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, June 26, 2016


      The Juicer and The Champ, when we were both a lot younger...

Celebrity is a curious thing. Once an otherwise ordinary man or woman has managed to achieve a certain level of fame due to talent, drive, hard work, and/or the vagaries of timing and luck, that person is elevated to the exalted state of a "celebrity." The public persona -- the image -- then takes over, exerting a strange magnetism on the rest of the populace who yearn to be in the presence of celebrities, to see them up close, and if possible, speak with them one-on-one. It's as if they believe some of that precious stardust will rub off on them… and maybe it does. An undeniable exchange of energy takes place during encounters between civilians and celebrities, but what else may be gained by either party in these fleeting transactions remains a mystery.

Whatever it is feels real, though -- people don't forget those moments.

There's long been a symbiotic relationship between celebrities and Hollywood. In harnessing the star power of those in the public eye to draw a paying audience, the Industry reaps fatter profits while enhancing the public standing of those celebrities -- a win-win for all concerned.

Up to a point, anyway. The film and television career of Elvis Presley offers a cautionary tale on the plusses and minuses of riding the Hollywood tiger, and the dangers of diluting and cheapening a celebrity's personal brand through overexposure in crappy movies. The poor choices of his management team would have send a lesser star's career straight into the toilet, but Elvis was blessed to occupy a singular niche in the heart of his fans and the culture, allowing him to survive and prosper despite starring in such forgettable films.

But then came the Las Vegas years, those god-awful white leather pantsuits, and The King's ignominious demise while sitting on the john. How the mighty fall, indeed.

Given that many film and television stars achieve celebrity status, we who work on set inevitably rub shoulders with these celestial beings on a regular basis. It's all part of the Hollywood deal. While civilians tend to get all giddy and jelly-legged when face-to-face with a celebrity, we're more blasé about the experience. This is partly out of familiarity (which does indeed breed a certain degree of contempt), but mostly from necessity -- we're there to work, not gush over the on-set talent and clamor for autographs, head shots, or selfies with a star.

That kind of behavior is for civilians. We have to conduct ourselves like professionals on the job.

Still, this doesn't mean we don't notice or pay attention when a celebrity walks on set. After all, every one of us was a civilian before breaking into the Industry.

A lively discussion kicked off among my set lighting crew during our lunch hour a few years back, relating the various celebrities we'd worked with over the years, from the lowest rungs of television fame on up to major movie stars and sports legends. The consensus among most of the crew was that although some television and film stars are impressive, sports heroes were the celebrities they most enjoyed meeting.

I wasn't so sure. Although I've worked with a few sports legends on set over the years -- Terry Bradshaw, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Emmet Smith, Arnold Palmer,  Evel Knievel, and Ichiro Suzuki come to mind -- it was a much bigger deal for me to work with and talk to Joseph Cotten, whose impressive body of work in movies from the 40's and 50's helped me fall in love with film during my college years. While still in school, I got to meet Frank Capra and Jean Arthur, a huge thrill at the time. Years later in Hollywood, I learned that a sitcom I was about to start had cast Malcolm McDowell in a pivotal role -- the man who starred in IfA Clockwork Orange, and O Lucky Man!. This was very cool indeed, and I couldn't wait to meet him. I didn't plan to ask for an autograph or anything so crass, but just wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd enjoyed his work -- and that watching his movies when I was young helped steer me towards a career in Hollywood.

As always on a new show, things were a bit tense during the first few days of rehearsals and lighting, so I didn't force the issue. I waited patiently for the right moment, which finally arrived on Friday afternoon when I walked out the stage door... and there he was, taking a break for some fresh air. He glanced my way and nodded, then -- just as I was about to speak -- his cell phone rang. With an apologetic shrug, he answered it, and the moment passed. Ah well, no problem. Our show was scheduled for twelve episodes, so there'd be plenty of time to have that brief conversation in the weeks to come.

I arrived on set the following Monday to find him gone for good -- the producers had re-cast his role with another actor. I never learned whether they decided he wasn't right for the part, or if he bailed on the show for a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere -- all I know for sure is that I never did get to shake the hand of Malcolm McDowell.

Such is life.

Still, I've had the opportunity to meet several actors who'd made an impression on me over the years, including Alan Alda and Suzanne Pleshette, along with an English actor few Americans would recognize -- David Warner, who blew my young high-school mind in Morgan!, yet another British movie that helped ignite my interest in film.

All of this was running through my mind while the actors vs. sports legends discussion raged on in the Gold Room, and just as I was about to make the case for actors, I remembered an amazing day in 1983 when I met Muhammed Ali… and with that, had to concede the point, because no actor could compare to The Greatest of All Time. You really had to live through that tumultuous era to understand just what a monumental impact he had on the social, cultural, political, and pugilistic scene of the times. Ali possessed the personal magnetism of Jack Kennedy, the athletic prowess of Willie Mays, and the eloquence (albeit in his own uniquely audacious style) of Martin Luther King -- all that and much more wrapped into the dynamic, loquacious, and formidable presence of one of the best professional fighters of all time.*

I had mixed feelings about the young Cassius Clay when he entered the public eye in the weeks leading up to his first bout with Sonny Liston. Clay was everything this fourteen year old boy had been taught an athlete shouldn't be: loud, arrogant, and boastful. Like the rest of the known world, I assumed the massive, glowering Sonny Liston -- famous for his early round knock-outs of opponents -- would pound this sassy young upstart into submission and finally shut his big mouth... but in the ring, Liston had no answer for the exceptional speed of Clay. It was a controversial fight, as was their infamous rematch fifteen months later in Lewiston, Maine, but those two fights launched the legend of Muhammad Ali -- and by that time, I'd come full circle as a huge fan of the young champ. I followed his astonishing career through televised and pay-per-view fights (when I could afford them, anyway) for the next two decades as his career rose and fell against a backdrop of one of the most colorful and exciting eras in the history of boxing.

Given all that, I was jazzed to land a two day job filming a commercial with Ali, a spot designed to run during the upcoming 1984 Olympics in LA. By now, though -- eight years after the Thrilla in Manila -- it was clear something wasn't right with the man. Whether due to damage suffered in those three savage wars with Joe Frazier, or some other mysterious malady, Ali's once-dazzling verbal skills had eroded.**

Excited as I was to see Ali up close, I worried that I'd find a shell of the man he used to be... and early on, that seemed to be the case. The first setup had Ali sitting in a comfortable chair, reciting a tedious speech declaring that winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics was "my most memorable experience" -- but with his eyes at half-mast, his speech was listless, slurred, and barely decipherable. During one particularly unintelligible take, the boom man glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

It was bad. 

Finally taking a break, Ali got up to stretch his legs. I maneuvered into his path, then stuck out my hand and introduced myself. He lit up instantly, eyes flashing, his grip firm. This was a very different man than the one who'd been slumped in that chair a minute before.

"You ever box?" he asked.

"No," I replied, "but I've been a huge fan of yours right from the start."

He smiled, and we talked for a few minutes, but I can't recall the specifics -- I was suddenly overwhelmed just to be standing there talking to Muhammad Ali, and so relieved to find him mentally sharp. This was the Ali I'd seen perform with such soaring eloquence for the boxing press so many times in the past. Talking one-on-one with a fellow human being, there was no trace of the stumbling confusion he'd displayed on camera.

I witnessed a very playful Ali over the course of those two days. His performance in front of the camera didn't improve much, but off camera, he was a delight. At one point he wandered off, away from the cameras, then slowly made his way around the back of the stage to where the two old, fat, gray-haired geezers who ran the facility sat on a pair of apple boxes, lost in conversation. Ali put a finger to his lips to keep the rest of us quiet, then crept up behind the two men until he was close enough to reach out -- and with the lightest touch, gently tickle the earlobe of one. Thinking it was a fly, the old guy shook his head and waved a hand at his ear. Ali did it again, and again, until the man finally turned around to see the ex-heavyweight champion of the world grinning at him.

How such a big man could pull that off still amazes me.

Ali had a man with him who I assumed was just a friend, but turned out to be a sleight of hand artist. At one point the two of them were carrying on a conversation with a small circle of clients, producers, and the still photographer, all of of whom were Japanese.*** Taking the lead, Ali's buddy grasped the photographer's hand as if to shake it, but while distracting him with his lively patter, he deftly removed the man's wristwatch and slipped it to Ali, who dropped it in his pocket. A few minutes later, Ali's friend asked the photographer what time it was. The man looked at his empty wrist in confusion, his mouth open -- and his jaw dropped further when Ali pulled the watch from his own pocket and dangled it in the air in front of everybody.****

This was turning out to be a great job, and one I'd have gladly done for free: getting paid was just icing on the cake.

At the end of the second day, the filming done, Ali got up to leave. Once again I put myself in his path -- but this time I had my camera, and asked if I could get a photo with him. He smiled and nodded. I didn't quite know what to do, but Ali sure as hell did. We moved back into the lights, where I stood there like an idiot shaking his hand (a ridiculous pose), followed by a second shot where he held his big fist under my chin while glaring at me -- another forgettable shot. Then without a word, he snapped into a classic boxer's stance, and I followed his lead. Once we'd squared off, his face suddenly turned hard, as if a cloud had covered the sun. There was no smile now -- instead, Muhammed Ali fixed me with a cold stare.

"Did you just call me nigger?" he asked.

I froze for a long, excruciatingly uncomfortable moment, unable to grasp what was happening --  and suddenly feeling an unwelcome kinship with all those poor bastards who actually had to lace up the gloves and step into the ring with Muhammad.

He waited a beat as I twisted in the wind.

"Oh," he said, breaking the spell, his face relaxing into a playful grin. "You called me bigger."

The entire stage erupted with laughter, which is when the photo at the top of the page was snapped.

That picture recorded what was in some ways the peak of my Hollywood career, a moment that will live with me forever. I'd go on to work as a Best Boy, then Gaffer, traveling all over the country and beyond to film commercials and features, seeing spectacular locations and meeting some very interesting people (some of them actors) -- experiences that left me with a fat bank of good memories.  But I'd never again have another moment like that, squaring off with Muhammed Ali, the Greatest of All Time.

Some things you only get to do once in life, and I was lucky enough to meet my Number One sports hero -- the ultimate celebrity of the entertainment world -- on a day I'll never forget.

Thanks, Champ -- may you rest in peace...

Muhammad Ali: Jan 17, 1942 -- June 3, 2016

* For a terrific 20 minute interview with David Remnick (editor of The New Yorker and author many books, including a good one about Muhammed Ali) on the social and cultural impact Ali had back then, click this.  It's really good…

** It was only later that we came to understand he suffered from a form of Parkinson's Disease.

*** We were filming a commercial for Hitachi -- one of those "cash jobs" the Japanese were famous for bringing to Hollywood back in the day.

**** Many years later, I found out for myself exactly how that befuddled photographer felt...

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bonding through Pain

              Bonding, not bondage -- bondING! Sheesh…

"Humans don’t mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary."

Sebastian Junger

I met an old friend recently for a long, beery lunch at a legendary Hollywood watering hole, where we talked about the old days and the new days, how much has changed and how much hasn't -- and who we once were as opposed to who we are now.*

A lot of water has flowed under that bridge.

We met thirty years ago while working on a low budget feature filmed up in the Northeast woods of Vermont. I was the Best Boy Electric, he was a grip then living in Texas. Having spent ten years working my way up in Hollywood, I'd developed an eye for below-the-line talent, and urged him to come to LA, where I knew he'd have no problem getting work. For whatever reason -- insecurity, a girl back home, whatever -- he didn't bite, but we got him on our set lighting crew as a juicer the following summer on another low-budget movie shooting on location in Mississippi.  Again I advised him to head west, where I was about to move up to gaffer, and promised him a place on our crew shooting commercials.

Still, he stalled, and it was the grip crew of that feature who finally enticed him out to Hollywood. They put him to work for a while, but eventually I managed to pry him away to work on my crew. He was really good -- very smart, strong, and physically capable, and had an absolutely wicked sense of humor that made my life on set as a beginning gaffer a lot more fun.  

In time he got an opportunity to join a crew doing big union movies, and left for a series of long location features in Colorado, New Orleans, and beyond -- movies you've all seen or heard of. He was destined for much greater things than my crew could offer doing commercials, and eventually worked his way up to be a big-time rigging gaffer who does the kind of 200 million dollar cinematic spectaculars seen by the entire civilized world.

In professional terms, he's far eclipsed anything I ever did in this business, and now earns as much in a month or two working one of those mega-movies as I make in a year.

Hey, did I mention that I had a sharp eye for talent?

It was great afternoon, during which the subject of  bonding through pain came up, because so often that's what it means to be on a film crew. Working brutally long hours in miserable conditions -- suffering while getting it done -- is part of the job. In some perverse way, it might even be the best part of a hard job, because that's where you find out who you really are, what kind of people you're working with, and what it means to be needed on a crew. Some jobs are easy enough that we can cruise through our days at half-throttle, but the truly challenging ones require everybody on the crew to put forth a maximum effort. Working shoulder to shoulder on a job like that, enduring the pain it so often takes to do the job right, forges a bond you never really forget.   

This is something those who serve in combat or play professional football -- our culture's warrior and gladiatorial classes -- know very well, and what so many of them miss once that phase of their lives is over. The tight bonds formed between those who suffered together -- their squad, their team, their crew -- can only be understood by those who were part of and endured the ordeal. Nobody else really "gets" it.  

Let's get one thing straight: in no way am I equating working on a film crew with serving in the military. The former is a well-paid and relatively cushy job where the worst thing that might happen is working all night in the rain, getting cold pizza for a third meal, then having to take a short turnaround before coming back for more punishment -- and although that's a bitch, we don't have to endure the 120 degree heat of the desert while carrying a hundred pounds of gear in hostile territory where most of the indigenous inhabitants would like nothing more than to shoot or blow us all to hell. We lose a little sleep and endure plenty of tedium and needless stupidity, but soldiers in the kill-or-be-killed arena of a combat zone risk losing everything the rest of us hold dear -- their eyes, hands, arms, legs, balls, their sanity... and should the worst happen, their lives. We get to work around smiling, beautiful women much of the time, graze at a well-stocked craft service table whenever hunger strikes, then sleep in a comfortable bed after work at home or in a company-paid motel room -- and although we might occasionally experience the urge to strangle a clueless producer, writer, director, D.P. or fellow work-bot, we never actually get have to do it. On a scale from one to a hundred, what the military endures every day is right up there at the century mark, while the worst of film jobs (like those poor bastards who suffered through shooting The Revenant) falls considerably short of fifty -- but the shared sense of purpose and willingness to endure whatever is required to get the job done creates a bond that we all recognize and understand, even if the degree of our respective suffering lies on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

I got to thinking about this while reading reviews of a new book by Sebastian Junger, called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

In Junger's words: 

"This book is about why tribal sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It's about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It's about why -- for many people -- war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don't mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary." 

I think he's on to something. I've said it more than once on this blog: ours is a tribal business, and if Sebastian Junger is right, maybe that's one reason it can be so hard to leave: because once you go, you've left your tribe for good. The issue Junger shines a spotlight on then becomes unavoidable -- now that you're out, will you ever really feel necessary again in that same tightly bonded, team-oriented way?  

There are doubtless exceptions, but I suspect the answer is for most people is "no." It takes years to learn the skills required to become a fully contributing member of any team endeavor, and few of us have the time, energy, or motivation to do that all over again once our days in the business are done.

Although what we do in the film/television industry doesn't compare to what soldiers, cops, firemen, and medical personnel experience in the life-and-death crucible of their workplace, this Hollywood life is the only real job I've ever known. The bonds forged with my fellow juicers -- and the black humor that helped get us through -- as we suffered, endured, and prevailed through difficult circumstances are what I'll miss the most when I finally leave my Industry tribes behind.

I'll say it again: what makes this business worth all the pain and suffering is not the finished product up there on the silver screen, but those we meet and suffer with in the process -- the people.

* A dark, quiet little cafe where -- rumor has it -- movie stars, agents, and studio executives used to bring their mistresses for discreet meals back in the good old/bad old days...

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Day Player, Again...

                                         Have Toolbelt, Will Travel…*

After a month of post-pilot drifting, the phone finally rang -- or rather, the screen lit up with an incoming text, which goes to show that old dogs really can learn new tricks when they have to… and I had to, because after refusing to join the cellular stampede for last twenty years, my no-longer-shiny smart phone has become the essential tool for finding work.  

Yeah, I know: welcome to the 21st Century, dude -- and what the hell took you so long?

That's what happens when a core crew Show Boy morphs back into a hire-me-please Day Player -- the cell phone goes from digital bauble to economic lifeline in a hurry, with my first lesson in this Brave New Digital World being the importance of responding to a work text ASAP. This little nugget of wisdom came the hard way, of course, since I was busy at the time and didn't get around to checking the text for two full hours. That was much too late, of course, which is how a sweet eight day job for full union scale turned into a one day hi-goodbye gig. 

Ouch. Ah well, live and learn. That's one mistake I won't make again.

Still, one day of work is better than nothing, so I reported for duty back at my home lot. After twenty minutes of filling out the requisite start paperwork (scrawling my name, address, e-mail, phone, and social security number at least half a dozen times on different forms), and another ten minutes waiting for a production droid to check each and every form, then verify my SS card and driver's license, I was finally cleared to do some actual work.  

Since the show occupied two sound stages, I figured assumed that my fellow late-call juicer and I would be working indoors... but as so often happens, the God of Assumptions -- truly the Trickster -- had the last laugh. Our first task was to rig the "New York Street" backlot for the production company wrap party, which was due to commence once the audience show concluded much later that night. Hanging and powering a dozen strings of party lights above the ersatz urban boulevard wasn't particularly difficult, but I drew the short straw of working the sunny side of that street. Dressed for the expected indoor work in levis and a black T shirt, it wasn't long before I began to overheat while scrambling around on those sun-blasted balconies with no cooling breeze. By the time we'd finished, I was dripping with sweat -- at which point we went back on stage for the real work of the day.   

While the other juicer worked on cleaning up the cable troughs (this small stage had no catwalks or real "up-high"), I climbed in a man-lift and proceeded to methodically pull down every lamp, stirrup hanger, offset arm, riser, cable safety, and stinger on the set. This is the kind of wrap I like -- melding with the machinery of the man-lift, working steadily at my own pace with nobody on the floor to get in my way. Once I'd settled into a good rhythm, the hours just seemed to melt away as the nice, neat rows of lighting equipment on the stage floor grew ever longer. 

As simple-minded as it might sound, there's a very real satisfaction in this kind of work, and at seeing how much we'd both accomplished by the end of our day, nine hours after call.  There were only the two of us, but we kicked ass wrapping that stage.

After washing up, I signed my time card and was about to leave when the Best Boy invited me to hit the food trucks at the wrap party. Ordinarily, I'd demur in favor of getting home, but I was starving -- and besides, the free-food television gravy train will leave me behind for good soon enough. 

What the hell: I'd helped rig their damned party, so why not partake?

That I did, in the form of a nice fat cheeseburger, a big bowl of crisp, hot onion rings, and a large sugar-laced Coke -- a heart attack on a plate so late at night, but that kind of thing doesn't worry me anymore. Having witnessed the senescence-and-Depends ravages of extreme old age up close and personal as my Dad spiraled into the grave a couple of years ago, the notion of living to a ripe old age doesn't hold much appealThe "Golden Years," my ass -- I'm wondering if Blondie might have had the right idea when they sang Die Young, Stay Pretty a long time ago... but neither option is open to me now.

This wasn't my show, and although I knew some of the crew from other shows over the years, I was dog-tired and not feeling particularly social. The party was for them -- a reward after slogging through a long season -- not for me, so I took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the shadows, watching as the young writers and production drones (dressed to the nines in the modern, casual mode) waited by the food trucks with their young, pretty dates, the men making awkward conversation as the women nodded politely and tapped on their smart phones. Each had their own private agenda in this delicate mating dance, their unspoken desires utterly transparent, and oh-so-human.**

A truly good wrap party can harness and channel an explosion of pent-up, raucous energy, and in the process, provide a cathartic cleansing of sorts -- a kick-out-the-jams sense of closure to the end of a movie or season of a television show -- but this felt more like a dutiful exercise in mutual exhaustion, hopeful posturing, and lugubrious, unfulfilled yearning. The cool night air reeked with the scent of hot grease and ill-defined dreams, doomed from the start, going up in smoke.

Or maybe that was just me, staring into the cracked mirror of a career rapidly fading to black...

I was too tired to wallow in such pointless philosophical musing. All I wanted at that moment was a burger, onion rings, and a sweet, bubbly Coke -- and once they'd been inhaled, I slung my work bag over one shoulder and pedaled my bike silently through the dark night towards the parking structure.

The first job of the last phase in my working life -- once again a Day Player -- was over and done.

More to come.

* For those too young to know -- doubtless the vast majority of you -- this is a reference to a television Western that was very popular when I was a kid.

** One of the few benefits of old age (the only benefit, come to think of it), is that having been there and done that so many times in the past, I am no longer a participant -- which strikes me as a little bit sad and something of a relief at the same time. Go figure...