he drives his wife’s car, a dinged-up Ford Fusion hybrid. But when he’s trying out for a new role, he uses what he terms his “audition car,” which he acquired last year. “I have the fanciest Mercedes-Benz you could possibly have. It’s a 2015 AMG CLS that goes 200 mph — and I only drive this car to the set when I have an audition. The guards let me park wherever I want — Tom Selleck’s spot, Drew Carrey’s spot — as long as I show up in the audition car,” Tobolowsky says. “The director, the casting agents, the producers? They never see it — it’s strictly for the guy at the gate.”