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 4, 2020

Just for the Hell of It: Episode 61


Photo by Lindha Narvaez 

I'm not a fan of awards shows. Yes, I used to watch the Oscars back in the early days of my Hollywood adventure -- particularly the year a film I worked on won -- but it wasn't long before the appeal of staring at the Toob for long hours of lugubrious, blubbering tedium faded to black. As for the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Grammys ... no. Whatever respect I might have held for the Grammys (not much, I admit) vanished like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside-down and shaken hard when the fraudster pair known as Milli Vanilli won.

Having been there once, I totally understand why those who worked on the shows up for consideration pay close attention.  For veteran actors, an Oscar, Golden Globe, or Emmy can be the capstone on a great career, while younger thespians who grab a trophy will find themselves catapulted into the limelight, for better or worse.  I remain mystified that a large viewing audience with no direct connection to the actors, artists, or shows in contention cares enough about who wins and loses to watch any of these broadcasts, but the list of things I don't understand about Hollywood and the entertainment industry grows longer every year.  

Still, some of the writing about and reporting on these awards shows can be very good, and this year's pick comes from LA Times television critic Robert Lloyd.

The World is on Fire: Why Should We Care About the Emmys?

Here's a taste:

"This is not a normal year. The West Coast is on fire. A thousand Americans a day die from a disease much of the rest of the industrialized world has been able to keep relatively in check. There is fighting in the streets.  A television-personality politician is attempting to stay in office by creating exactly the sort of drama on which television thrives, and we are at war over things we should agree on -- like science and racism -- as we sit before our multiple screens and try to process or ignore what might be the end of democracy, locally, and of the world as we know it, globally. Screaming through one's waking hours, and even in one's sleep, does not seem in inappropriate response."

Robert Lloyd is always worth reading, but this one is particularly on point. Check it out.

The popularity of the Emmys is fading, though, and sank to new lows this year.  Some of this was doubtless due to Covid restrictions that turned what has always been a big, glittering spectacle into a glorified Zoom session, but maybe the viewing public is finally growing weary of these orgies of self-congratulation.  

Or not. Who knows?  Certainly not this rapidly aging ex-juicer.


After several months of effort, the unions and producers in Hollywood finally managed to agree on how to handle the Covid crisis as the industry gets back to work and production resumes in earnest.  The IA seems to be serious about crews following the safety protocols, so maybe it'll work.  It won't all be smooth sailing, of course, but hopefully no more than a few bumps in the road. 

Up here in the woods, I've had a habit of calling one or another of my industry friends every Thursday, when I saddle up and ride twenty miles to a weekly Farmer's Market to load up on fresh corn, sweet ripe tomatoes, and whatever else looks good -- and where my cell phone gets four bars instead of none.  Life amid the trees is good, but there are disadvantages.  Until last week, I usually able to reach somebody in LA, because they were all at home wondering when the work bell would ring.  Now my calls go straight to voice mail, and I have a one-way conversation with a digital robot. Ah well, bad for me, good for them, and such is life.  I just hope they all manage to stay safe and healthy.


Unlike many, if not most, of my former co-workers, I've never been much of a football fan.  Sure, I hopped on the bandwagon of my home planet Raiders and 49ers during their championship years -- both teams were fun to watch back in those seemingly innocent pre-CTE days -- but as each team eventually faltered, so did my interest. Nowadays, I tune in the Super Bowl every year (hey, it's my duty as an American) but that's about it. Still, I was aware of Gale Sayers, the astonishing slippery running back of the Chicago Bears, who once scored six touchdowns in a game against the 49ers. 

I mention this because Sayers  -- who died last week -- was portrayed in Brian's Song, a weepy 1971 television movie that I never saw. Being in my early twenties at the time, I had other things to do that were more compelling than watching TV movies, most of which sucked thanks to low budgets, punishingly fast shooting schedules, and scripts that were neutered and dumbed-down to meet the middle-of-the-road demands of the broadcast networks. 

I never thought much about the movie or the story of Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, but after reading Mary McNamara's excellent piece in the LA Times this week, maybe I should have.  It might be locked behind a paywall, so here's a link she included that tells how the film came to be made in the first place -- how relative unknown Jimmy Caan landed the role of Brian Piccolo instead of major movie star Burt Reynolds, how Billy Dee Williams got the role of Gale Sayers instead of Lou Gossett, and how a simple bit of voice-over turned a rough-cut disaster into a classic that apparently still brings out the handkerchiefs fifty years later.  It's just a few minutes long, but quite a story, so do yourself a favor and check it out.


Time for a reality check.  While scrolling through a FB group where crew people tell their stories, I came across a post asking if anybody has nightmares stemming from bad experiences on set.  As you might expect, this sparked a rash of horror stories describing film job misery -- and we've all got a few of those stories. They were entertaining to read, but this is the one that stopped me.

"My job was six straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan before I came home and stumbled into the movies. Yes, there have been moments when I got frustrated and angry, but they were short-lived and inconsequential.  A bad day on set is better than a good day over here."

The film and television industry can drive you crazy with top-down incompetence, egos on steroids, and a blithe disregard for basic human decency, but as the saying goes, "We're not curing cancer here" -- nor are we killing people, except on a really bad day.  As frustrating and exhausting as a tough day/week/month on set can be, it's better than being run like a greyhound in an Amazon distribution center, or chained to a desk under the fluorescent glow of some soulless cube farm, or toiling in the fields under a blistering sun picking crops for day wages --  and it sure as hell beats living and fighting in an active war zone, where every day on the job might be your last. The Covid restrictions and safety protocols add another dimension to the burdens of working on set, but humans are infinitely adaptable, and it'll all become part of the routine before long.*

So when things go sideways on the job, and you start wondering why the hell you got into this business in the first place, remember these words: "A bad day on set is better than a good day over there."   

Stay safe, everybody.

* Yeah, I know -- that's easy for me to say, given that I don't have to work on set anymore, but I did my time in the trenches. Your turn now.