Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Michael Bunin is that he works in his chosen field consistently. Remarkable because, well, he’s an actor.
He has been making his living fully as an actor for nearly two decades now, starting just three weeks after he arrived in Los Angeles fresh from his studies at UNLV.
If you are tuning in to NBC’s Superstore, you know him as Jeff, the manager from district headquarters. Or, if you watched the series My Boys, which ran for four seasons on TBS a few years back, you know him as memorabilia store owner Kenny Morittori.
But even if you skip sitcoms, Bunin is one of those actors whose face you have seen again and again. As he describes himself on Twitter: "Actor. I'm that guy you know from that thing you saw. UNLV!"
And that, in part, may be why he is so marketable. “I seem to fit whatever mold they want — not bald, have a little hair. Not skinny, not fat,” Bunin reflected.
That “everyman” quality makes Bunin a sort of utility player of the acting profession, someone who fills a variety of roles and seems tailor-made for every one.
As a kid, if there was a movie with Richard Pryor, Paul Newman, or Sidney Poitier, I had to see it. I was enamored with what was happening on the screen. (Then) in high school I did a lot of speech and debate events. In competition I started doing humorous interpretation monolog events where I played three or four characters. That’s where I got my first taste of performing.
Early Days at UNLV
I came to UNLV on a speech and debate scholarship from Chaparral High School in 1988. A girl I had a crush on asked me if I wanted to take a theatre course and I said, “Of course.” I had an interest in performing so it might have gone that way anyway. I gave the speech and debate scholarship back eventually.
UNLV really helped me have the career I am having. Students from when I was there are still quoting the professors we had then — Bob Brewer, Davey Marlin Jones, Jerry Crawford, Fred Olson, Maggie Wynn Jones. You really can credit Jeff Koep (former dean of the College of Fine Arts and former chair of the theatre arts department). He brought in a lot of these guys. He was just tunnel vision. He wanted to make the department the best it could be.
Every Friday there was a Poor Playwright’s Theater. As an actor you got to go in and do cold readings of plays in progress. It was great experience.
UNLV taught me to be prepared, be professional, be courteous. Don’t be a diva. Don’t complain.
Coming Back to Campus
Sometimes I sit in on classes now taught by (professor) Rayme Cornell, who was a UNLV student with me. I don’t lecture. I like to have the kids on their feet performing.
I also talk to them about fame. I say, “Raise your hand if you want to be an actor. Raise your hand if you want to be famous.
“Good news. You are an actor. A paycheck does not make you an actor. To be famous, you don’t have to be here. Get a DUI, a mugshot, and a publicist and you probably will get a reality show.”
Arriving in LaLa Land
I drove out to Los Angeles and crashed with friends. Within a week I met an agent at a restaurant.
I had a commercial audition a week later. I was very fortunate. I got the part. It was for a TV talk show called Vibe TV that was produced by Quincy Jones. I have had the same commercial agent for 20 years.
My first national commercial was for Enron. It never ran. I was in a Spam commercial that ran for about three years. After that, for about a decade, I did eight to 12 commercials a year.
I’m always willing to do a commercial. It’s a great way for an actor to make a living.
That "Ship My Pants" Kmart Commercial
When we were auditioning for it, we were talking about how funny it was, but we thought it probably never would air. Then it aired and went viral. Here I was at 45 and I got to be part of something that went viral. That was sort of nice.
Advice from Dad
My father used to say, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Prepare yourself to give yourself the best chance to succeed. That’s how you create luck.
This is a great example of “Preparation meets opportunity.” They had been auditioning for a week. The director knew me and called me and a couple of friends to come in and audition. This was a boring way to get a job that I couldn’t be happier with.
The cast is a fun group. You spend a lot of time with the people, so to have a fun set with nice people is great. You don’t get that a lot. When I pull into NBC, I am excited to be there.
But Luck Does Play a Role
I have good friends out here who are very good actors and just haven’t gotten lucky — who somehow, unbelievably can’t catch a break. Every working actor knows someone like that.
Advice for Any Profession
I can be as lazy as the next person. I have to fight it all the time. You’ve got to stay active in the community.
I get a lot of auditions because people see me on stage (doing improv). Sometimes you are up on stage before six people and think, “What am I doing here?” Then two days later you get a call (as a result of that performance). Everything is a steppingstone. You are less of a rookie each time you get in front of a camera.
In the last few weeks I have played five very different roles, including a recurring role on Amazon’s The Last Tycoon and a butler on a Nickelodeon show. I also was on the pilot of the TV show Superior Donuts.
It’s pilot season. We are all looking at new shows to see what’s out there.