It was just 14 years ago when Franklin Ojeda Smith laid in a hospital bed at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, battling colon cancer and wondering how he would pull through.
A friend’s pastor came to visit Smith, kindly praying over him in Spanish. Smith, who decades earlier had brushed off advice to become a professional actor, suddenly felt moved.
“I laid down and had an epiphany — a voice saying, ‘Go into performing arts,’” recalls Smith, a longtime professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “I said, ‘Well, God, if I get well, I’ll pursue acting.’”
Smith thought he would be lucky to get some voiceover work — many told him over the years that he had a baritone “God-like” voice. But at a showcase at Weist-Barron-Ryan Acting Workshops in Atlantic City, where Smith was taking classes, an agent watching him perform was interested.
Soon after, he landed his very first role — as an extra for a taping of HBO’s “Sex and the City.”
“I was on set for 17 hours and made $59,” Smith says, laughing. “But I was so interested in learning. I was like a kid in a candy store, just gobbling up everything I saw, all the stimulus. I was especially interested in the actors, how did they do their thing. Rather than spend time gossiping or griping, I got as close as I could and just studied them, intensely.”
The study paid off. Today, Smith is a successful working character actor with dozens of film and television credits to his name — most recently as Deacon Lemuel Cuffy on HBO’s hit series “Boardwalk Empire.” He will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for Acting and Education at the 12th annual Garden State Film Festival, taking place Thursday, April 3, through Sunday, April 6, at various locations in Atlantic City.
The festival, the brainchild of industry veteran Diane Raver and the late actor Robert Pastorelli, first launched in Asbury Park in 2003. It moves to Atlantic City for the first time this year, part of a marketing effort by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to position the resort as a center of arts and culture.
More than 100 films and documentaries will be screened throughout the four-day festival at theaters inside Resorts Casino Hotel, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and Dante Hall in Atlantic City. The Green Room on the 13th floor of the Chelsea Hotel will serve as a filmmaker lounge for the event.
Kicking off the festival will be a special silent movie screening 7 p.m. Thursday inside the ballroom at Boardwalk Hall. Ticket sales from the screening of the 1926 film “The Black Pirate” will benefit the Historic Organ Restoration Committee, with the musical score performed live on the hall’s Kimball organ.
On Friday, former film fest Lifetime Achievement winners Ed Asner and Diane Ladd will present the 2014 Independent Spirit Award to actress Laura Dern (“Wild at Heart,” “Jurassic Park”), daughter of Ladd and actor Bruce Dern. Margate native Scott Neustadter will be presented with the 2014 Spirit of New Jersey Award, in part for his screen adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars,” which stars Dern. Smith will be featured in the festival selection “Pacing the Cage,” screening 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Resorts’ Horizon room.
Film and theater actress Bebe Neuwirth, a native of Princeton, will receive the 2014 Wave of Excellence Award at the festival. Neuwirth, perhaps best known for her role as Lilith on “Cheers” and “Frasier,” will debut her short film “Jerome’s Bouquet,” co-directed with her husband Chris Calkins. The couple raised more than $15,000 on the fundraising site Kickstarter to finance the film — no small feat, but still a tight budget to work under, Neuwirth says.
“Although it is a lot of money, it’s a very, very small amount of money to put on a show with eight actors and three days of shooting and editors,” Neuwirth says. “There’s so much involved. So it’s really guerilla filmmaking.”
Still, Neuwirth says she loved being behind the camera for a change, especially with a cast that included family and friends.
“It was thrilling to be the person wearing the headset — I had a moment of ‘Yay! I get the headset!’” Neuwirth says. “I really enjoy the process of working with actors and coaching them. And that’s really what this is. The difference is, my focus was on telling the story that my husband wanted to tell. It was his script, his idea, his movie, and I’m just as an actor tries to serve the play.”
For Smith, being an actor is a dream he thought he would never achieve.
“I audition all the time — and eventually something hits, either in the commercial field, small or big screen,” Smith says. “I just love it. It’s such a powerful, powerful art. I always thought that the pen was mighty, but, in this age, this medium, is just an awesome.”