“Within days of registering I was making my first film appearance in “Hollywood Homicide,” a movie starring Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as detective buddies.”
By Dave Riley
RETIREMENT ISN’T EXACTLY A LIFETIME DO-OVER, but it is a kind of Act 2, a chance to accomplish things you never had the opportunity for during your Act 1. After retiring, some of my senior neighbors finally got to write a book or perfect their painting skills or perform on the stage. Some volunteer, some play more golf or tennis or bridge than they ever dreamed possible. The list goes on.
Alas, some don’t do much of anything except write snarky letters to the editor and complain on weekends when the neighbors’ grandkids come to visit.
“What do you do all day?” a young, fully employed relative asked me during my first year of retirement. “What do you want to do?” others asked.
What did I want to do? Really? I wanted to be in the movies, that’s what.
An older friend, Howard Fong, who had been doing character actor roles in TV and films for years kept after me to take a stab at it. “Be an extra,” he would say. “You’ve got the look they want.” Whatever that was.
So two years after I retired, I went up to Hollywood, a drive of about 50 miles, and registered with several agencies that secure extras — the current term of art is background actors — for film and TV. A surprising number of those registering were seniors — “Golden Pond” types, Howard called them..
First, before you think I believed I was about to become a star, let’s make clear where extras rank in the pecking order: dead last. They rarely get a screen credit, there’s no Oscar for best performance by an extra, and they don’t go to the Academy Awards unless they have a second job as a limo driver. On some sets, they don’t even make eye contact with stars, much less chat or have a coffee with them. That said, there are stars whom I have to applaud for being cordial with extras — in my experience Brad Whitford, Linda Park, Craig T. Nelson, Jimmy Smits (especially Jimmy Smits), and others.
Anyway, within days of registering I was making my first film appearance in “Hollywood Homicide,” a movie starring Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as detective buddies. We were in downtown Hollywood, at the Hollywood and Highland shopping complex, where Ford and Hartnett were about to shoot a foot race with some bad guys.
I waited with a few dozen others in an empty office space — and waited and waited. That’s what you do on movie sets. You wait. Suddenly a guy with a loud voice and a bad attitude caromed into the room and said, “I need ten people! Now!” Then he pointed to ten of us and we raced with him out the door. He positioned us on an outdoor stairway.
I’m new at this. Like totally new. I have not attended some Extras Academy or anything of the kind, so I don’t know what to expect. Suddenly a voice yells, “Background! Action!” And my nine companions start moving, which I figure I should do too. I go down the stairs, and pretty soon someone yells, “Cut!” I look around. There are at least one hundred shoppers who have stopped to watch us.
Wow! I’m in the movies!
“Back to one,” an assistant director says through a bullhorn, and even though I’m new I guess, correctly as it turns out, that means to go back to where I started from. So we do it all over again, and then even again. It was only a few hours of work, but I was happy.
I MUST HAVE DONE OKAY, BECAUSE A FEW DAYS LATER I was invited back for what is known as a “featured extra” bit. No lines, but apparently I will be seen on the screen. This time we are at a small ranch up off Mulholland where I am to portray a “dead body,” the final victim in “Hollywood Homicide.”
In the scene Ford and Hartnett walk by me as they investigate. I was splattered with movie blood and one arm is cut off — production assistants buried it in the dirt to simulate that it was cut off — but none of that seems to interest the two detectives. In the movie, Hartnett’s character wants to talk about getting out of police work and pursuing a movie career. Ford’s detective is busy ordering a uniform to get them some food: “Cheeseburger, well done. Raw onion, ketchup, pickle. No rabbit food.”
We do three rehearsals and seven or eight takes of this scene, which, as best I recall, takes well over an hour. The sun is just beginning to set, and after three takes someone up on the hill near the camera gushes over a bullhorn, “This scene is getting better and better!”
But Ford is irritated over all the retakes. “What about the performances?” he growls in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Are they getting any better?” I’m not pleased either because I can’t get up and relax between takes. Remember — my arm is buried. But of course how I feel doesn’t count.
Eventually we finish, and I try, unsuccessfully, to get up. Finally a production assistant helps me and I stagger to my feet. Then an amazing thing happens. The nearby crew breaks out in applause for my efforts — the grips, the gaffers, the lowly assistants.
In extra work there are things called “bumps,” extra bits of pay for using your own car or bringing a specialized costume like a tuxedo. Eric Fox Hays, the first assistant director, awards me a $100 bump for having “blood” splattered on me — it was on a studio costume, not my personal clothing —plus he pays me at the union rate even though I am non-union. Little did I realize that not every day would be this much fun.
I WENT ON TO APPEAR IN A BUNCH OF MOVIES: “Seabiscuit,” “American Wedding,” ”Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Princess Diaries,” and others. Also on TV shows including “The Gilmore Girls,” “Judging Amy,” “Boston Legal” and by far my favorite, “The West Wing.” On “The West Wing,” even though I was an extra, I was frequently assigned a role — newspaper reporter or secretary of state.
TV shows are more fun because normally you’re closer to the action — in the situation room at the White House, for example, or in Luke’s dineron “Gilmore Girls.” By contrast, a film like “Seabiscuit” involves lots of long exterior shots and hundreds of extras and mannequins — yep a lot of those race fans in the upper stands at Santa Anita were actually dummies. I have a DVD of “Seabiscuit” and even though I know where I am in every shot, I’ve never been able to find myself on the screen.
Eventually I got to speak on camera in some graduate student films at the New York Film Academy and Chapman University. (Don’t let the term “student” fool you. Those programs turn out some excellent filmmakers.) Then I was cast as a well meaning but naïve southern minister, Preacher Murphy, in a grisly full-length indie flick entitled “Abundant Sunshine.” The setting was Beaumont, Texas, but we actually shot in Whittier, just outside of L.A., and in a gritty area of suburban North Hollywood. Unfortunately the film has never been released although its trailers are on the internet — without me.
I was also in some commercials and actually had a line in one for the New York Times that ran on cable for over a year — “It’s aerobics for the brain,” I said, referring to the Times crossword.
But about five years ago I “retired” from the movies. The pay was lousy, and the commute was worse. Still I found that there are few things more exciting than on those occasions when you are featured, and two makeup ladies and a wardrobe guy come over and make a big fuss over you. Then suddenly comes the moment you are on camera. Now there’s a rush.
At the same time, nothing is more dull than sitting around for eight or nine hours waiting for that moment to come.
Caution: If you rent “Hollywood Homicide” to see me, be forewarned that my scene is a long shot. In fact, if it weren’t for the tiny bald spot on the back of my head, I could be mistaken for a big sack of flour.