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, October 1, 2017

Just For the Hell of It: Episode 45

                                 Ashtray outside Stage 26, Paramount Studios

Other than a couple of years in the fast-food business when I was fresh out of college, all I've known is the film and television industry, so I can't say if there are more smokers working below-the-line than in other occupations -- but as you can see from this photo, smoking remains a powerful addiction in Hollywood, particularly among the rank and file.

Smoking is strictly prohibited on sound stages nowadays, most of which were built seventy to eighty years ago from wood that has born the brunt of withering heat from thousands of incandescent lamps ever since. After so many years, that wood is now as dry and ready to burn as Donald Trumps parched and shriveled soul... but rules are made to be broken, and if you go up high on any stage in Hollywood during the ongoing run of a show, you'll find a few cigarette butts here and there.* This drives production managers crazy, but human nature is a difficult beast to subdue.

I was a pack-a-day smoker when I rode into LA back in 1977, where the long hours and stop-and-go nature of working on set ramped up my consumption in a big way. While working on a Brothers Johnson music video a few years later, I burned through three full packs of Marlboros in a single long day -- all the while toiling in a thick haze created by a member of the Art Department, who carried a 35 mm film can full of some mysterious flaming white powder around the set every couple of hours, producing a harsh, acrid smoke that made that stage (and my lungs) feel like we were in the midst of a raging forest fire. Then, after twenty straight hours of this pulmonary abuse, I drove home through the smog-thickened atmosphere of Los Angeles... which is when it finally occurred to me that I really ought to stop smoking at some point.

It would take a while to summon up the discipline necessary to quit this nasty habit, and in the meantime I took a job on a one-day shoot starring the late Tony Randall, who -- when it came to smoking -- was every bit as prissy and neurotically fastidious as the Felix Unger character he portrayed in The Odd Couple.  While he was still in wardrobe and makeup, the crew on stage was warned not to smoke, because Randall simply would not tolerate the scent of a burning cigarette.**

"What an asshole," I thought, being young and entirely too full of myself.

So when he finally emerged, all buffed, puffed, and ready to dazzle the camera, I retired to a dark corner at the far end of the long stage, where I sat down and lit up. Moments later, Randall stopped what he was doing, cocked his head, and looked up.

"I smell a cigarette," he said, in a whiny Felix Unger voice.

"C'mon, guys," sighed the First A.D.

I took one more drag, then stubbed it out and slogged through the rest of the day, grumbling everytime I had to walk off stage to service my addiction. A year later I hit the ripe old age of 30, and leveraged the occasion to quit smoking for good. It was a struggle, but I did it -- and once I'd shaken that nicotine monkey off my back, I never smoked again.

Did I miss it? Sure, for a couple of years during which I had lots of dreams about smoking. But after that, not at all. Quitting smoking remains the smartest thing -- maybe the only truly smart thing -- I ever did...


Football has been in the news of late, and not for the usual reasons. I won't delve into the kneeling-during-the-anthem kerfuffle -- you can get your fill of that on social media -- but it seems to have distracted people from the more lethal issue of CTE destroying the brains and lives of so many players after they've left the game. Ex-agent, producer, and occasional director Gavin Polone recently weighed in on the issue, discussing the reality of the situation and his own apparently unavoidable complicity. I suspect he has a lot of company in this. Whatever you think of Polone -- and more than a few industry people don't much care for him -- his columns are worth a read.


In other news --it seems film isn't quite dead after all.  A number of accomplished directors still use their clout to shoot film rather than digital, and that's a good thing. The steady march of digital technology will never allow film to occupy more than a niche in the cinematic world, but I'm glad it continues to survive.  CD's were supposed to consign LPs to the dustbin of cultural history, but vinyl continues to thrive among those who appreciate its qualities, so maybe film too will survive the digital revolution.


The internet blew up last week over the comments of an actress who dared admit to the Emmys that she prefers reading books to watching television. I have no idea who Shailene Woodley is or what show she's in, and I literally could not care less about the Emmys, the Oscars, the Grammies, or any of the other bloated, meaningless award shows the entertainment industry bestows upon itself. Other than the fact that this young woman was nipping the Hollywood hand that feeds her, I fail to understand what's so terrible about prefering books to television. Books were TV before there was TV, except the show played out inside the readers head rather than on screen. Besides, reading books exercises a persons mind and makes him/her think in a way that very few  television shows can. 

If Shailene Woodley was just blowing smoke -- inventing her preference for books over TV in an attempt to appear smart to a jaded audience of agents, managers, writers, directors, and fellow thespians -- that's another matter... but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll assume her comments were sincere. So good for you, Shailene. Keep on reading.


Tim Goodman, chief television critic of the Hollywood Reporter, posted a good column on the value of a show having a great cast recently.  It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's the salient quote: 

"When a cast can overcome either sloppy writing or writing that's been pushed and bent into untenable directions by, say, a broadcast schedule that ridiculously calls for 22 or 24 episodes, you really have something special.  Actors are fascinating.  They can elevate words and they can destroy words.  Beyond that, I've always keenly enjoyed the fact that acting is a sort of artistic witchcraft, where a person leaves their body (while still in it, but you know what I mean) to become someone else.  A known quantity -- an actor or actress you've seen for ages, populating all the late night talk shows, etc. -- suddenly morphs into something completely other and you believe it. Like Hugh Laurie.  You know Hugh Laurie.  Well, none of us do, but we think we do (except for stupid Americans who never learned he was known for comedy before House).  Anyway, if Hugh Laurie stands in front of you, you know him.  And then he does The Night Manager.  And then he does Chance.  And you can't shake that transformation -- particularly if you've seen A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster and yes, Stuart Little and House and Veep and maybe a piano player on jazz album you once heard -- and you think, "My God, this man is not the man I thought I knew; this man is a chameleon, transformative, abnormal. And you would be right because he's an actor.  Same for Helen Mirren. And countless others,"  

Agreed.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: actors have the hardest and most important job on set.


Those who have been stopping by here for a while might recall this two-part guest post by Director/DP Peter McLennan (now retired), describing a stomach-churning day he suffered through while shooting aerials in a helicopter. For months afterwards, those two posts were among the most popular on the blog, and were shared all over the internet. Peter is very good at telling a story, and has some good ones to tell -- I encouraged him to start an industry blog of his own, but he had better things to do. Our loss, that. Still, every now and then he sends me a little gem, and did so recently with a vivid description of his adventures chasing the total eclipse that was the big story of the summer before all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear saber-rattling shoved it off the front page.

Like all of Peter's writing, it's a good read, so do yourself a favor and check it out.


As the world knows by now, Hugh Hefner passed away last week. Like most young men back in the day, I was well acquainted with Playboy magazine, leafing through new issues in a hormonal haze, propelled by five hundred million years of Darwinian evolution and an enduring fascination with the female form. A few years after landing in Hollywood, I got a job wrangling lights for a shoot at the Playboy Mansion. There it all was -- the grotto, the koi pond, the underground aviary, the tennis courts and of course, the mansion itself. The shoot was all exteriors, so we never got in the front door, but with dozens of extremely attractive scantily-clad young women gliding in front of our lights and camera, that really didn't matter.

While we filmed a scene in the grotto, Hefner strolled out to watch the action -- the man himself, looking exactly as he did in the magazine. It suddenly felt as though I was visiting some strange X-rated Disneyland, with Hef appearing as another iconic character -- but instead of a Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, or Goofy costume, he was clad in his own trademark silk gown, puffing on the everpresent pipe.  

All in all, a strange but memorable day. Four decades later, after living a life millions have envied but none could really imagine, Hugh Hefner has gone the way of all things. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Here on the home front, I've been busy dealing with thirty years of deferred maintenance on my shack up here in the trees. When you occupy a wooden dwelling, in the woods, amidst millions of tiny creatures who evolved to eat wood for a living, unfortunate and expensive consequences are inevitable.

Ah well, it's nothing cubic dollars and endless toil can't fix, and absent the former, I must endure the latter. As numerous people warned me when I pulled the plug on Hollywood: "Being retired doesn't mean you'll stop working -- you'll just stop getting paid."

At the time, I thought they were kidding, but they weren't.  

Live and learn...

* Stages are usually swept clean at the season's end, or whenever a show wraps.

** It was still legal to smoke on stage back then.