Teo Castellanos' Life Is in his Plays

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After graduating from high school, he landed a job as a Dade County bus driver. Girls in school had ignored him, but Castellanos found driving a bus could be a turn-on. "You're transporting a few thousand people a day, and some of them are going to be young ladies, and some of them see a blue-collar civil service job as a really good job." That led to occasional shenanigans at the back of the bus. "I wasn't the only one. Let me tell you — those bus drivers are players." In Third Trinity, his character gets a blowjob while smoking a joint in the back after his shift is up.

At nights, booze and pot were generally his drugs of choice, but he found himself sliding more often into coke and heroin. "Cocaine did me in," he laments. Sometimes he was still in a drug haze when he drove the bus, but he says he never had an accident. He did, however, have another run-in with the law. In 1986, when he was 24, hanging out on the beach, he and some buddies got in a shouting match with cops. Castellanos, drunk, yelled, "Fuck you, pig." He says he was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and inciting a riot, but the charges were thrown out when the cop didn't appear in court. (There is no court record online of the incident.)

Castellanos found driving a bus could be a turn-on.

Amid the partying, Castellanos was a singer and/or percussionist in several bands — the surf-punk outfit the Randies; the ska band King 7 and the SoulSonics, which toured as far as Boston; and Kazak, a Haitian-oriented group — and started reading his social-protest poetry at open-mic nights at Miami Beach's Cameo Theater. Before one performance, he drank a beer a buddy had secretly laced with acid, and he realized a new kind of high in the audience applause. He began trekking to the downtown library to read Ginsberg and Kerouac. That led to a new enthusiasm for classes at Miami Dade College, but he got a C in English and failed another English class. For a while, he says, "I was really discouraged from writing."

In April 1988, on Key Biscayne, he met Lorna Burke, born in Jamaica, raised in Miami, with a bachelor's in speech pathology and two master's degrees, in education and computer education. They danced. "He was so down-to-earth, easygoing," she says. "I didn't have many friends. He was receptive to my advances." He drank on their first date but didn't use drugs in front of her because she was a straight arrow.

In August 1988, after he had been seeing her for several months, he decided he needed to stop the booze and dope. "I don't totally understand resilience," he muses now. "You can take two brothers living in tough circumstances. One can rise above it. The other can totally fall... But there was always a little voice in the back of my head: You're better than this. Until the age of 26, when I looked in a mirror and the voice said you are not better than this. You are this."

He went to a rehab facility and started outpatient counseling. A therapist told him he needed to break completely from his old self — including his rampant womanizing. He resisted that in his first days of therapy, but after the calamity with Burke on Meridian Avenue, he followed the therapist's advice and gave Burke and the other woman copies of the book Women Who Love Too Much, about codependents wasting time trying to fix damaged men. The other woman vanished from his life. Burke did too, for about a week, then came back. "I never read the book," she says.

Castellanos was happy to see her. He wasn't willing to give up women completely. At the rehab facility, "they told me I had to stop dating. I said, 'Hell no!'"

Two years later, in 1990, Castellanos and Lorna decided to have a child. As Castellanos' character, Teo, put it in Third Trinity: "I am going to get married — and I am going to be monogamous."

After dropping his junior high drama class, Castellanos hadn't considered drama again — until he went to rehab. He needed a goal. "Everybody told me I was crazy. Late 20s and I want to study theater."

First step: an acting class. Still driving the bus, he went to Miami Dade College part-time, getting an associate's degree in 1991, then commuting to Boca Raton by Tri-Rail to study drama at Florida Atlantic University. For his final year, he quit the bus job and went full-time, his wife supporting the family as a U.S. Air flight attendant.

Finally, in 1994, after 13 years of study, he had a bachelor's degree, but no one was rushing to hire a 32-year-old with little drama -experience. He became a substitute teacher in public schools while grabbing occasional acting jobs. In one early effort, he portrayed a noisy swan, causing a critic to complain that he "bleats so much that you want to wring his graceful neck."

The year he graduated, he used savings to buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house in South Miami for $93,000. The place was big enough for the couple and their young daughter, but Lorna gave keys to her mother and two bipolar brothers. "I put him through a lot with my family," she says. "My brother came here manic once. The SWAT team was here barely after we moved into the house."

Lorna's strong-willed mother, Juni Burke, was more of a persistent problem. One morning, she arrived at 7:30. Castellanos complained she was always barging in. Juni shot back that half the house belonged to her daughter and she was standing on her daughter's half. He called the cops.

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John Dorschner