Although I’ve never been a fan of Monday mornings, this last one was looking pretty good for a while. Answering the alarm in the bleak pre-dawn darkness was grim, but I felt a lot better pulling into the studio parking structure an hour later. We took a 6 a.m. call to light the swing sets for the new episode, and everywhere I went that day – our stage, the commissary, lamp dock, and production office – were people I know and like. There was lots of smiling, joking, and laughter as the morning unfolded. After a week off for the Thanksgiving hiatus, it felt good to be back in harness making another episode and earning another paycheck. To sweeten the pot, the actors came in for rehearsals before noon, at which point we were wrapped, walking off the stage into a crisp, sunny Southern California day. I felt great on the bike ride back to the parking structure.
I had no way of knowing then that the Angel of Death was hovering over the studio, or that on this lovely Monday morning one of the studio’s rigging grips lay dying on the cold tile floor of a bathroom.
In essence, a major studio is a machine built for the purpose of manufacturing feature films and television shows, a machine that runs smoothly thanks to a hard working core group of people who form the living, breathing infrastructure of the lot. More than that, each studio is a village of sorts where everyone more or less knows everybody else. Among the many departments that keep the machinery of the studio lubed and synchronized are the grip and electric rigging crews, who prepare sound stages for every new or returning show. Among other tasks, the rigging grips hang green beds (for the lucky shows) or pipe grids (for the rest of us), while the electric rigging crew runs cable to power back-lot “location” shoots, and installs/removes the massive dimmer packs required by every show these days.
I've done time on the rigging crew, and although grip and electric remain distinctly separate worlds, we’re constantly rubbing shoulders working from stage to stage. I’ve seen the same handful of rigging grips for years, and by now we know each other well enough to indulge in the good-natured ribbing that helps take the edge off a tough, physically demanding job. The rigging crews are good people, and it hurts to lose one of them. The tight-knit grip department was particularly hard-hit, but everyone in the studio felt the blow. It didn’t matter that I only knew him by his first name -- he was somebody I’d said hello to and joked with several times a month over the past decade. His death rocked the studio like a sonic boom, reverberating down every office corridor and sound stage, leaving an aching, uncomprehending void in its wake.
The details of his passing raised disturbing, unanswerable questions, but what matters now is that our little village has lost one of its own, a man with a wife and two kids, a man who was always smiling and flashing a wonderfully quirky sense of humor -- a man who was old enough to have lived a lot, but much too young to die.
Ours is a physical business where tragedies can and do happen. I’ve seen things go terribly wrong on set, and hope never to witness that again. Looking beyond the earthly tragedy of this man’s premature death, I struggle with the uncomfortable fact that at the very moment I was enjoying an unusually good Monday, a guy I knew and liked was having the absolute worst day of his life.
I'm not sure how to make sense out of that.
Such is the conundrum of our dust-to-dust existence on this little blue marble spinning through the unfathomable emptiness of space. The messy business of living and dying has never been easy to understand, but in one of those poignant symmetries so often served up by modern life, one of my show’s young grips became a father that very same day. As George Welch Jr. left the trials and tribulations of this world behind, Blaise James Ruffner took his first squalling breath, a reminder that although the void remains -- and throughout the studio the wound is raw – life does go on. Ready or not, the Great Wheel keeps on turning.
Rest in peace, George.
George Welch Jr.
1968 – 2011