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, July 7, 2024


                                  Burgess Meredith in Time Enough at Last

For many workers in Hollywood -- and certainly the vast majority of those I know personally -- the past year and a half has felt a lot like this image as they look around at the destruction of a work life they once knew, all the while wondering WTF went wrong?*  As I walked around my old home lot during a recent two-day visit to LA, it felt like a ghost town. With sixteen of eighteen sound stages empty and just two shows working (one of those being "Big Brother," which seems to have been running forever), I could almost see tumbleweeds rolling through the lot.  I spoke with one of my former co-workers who told of being unable to afford rent on his apartment, then having to move his wife and baby into his mom's house, and another with whom I'd done many shows, now nearly fifty years old, confessed to being just a hop, skip, and jump away from homelessness.

This is real. People who've invested decades into their film industry careers are hurting badly.

A confluence of factors brought all this: the WGA/SAG strike, the looming threat of an IA strike, the implosion of an economic model the streaming networks thought would work but didn't, and the ongoing scourge of runaway production. There wasn't much of a pilot season this spring, but returning shows traditionally begin rigging and lighting stages in mid to late July for the new fall season, and indeed, a recent missive from the 728 call steward indicated that the tide might be starting to turn.  Although the IA hammered out a new contract with the producers (which will have to be ratified by the rank and file), the basic crafts contract is still up in the air, and until that's settled, the potential of a strike hangs over Hollywood like the Sword of Damocles.

So, fingers crossed.

June carved another chunk out of our collective hide, taking Donald Sutherland and Martin Mull, both of whom left their mark on Hollywood and our shared culture.**  I only worked with Sutherland once, when ABC trotted out the stars from their 2009 television lineup for a week of filming promos featuring everyone from the wonderful Ray Wise (Reaper) to the entire cast of Lost minus Evangeline Lilly, who -- from what I hear -- had a problematic relationship with the acting profession.  It was a week I remember mostly for reuniting with Paget Brewster and Anna Ortiz -- two lovely, talented, and very gracious actresses I'd befriended in the sitcom world*** -- and for inadvertently planting my index finger deep into Josh Holloway's late-morning cup of coffee. Holloway, who played the role of "Sawyer" in Lost, put his white styrofoam coffee cup on an apple box near the camera just before we began to film his segment. Ducking back under the lens after adjusting a light, I stumbled slightly and my finger somehow sank all the way to the bottom of his nice warm coffee without knocking the cup over.  Holloway's attention was focused on the camera while everyone else on set was looking at him, so nobody noticed.  

Well ... almost nobody.  The key grip on that project was one of those guys who misses nothing, and as I surreptitiously shook my finger dry, I noticed him grinning at me while shaking his head.  

Sorry Josh, but hey, shit happens on set.

My other memory from that week is of Donald Sutherland, who was then starring in Dirty Sexy Money.   He walked on set looking very distinguished, as usual, but clearly was not happy.  Ours was the last in a gantlet of four promo units all these actors had to run that day, and apparently three was his limit.  I couldn't blame him for being sick and tired of the promotional circus.  He was my age now at the time, and if I'd had such a storied career as Donald Sutherland, I sure as hell wouldn't want to waste a day of my life playing Fluff-Boy for the network publicity machine.  He was doubtless there due to contractual obligations, but signing that contract didn't mean he had to like it ... and he didn't.

Sutherland took his place in front of the big white backdrop, then glanced at the camera and stiffened.  

"That's a twenty-nine-millimeter lens," he said. "You can't film me with a twenty-nine-millimeter lens."

All the action on set stopped.  The DP tried to reassure him that due to the chip size of his video camera, the image produced would be the rough equivalent of a fifty-five-millimeter lens on a 35 mm film camera -- the format Sutherland was accustomed to -- but the old thespian remained unmoved.**** 

At that point it became clear that this had little to do with lenses and everything to do with a veteran actor being understandably weary of this promotional dog-and-pony show.  Once he blew off some steam -- and after the DP put a stand-in in front of the camera to show Sutherland the image on the monitor -- we all got back to work.  No harm, no foul.  

Like the rest of us, actors come and go -- there are no exceptions to the rule of life ending in death -- but unlike most of us, their work lives on.  Donald Sutherland's performances on screen will be enjoyed and appreciated for a long time. He was one of the really good ones.

Long before my unwilling transition from the lucrative world of commercials to the low-rent but user-friendly cloister of sitcoms, I did a three-day job filming Martin Mull at The Magic Castle in LA. I'd first become aware of Mull when he appeared in Mary Hartman, Marty HartmanFernwood 2 Night, and America 2 Night, three droll-but-innovative comedies that hit the airwaves shortly after I arrived in Hollywood.  What I didn't know until recently is that he'd come to LA as a guitar-playing comedian -- and a pretty good one at that -- or that later in life he became a painter.

As you can imagine, that job at the Magic Castle was fun (as were most of the gigs I did with comedians), despite a director who was entirely too full of himself. After lunch on the final day, some asshole broke into Mull's car in the parking lot to steal what he could, which put Mull in a bad mood ... and by then our director had really gotten on his nerves. Sensing this, the director had a PA run out to buy a jeroboam of chilled Moet and Chandon Champagne which he presented to Mull at the end of the day. Rather than grab the bottle and head for home to call his insurance agent, Mull popped the cork right then and there and shared it with the entire crew.  The director put on a happy face, but he was clearly miffed -- which I'm pretty sure is exactly what Martin Mull intended. 

He was a good man and a very funny guy, and I liked him.  


(For your viewing pleasure, here's a brief taste of America 2 Night)


June was no sooner in the rear-view mirror when July brought another blow: the death of screenwriting legend Robert Towne.  Although most well-known for Chinatown, he wrote a ton of movies, including 70's classics The Last Detail and Shampoo.  While recovering from surgery one unemployed summer in LA, I saw him give a fascinating talk at the WGA theater.  After discussing Chinatown, he talked about other films, including Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, recounting that the script he turned in didn't have a single line of dialog until page 80 ...  and I've always wondered about the reaction of the first studio honcho to read it. Needless to say, changes were made in an attempt to turn the script into something more commercial, the details of which -- and they are many -- are in that Wiki link. It's worth a read.  

As for Chinatown, it's interesting that the ending Towne wrote was completely different from what became the finale of the movie. Apparently he and Polanski fought over the script for two months as they worked on the final draft, and in the end Polanski won out -- hey, he was the director. Towne was pissed, but in later years admitted that Polanski had been right.  The ending of the movie is undeniably wrenching, but that's what made it the last truly great film noir ever made in Hollywood.

And so another icon of my relative youth is gone to the Great Beyond.  


The New Yorker Radio Hour recently featured a half-hour interview with Kevin Costner covering a range of subjects, including his new film Horizon: An American Saga, the first in a series of four westerns he's long wanted to make.  It's not a puff-piece to publicize the movie, but a serious wide-ranging conversation. Costner had to violate the first rule of Hollywood to get his movie made -- always use other people's money -- reportedly investing millions in the production. As usual, the subsequent media focus has been on box office returns, which thus far have not been good. Although I won't see it unless and until the film comes to a streaming service, I have to give Costner credit for doing something few people in Hollywood have ever done: he put his money where his mouth is. 


Not to get political here -- Dog knows we get too much political crap shoved in our faces these days -- but I recently stumbled across a theory that was brand new to me: The Wizard of Oz was not a mere story about a little girl being swept away by a tornado into a long and complicated dream, but an allegory about the political/cultural struggle that took place over the gold standard back in the 1890s.  If that sounds nuts -- as it did to me at first -- check out this Wiki page on the subject.  

Hey, who knew?

Finally, another look at my favorite TV commercial of all time. (Note: the original link I posted has since become inactive, so it's now been updated)  

Now that the calendar has turned to July, with much of the country in the sweaty grip of a fierce heat wave, summer is well and truly here --and to me, this commercial embodies the essence of what being young in the summer is all about.

Stay cool, kiddos.

* Yeah, I know -- the character Burgess Meredith portrays in this episode is actually quite happy in this photo because he now has all the time in the world for the one thing he truly loves: read books ... but in life and The Twilight Zone, things are not always as they seem.

** The world of baseball also lost Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda in June. June was a brutal month.

*** Translation: I had a massive crush on both of them.

**** A 29 mm is a very wide angle lens that can distort facial features -- not a flattering look.

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