Dead Eyes: The Podcast That Preaches the Power of Perseverance

The premise is shockingly simple yet somehow seemingly unattainable: Comedian Connor Ratliff started his podcast to find out why he was fired from the HBO show Band of Brothers by none other than Tom Hanks because, rumor had it, Hanks had said Ratliff had “dead eyes.”

That’s it. He sets off to find out if that was really the case. He tracks down various people to interview, like the actor who would eventually be hired for the role he’d booked and lost. He said his ultimate goal was to get to Hanks and have a conversation with him.

It would have been so easy for this veer into cringeworthy territory. It was a small role that he’d lost out on 20 years before, one that had very few speaking lines, so the question on many minds was “Why can’t you just get over it?”

This is where I found so much relatability with Ratliff. He wasn’t an obsessive, broken down by the experience and unable to proceed in life without this closure. He was doing fine. But that rejection had radically altered his life. He’d gone to drama school in London, and this was going to be a nearly big break, or so he thought. When it fell through, he left acting for a long time.  It’s not melodramatic for someone’s confidence to be shaken after a “Here you go; the job is yours, but oh wait, not really” type of incident. But for Hollywood’s nicest man, America’s dad, to say you have dead eyes would have lingered. It would have festered. I don’t blame him at all, as the type of person who can remember one-off insults hurled at me in arguments and disagreements and still feel their sting, still search for the hint of truth that caused a person to say them in the first place.

The thing I love about the entire series is that threads a needle perfectly: It’s 100% a self-centered exercise, with the explicit purpose to get an answer to something that only matters to him, but at the same time, it’s not something to induce eye-rolls for being overly self-indulgent.

He finds a way to universalize an experience that we can all relate to: Something didn’t go our way, and it forced us to adapt. The success garnered by the podcast is without a doubt more significant and meaningful than any two-line role on a wildly successful and critically acclaimed miniseries would have been.

Spoiler alert: The podcast has been in the news because Ratliff finally nabbed his great white whale; Tom Hanks came on the podcast. A person could jump in and listen to the podcast as a one-off episode, but I strongly discourage that approach and suggest you commit to the entire journey over the course of three seasons, 30 episodes.

It sounds like a lot, I know; I don’t dispute it. But there is such an emotionally resonant payoff when these two men sit in a room and talk together if you’ve heard the fits and starts, the digressions and interviews with surprising people, the self-reflection and the genuine comedic value of some of the interviews.

Ratliff is a good-natured host and refreshingly honest about his “failures” (if you can call them that in the acting world), and as a person with creative aspirations, it felt so good to hear it normalized. It reinforces my belief in the power of one’s story, one of the things that so drew me to magazine writing, where the first-person isn’t discouraged. I remain convinced that one of the truest forms of journalism (of which I would not really consider this podcast to be most of the time) is to eschew the fiction of objectivity and simply promise a reader/listener, “I’m going to relay to you my experience, and in sharing my biases and feelings, I can give you the most realistic version of what I’m experiencing.”

Ratliff’s podcast did this same thing. He took us inside his mind when he got that rejection, and he built up the narrative of his life that led to that moment and how it was altered after that moment. Yes, it is navel-gazey in its very specific way, but it doesn’t let navel-gazing become the point; it’s a means to a larger truth: that sometimes something that seems like the worst thing that could happen to us is actually a blessing in disguise because of all it makes possible going forward.

For more thoughts on the big interview with Hanks, as well as a retrospective account of the entirety of the podcast’s run, Nick Quah wrote about it better than I ever could over at Vulture.