Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fifteen Minutes

I had lost my savings, was living in a room at my parent's home in Los Angeles, struggling back to my feet--for who knows how many times already--when my friend Mike gave me a part-time job lugging audio and video gear around to conventions and business conferences. I broke a few windows in nice hotels and restaurants schlepping the heavy video monitors and speakers around tight corners. Mike took it all in stride, but you knew it bothered him to have a guy on his staff that had the dexterity of a moose.

We were working the control room at an entertainment fete honoring Gregory Peck when I asked Mike about the teleprompter. It was a computer screen that mounted directly below a camera lens so the "talent" could stare at the audience and seemingly recite long strings of text without a flinch. The screen was wired to a portable computer into which the operator had uploaded the script. You spun a small wheel to move the text down the screen, timing it with the natural speech patterns of the actor.

Mike didn't have the gear but I introduced myself to the woman running the prompter, and she gave me the number to her agency. I went down to the small studio in Hollywood, tested out at 70 words a minute on the keyboard, and was hired immediately. The owner showed me how to mount the screen beneath the camera, how to run the timing wheel, and adjust the type size since some actors had vision issues. The larger the text on the screen, the faster you would have to spin it to keep pace.

I was hardly trained appropriately when I was sent to Warner Brothers to run the prompter for a weekly sit-com with Norm MacDonald. The actors typically had their own prompter operators for the show--if they used one--but I was there to help with the production of promos or commercials. The camera gear was delicate, and I feared messing up an expensive lens, but the director of photography helped settle me down and, aside from a system crash that required a reboot, it went off famously.

Next, I was sent to run the prompter for a lawn fertilizer commercial starring James Whitmore. Whitmore was a hero from my childhood, had starred in Them!, one of my favorite horror films about giant nuclear ants that attacked Los Angeles. For the fertilizer ad, we set up on the lawn of an elegant mansion overlooking Los Angeles' elite Riverside Country Club. I was scared shitless.

The director brought Whitmore over so he could run through his lines on the prompter and Whitmore, now in his mid-70s, needed extremely large type if he were to read without the aid of his glasses. He was distinguished, smoking away on a fragrant pipe, looking over the top of his glasses at me as I spun the wheel. He was generous and kind, wishing me well in my new job, in the "industry", as everyone called it. I told him how much I loved his work, and how I scared the crap out of my brother those Saturday evenings when we watched the horror movies. It had slipped my mind that he had recently completed an Oscar worthy performance in The Shawshank Redemption as an elderly convict so troubled with the chaos of life on the outside that he hangs himself. Later I would regret commenting on his role as a hunter of giant ants.

It went so swimmingly that the production company put in a good word for me and my boss sent me out again, this time to a lot in Culver City where Arnold Schwarzenegger was completing a role where he fights the Devil incarnate. I was to film a spot he was sending distributors, encouraging them to sell the daylights out of the movie. He arrived on time, puffing away on a cigar, and decided he didn't need me. He would wing his lines. I was astounded at how short he was, despite his muscles, and four years later he would lead a recall effort that ousted California Governor Gray Davis and cost me a job at the capital.

Next, the agency sent me to Maria Conchita Alonso's house in the Hollywood Hills to shoot a promo for a charity. Sweet and elegant, she provided a great counterpoint to Schwarzenegger's pompous indifference to people around him. She had starred with Schwarzenegger in the horrible sci-fi failure Runnning Man. Alonso held a coochie dog on her lap, encouraging the crew to relax between takes, wishing me well as I boxed up the teleprompter and wheeled it carefully out the tiled entry.

For my part in "the industry" I was paid $15 an hour. The teleprompter operators, so far as I was led to believe, were not organized in an entertainment union, and so I would have to find something else to do if I were to climb out of self-inflicted debt. When I hitched my abilities to the emerging dot-com business, I found relief.

But before I quit "the industry", I had a last brush with stardom. I had acted before, as one of the thousand extras in the movie Hello Dolly. My claim was that I appeared as a member of a marching band in the parade sequence with Barbra Streisand. You can see me, age 15, with the huge bass drum in-step next to Dolly Levi. And my moment: during one of the takes, I accidentally whacked Miss Streisand in the ass with a drum mallet and it was tangled in her gown. Director Gene Kelley shouted "cut" from atop his boom, and we went back to our starting positions. Streisand had been brittle to everyone and suddenly, I was a hero among the extras on that hot August day. Even Walter Matthau gave me a wink.

So my second brush, then, came when the teleprompter agency sent me out to run the gear for a lesser-known television show called Crime Strike. The segment was to focus on home invasions, on how to protect yourself from nasty intruders. But the "heavy" had not shown up on set once I had the gear in place and the director, spotting my shaved head, the shoulder tattoos emerging from my tank-top, pressed me into service. No, I would not receive equity rates, but I would be paid for stalking a businessman, following him home in a white Torino, bursting into the house behind him and holding a knife to his throat while his poor wife looked on in terror.

I still run my copy of the video from time to time to impress my friends. I don't tell them what is coming. In the opening moments, the uniformed police adviser to the show comes on camera and discusses how creeps will stalk business owners and follow them home to rob them.

Cut to a low angle. The owner lock his business gets in his family van and heads home. The shot: framed through the window of a nearby white Torino. In the foreground: the hairy hand of the criminal tapping on his dash. Pull back to see: the Torino following the van through the streets of Glendale.

Once home, the business owner opens the front door and, in the street behind, a bearded man with a shaved head and obvious tattoos bursts from his vehicle and races up the driveway. He's really holding a plastic knife but, in the closeup, as he shoves the owner to the floor and presses the blade to his throat, the knife is real metal and flashes under the bright lights. The bearded intruder grits his teeth--he's going to get what's coming to him--and the wife shrieks...

I'm a star.

1 comment:

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Running Man was a good movie.

And no need to beat yourself over your James Whitmore moment ... despite the oddities of IMDB user voting, Them is a better film than Shawshank Redemption.