Ryan Oliver was so young that he can’t remember filming his first commercial.
Yes, before Siena’s junior guard became one of the MAAC’s most lethal 3-point shooters, he was an actor, appearing in several commercials as a child. He debuted at 11 months old for a health care product, and filmed a handful of other plugs before high school.
“Intel was the big one,” he says.
As he has done throughout his life, Oliver followed in the footsteps of his older and only brother, Vince. Seven years Ryan’s elder, Vince landed his first acting gig when he was 5 years old. It was an advertisement for Manwich Sloppy Joe’s Sauce.
“They used the audition tape for the commercial,” Vince, 29, says, “so I was just on stage singing whatever Manwich’s jingle was. They’re like, ‘Great, we’re going to use that.’ That was the best job I got because,” he begins to chuckle, “I didn’t even have to work.”
The Olivers weren’t poor — their Inglewood, California home featured a backyard with two glass backboards — but they weren’t rich. Parents Vince Sr. and Cynthia viewed acting as a potential cash cow that could help pay for Vince Jr. and Ryan’s college tuitions.
Like many stories, the Oliver brothers’ introduction to acting began with someone who knew someone.
“My mom had a friend who knew an acting coach,” Vince Jr. says.
That acting coach was Betty Bridges, the mother of Different Strokes star Todd Bridges. Yes, we’re talkin’ ‘bout Willis. Four-year-old Vince signed up for Bridges’ class.
“I literally took two or three acting classes, and Betty Bridges told my mom about this showcasing event, that a lot of agents would be there,” he says. “I just did a monologue and got an agent. It just kind of happened. We had no expectations.”
Months later he was singing a jingle on TV.
By Ryan’s sixth birthday, Vince had already appeared in episodes of The Wayans Bros., NYPD Blue and Smart Guy. He played Jimmy Harrison in 46 episodes of the ephemeral NBC soap opera Sunset Beach, his favorite role.
“He was successful at it,” Ryan says, “and I decided to give it a shot.”
So Ryan accompanied his older brother to acting class. When he was 7 years old, Intel tabbed him for a role in a commercial. He also appeared in PSAs at 11 and 12 years old.
“I would miss class to go shoot the commercials for sometimes a week or two at a time,” Ryan says.
Adds Vince: “For us that was the coolest part. It was cool seeing yourself on TV, and your classmates would watch. That was cool. But when we were younger it was we could miss school and still be doing something productive.”
But for Ryan, whom Vince describes as sociable but laid back, the attention was occasionally overwhelming, Ryan wasn’t ostracized, but he sometimes felt out of place.
“[Classmates] would be like, ‘Where are you?’” Ryan recalls. “They would be like, ‘Oh, he’s Hollywood. He doesn’t have to go to school. He’s on TV and stuff.’ I liked that I missed school, but I just wanted to be a normal kid that fit in with my friends and stuff. I wasn’t too big on the idea of Hollywood.”
Vince wasn’t big on it, either, at least in comparison to basketball. By Ryan’s freshman year at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, Vince had emerged as a hoops star at UC Davis. Throughout the years he spent acting, Vince was also honing his craft on the hardwood.
“In high school, hoop was pretty serious,” he says. “We were like, ‘We don’t know if [acting’s] worth it.”
Vince remembers playing one-on-one with Ryan in their backyard, estimating that he was 14 at the time. The two glass backboards formed a mini full court, and the two brothers would go back and forth, Vince usually dominating thanks to his size advantage and Ryan typically resorting to long heaves.
“That’s a place where he probably started shooting threes because he couldn’t drive on me,” Vince says. “So as soon as I’d make it, he’d grab it and chuck it at the basket on the other side.”
Throughout high school, Vince recalls bursting through the locker room doors with his teammates after countless halftimes and seeing Ryan shooting, his form improving every year. Ryan became a solid basketball player with lofty potential in middle school, and he faced the same decision at 12 years old that confronted Vince in high school.
“I hadn’t had as much success [as Vince acting], but I was getting a lot of calls for interviews and stuff,” Ryan says. “It was starting to interfere with basketball, so my parents just sat me down and told me I had a decision to make. They’d support me either way, but I had to go with either acting or basketball. And I decided to go with basketball.”
Just like Vince.
“Having him in my life as a role model really helped me, especially with him playing Division I basketball,” Ryan says. “Just seeing all the work he put in during the summers and being successful with it in the season, I was able to see firsthand that it wasn’t easy. Just following after him, the work ethic that he had, I did it for myself, too. I spent as much time as I could working on my shot, working on my game, not just during the summers but during the school years, too.”
Ryan started as a junior at Loyola alongside fellow Division I recruits Miles Cartwright (Penn), Tony Wroblicky (American) and Julian Harrell (Penn). Former St. Bonaventure guard Jordan Gathers played for the nationally ranked team when Ryan was a sophomore.
Ryan didn’t score like Cartwright. He was five inches shorter than Wroblicky, and Gathers projected as an Atlantic 10 guard. So Ryan crept under the radar just like he has quietly found holes in college’s zones.
“I was like a secondary option,” he says.
A handful of mid-majors expressed interest in Ryan during his junior season, but when he tore his ACL playing AAU ball the summer before his senior year, he knew he would need to go the prep route to get a Division I scholarship.
Ryan boarded a plane at LAX, just five minutes from his home, and flew to Massachusetts to play for Northfield Mount Herman School during the 2011-12 school year.
“It was my first time seeing snow,” he says.
The pressure — perform poorly and you might not get another shot at a scholarship — could have crippled many teenagers. “I knew I had a year to achieve what I wanted to achieve,” Ryan says. But he did not succumb, as the skills he acquired as an actor manifested themselves in his game, his work ethic, in many more ways than flopping.
“We were basically in an adult world as kids,” Vince says. “You go on hundreds of auditions before you get a job, and that can be deflating to continuously go on all these things and not see any benefit for all your hard work. Then having to memorize lines and be able to perform on the spot, I think those are things that, at the time, I didn’t know would carry over but looking back definitely acting helped.”
Ryan excelled through the adversity and accepted a scholarship offer from former Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro. “I didn’t know much about them,” Ryan says. “I just knew when I was younger I would fill out my bracket and they would always mess up my bracket.” But adversity would return to Ryan’s basketball life in the form of a coaching change after his freshman year. The Saints had gone 8-24 — Ryan battled injuries and played just 13.1 minutes per game — and the athletics department elected to part ways with Buonaguro.
In came Jimmy Patsos.
Not every kid has the mental fortitude to play for a coach like Patsos, an eccentric and passionate but loving former bartender. Ryan could have easily decided to leave Siena for a more naturally suitable environment, but he gave Patsos a chance. As it turns out, Patsos also gave Ryan a chance.
“I had people telling me to cut Ryan Oliver,” Patsos says of his first few months on the job.
Says Ryan: “I know I’ve heard many stories throughout the country of the coach coming in and clearing house, so that was always in the back of my mind. But I didn’t want to make any decision before I got a chance to sit down and talk to coach.”
They talked. Ryan appreciated Patsos’ easygoing nature in the meeting, and humbly offered his coach a simple message.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to be promised anything because I know you’ve got your guys coming in. I just want an opportunity to show what I can do’” Ryan recalls. “That’s all I can really ask for at the end of the day. He was like, ‘You’ll get your opportunity.’”
Opportunity knocked in the form of 16.6 minutes per game. Ryan averaged 4.7 points and shot 36.5 percent from long range. In Siena’s six-game run to the CBI championship, Ryan averaged 7.5 points and shot 45.5 percent from deep.
“He was tremendous,” Patsos says.
This year, with the injury bug attacking Siena early and often, Ryan has emerged as a steady force, his last three games notwithstanding. The junior is averaging 7.2 points in 23.9 minutes per game. He ranks fifth in the MAAC at 41.9 percent from long range.
Ryan ranks 12th nationally with a 132.6 offensive rating and 6.2 turnover rate, numbers that are great but inflated by a 12.1 percent usage rate. He’s 105th with a 3.8 percent steal rate.
Vince, now a third-year head coach at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, has paid close attention. He and his parents never grew accustomed to seeing Ryan on the big screen — the younger brother appeared in four commercials — but they’ve gotten used to watching his basketball games on the computer.
“It’s tough not being able to see him [in person], but more than anything I’m just proud of him,” Vince says. “This was one of his goals that he set out to accomplish and even through some of the injuries and setbacks, I’m proud that he was able to accomplish what he set out. I’m happy to watch 3,000 miles away. I’m just glad he’s playing.”
Because if he wasn’t playing, maybe he’d still be acting. And Ryan’s not Hollywood anymore. He never really was. His life as an actor is lodged so far in his memory that the lines from his commercials evade him.
“Shoot,” he says, “it’s been a while.”
Ari Kramer is a New York-based writer who covers the MAAC for One-Bid Wonders. Follow him on Twitter at @Ari_Kramer.