Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Rough Sledding

"How many days has it been since I was born, how many days 'til I die…"
Stranger in a Strange Land, by León Russell


                  Mike Kelly (and fellow stand-in Erin) in happier times...

The losses continued to mount as we hit black ice early in November, then skidded off the road and plunged headlong into the glittering retail heart of the Holiday Season. With a few notable exceptions (how about those Cubs?), 2016 will go down as one mean and ugly year from start to finish, and the last few weeks were particularly rough, taking so many cultural luminaries into the Great Beyond. The Famous Names were as numerous as they are familiar, but it was the deaths of Sharon Jones, Gwen Ifill, and Carrie Fisher that hit me the hardest -- powerful, supremely talented women in their professional prime, all of whom had so much more to give.

Their loss is incalculable, and leaves us staring into the new year wondering what -- and who -- is next?

I never had a chance to see Sharon Jones or Gwen Ifill in person, but worked on a sit-com that brought Carrie Fisher in as a guest star for one episode. That meant she was on set all week, so we got a good look at her -- and she was just great: smart, sassy, really funny, and a total pro. She made that whole week so much fun for all of us... and need I state the obvious? Princess Leia herself was standing there, right in front of me!

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I'm just telling you how it was.

Zsa Zsa Gabor left us too.  Although I never saw her except on TV, she and her sister Eva were a big deal way back in the day. Green Acres made an indelible mark on my youthful psyche, even if that was Eva rather than Zsa Zsa. It didn't really matter -- the Gabor sisters were sexy, exotic, diaphanous creatures who knew how to fire the imagination of the viewing public... and that of teenaged boys.

You can read about her famous encounter with a Beverly Hills cop (and the subsequent trial) if you like, but I prefer Robert Lloyd's thoughtful meditation on her place in the public eye during an era that was considerably less frantic and hard-edged than the Hollywood of today. 

Better still, here's a first-person account by Jack Beckett -- a very talented DP I was lucky enough to work with early in my career -- of his encounter with Zsa Zsa when he was a young camera assistant.

"Just a quick recollection on the passing off Zsa Zsa. I was nineteen, working on a movie called "The Glass Cage" shooting near the pony rides in Griffith park. We established Zsa Zsa dressed in a strapless red formal with endless petticoats of chiffon as she ran from the bad guy. Our director, who changed his name three times in the course of the shoot, had an overblown perspective on himself and the merits of the script, and because I tended the slate, I always checked with him early in the a.m. to make sure he was the same guy... and as I walked up, he was getting a heated dressing-down from Zsa Zsa regarding wrap time."

"Darlink no more just-one-more take -- at six I'm going home."

"She was as tough as she was beautiful, and in this movie her fate was to be eaten by a Polar Bear. Actually we were concerned for the Bear. So it finally came, the wrap shot where we have a full figure as she runs up in the outfit, her back against a tree, throws a look back, then runs out of frame. She gives him two takes, it is 6:03 and he says "Zsa Zsa, sweetheart, please just one more," whereupon she reaches around, unzips the gown, and in her panties and strapless bra walks a good three hundred yards right in front of the pony-riding kids to the makeup trailer, leaving us with a pile of chiffon."

"The director whose name would not fit on a standard slate, looked around dumbly and said 'Well, I guess that's a wrap."

"If any little kids riding ponies that day watched this devastatingly beautiful, half naked woman storm past it was not a prepubescent wet dream, but a Hollywood legend."

"Zsa Zsa worked for two days, and on the last day she had to lay at the bottom of the bear pit (LA Zoo) and look like she had been eaten. We shot the bear tearing the hell out of a dummy, then wrapped the bear and drained the bear pit. Now I'm the strapping young lad at the bottom of the ladder and here she comes petticoats et al. Half way down she does the "OH Darlink, I can't make it!!!"

"So I do the hero grab getting her in my arms and promptly step on a polar bear poop and we both slither down into the slime along with a stream of Hungarian vulgarity.

Later when I recounted this to my father, he gave me a basic below-the-line truth:

'Never touch a star, kid." 

Good advice, that.

Not everyone 2016 took was a famous name -- there were others who worked quietly in the trenches of Hollywood who won't be with us as we walk into this New Year.

I did a sitcom called Ruby and The Rockits back in 2009, which completed ten episodes and was on track for an additional twelve episode pick-up until the diminutive star developed a severe case of Ego Inflatitus -- a personality disorder that led him to present a list of ridiculous (read: expensive) demands to the network, whereupon they promptly flushed the show and all of us on the crew down the Hollywood toilet.

Mike Kelly was among our crew of stand-ins who did their thankless, detail-oriented work that allowed the lighting and camera crews to prepare for every shot of every scene in every episode for the entire season. It's a humble but important job that's a lot harder than it looks, but as you can see from the photo, they managed to have a good time and keep us all laughing. Mike always had that bemused smile, as if trying to figure out just how the Hell he'd ended up here.

I don't imagine too many young people come to Hollywood with a burning ambition to work as a stand-in, but that's where a lot of wannabe actors wind up. Although the wages for a stand-in are subsistence-level at best (around $20/hour, I believe, which doesn't go very far in LA), at least it's a paying gig on set, where they can learn how television shows and movies are made, and hopefully make some useful contacts that might further their careers down the road. But it's a cruel twist of fate that puts those who so desperately want to be actors in front of the lights and cameras right up until the stars arrive freshly buffed, puffed, and coifed from wardrobe/hair/makeup... at which point the stand-ins retreat to the shadows and watch, all the while nursing the glowing embers of their own Hollywood dreams.

So near, yet so far.

While writing a post about stand-ins a few years ago, I e-mailed Mike and Erin for permission to use the photo above. Both agreed, with Mike adding "If you want to memorialize the worst days of my professional life, go right ahead" -- but as always, he said it with a smile. Coming out of Chicago's famed Second City, his own ambitions ranged far beyond working as a stand-in, but he never managed to make that quantum leap. One of the dangers in working as a stand-in is the very thing that makes it attractive: relatively steady employment in a notoriously insecure industry. But once a stand-in gets in the groove and is working, it's that much harder to act in an equity waiver play (read: an unpaid gig) or ride the utterly unpredictable roller-coaster of endless auditions -- but those are some of the ways wannabe actors are able to advance their budding careers.

Thus stand-ins often find themselves caught between the rock of economic reality and the hard place of trying to fulfill their professional dreams.

I never had a chance to work with Mike again after Ruby and the Rockits blew up, but I followed him on Facebook. Like so many would-be actors, he went into real estate -- a business that offers lots of flexibility and free time to make those auditions -- and just for fun, posted a series of his own short, casually comedic clips on Utube.*

I always hoped we'd work together again one of these days, but that won't happen now -- and not because I'm about to retire. Some godawful type of cancer got its teeth into him over the past few years, and finally took him down as 2016 faded to black.

Mike Kelly was a great guy, easy going and always with that smile. Even if he never quite made his own Hollywood dreams come true, he left his mark on those of us who knew him  and he'll be missed.

Thanks for the laughs, Mike.

Rest in Peace.

2016 was one bitch of a year, and I'm glad to see it go -- I just wish it hadn't taken so many good people with it...

* Here's a sample.

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