A recent post by Mark Evanier on his blog about how he got his mom a job as an extra on L.A. Law got me to thinking about my experiences as an extra in big-time Hollywood movies. Isn't a life I'd want to lead, but for some people it is, indeed, a full-time occupation. And it does amaze me that some people will go through the rigors of being, as one of the extras called it, "living furniture" in the slim hope that they'll get their big acting break. Or maybe for many of them it's just the thrill of being in the movies, no matter how small their part.
The first time I was an extra, I was part of a crowd scene -- and, if being an extra in most productions is like being part of the background furniture, in that one I was part of a background forest. I was right out of college, living in relative squalor in the town of Venice in Southern California, a few miles from the Loyola Marylount campus I'd just left. My roommate had been editor of the college newspaper, and through his contacts he'd heard that the 1976 remake of "King Kong," starring Jeff bridges and Jessica Lange, needed extras for the scene where Kong breaks free at the carnival where he's been put on display after being brought to America from the jungle island. We hopped in my roommate's car and headed to the MGM studio backlot in Culver City about 7 one evening, joining a couple of thousand other people who'd also received promotional tickets. We were herded into bleachers facing a huge mechanical Kong. His head moved side-to-side and his right arm moved up and down. He looked right at home at a carnival, like one of those moving statues they put outside the fun house. Once in the bleachers, we were told via bullhorn -- wielded by the director or, more likely, an assistant director -- to applaud, then lean to the left, then lean to the right, then scream. We screamed dozens of times, so the cameras could get close shots of some of the terrified patrons -- probably paid extras that were put in the front rows of the bleachers just for those shots. I do remember being incredibly hoarse by the end of the night. We were then thanked by the director/assistant with the bullhorn for helping make the scene so successful and told to give ourselves a round of applause. Then came the last take of the night: we were to scramble out of the bleachers in a mad dash for the exits because Kong had just broken his chains! The "mad scramble" was somewhat choreographed by the stage hands who, just out of camera range, herded us through marked exits. Once outside the bleachers, we found ourselves back in the parking area. Our payment? That nice round of applause that we gave ourselves. The whole experience took about two hours. When the movie came out, you couldn't find me or my roommate with a magnifying glass.
By 1999, I was a weathercaster at a TV station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow visited, with a film crew in tow, to shoot scenes for a new comedy, "Lucky Numbers," loosely based on an actual incident in Pennsylvania Lottery lore. In 1980, Nick Perry, weatherman for Pittsburgh TV station WTAE, where lottery numbers were drawn at the time, conspired with others at the station to fill some of the lottery machines' numbered ping-pong balls with paint so they wouldn't rise in the blasts of air that flowed to the top of the machines, where the winning ping-pong balls were sucked out through a small tube. Left un-filled were the numbers 6 and 4 so they would be the only numbers in the tube. The drawing on the night of April 24th produced the number 666 and a one-point-eight million dollar bonanza for Perry and his pals, who were later discovered and sent to prison. The lottery drawings were moved to the state capitol, Harrisburg, and to my TV station, WHP, so state officials could keep an eye on things. But old habits die hard. In 1999, I was the weatherman and announcer for the lottery drawings, just as Nick Perry had been in 1980.
"Lucky Numbers" cast Travolta as the weatherman and Kudrow as his partner-in-crime, the woman who drew the lottery numbers from the machines. (In the real life drawings, a lottery official draws under the watchful eye of a senior citizen.) One afternoon I got a call from the film's production company, asking for videotapes of the station's news opening and of my weathercast, so they could put together accurate-looking graphics and sets.
The next call I got was from the film's casting people. They said in looking over the tapes they noticed I was doing what Travolta would do in the movie: weather and lottery drawings. Would I like to be an extra in the film?
About a month later, I pulled into the parking lot of a doctor's office across the Susquehanna River from the TV station. I drove a 1988 Volvo wagon, and I was getting paid to park it in the lot -- the film company needed 1980s cars in the lot of the doctor's office, which was doubling for the film's TV station. All us extras were herded into an unused upstairs office, where we sat....and sat...and sat. No snacks, no TV set, no diversions. Just three days of waiting. On the second and third days I brought a book, but it was still incredibly dull. We were let out for lunch, and dinner one night when the shoot went long, but other than that we had to stay in that upstairs office so a crew member could find us at any time. Every once in a while, someone from the crew would stick his or her head in the door and select two or three of us to come downstairs and walk behind a shot. I was never chosen for those. Most of my fellow extras were used to it; they had appeared in films shot in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey. A couple of us, though, were "newbies," including a teacher who took a week off from her middle school classes.
On the second day, bored and antsy, five of us extras broke ranks and walked downstairs to the parking lot to watch the crew shoot a scene with Ed O'Neill, who played the TV station manager. In the scene, he gets out of his car and steps on a ping-pong ball and begins to suspect something's going on with the lottery drawing. The nurses who worked in the doctor's office flocked to O'Neill when the scene was done to get his autograph. On their way back to the office, two of the nurses recognized me from my TV weathercasts and walked over to get my autograph as well. This flummoxed my fellow extras -- why would anyone want MY autograph? When I told them why, they seemed a little impressed, but none of them asked for my autograph.
The discussions that went on in that office between the "professional" extras were part resume and part hope. They all talked about previous films they'd worked on, and followed that with gossip about possible future film shoots in the area. The scenario painted by Ricky Gervais in "Extras" seemed pretty accurate: they were all actors, working in the business, waiting for their big break. They longed to be featured in a scene, doing something like handing a report to the star, which meant exposure and some extra money for them -- or the Holy Grail, actually getting a line, which meant more money and a credit at the end of the film ("Man #1"). They longed, but the school teacher was the one who took action.
The biggest scene we filmed was one where Lisa Kudrow drives her car into the front of the building to create a distraction so John Travolta can switch ping-pong balls in the lottery machines. All us extras were to rush out of the building, concerned over poor Lisa, staggering out of her car after the crash. The one true hired actor among us, with actual scripted lines, was John O'Donohue, who played the security guard who helps Lisa out of her car and into the lobby. (O'Donohue regaled the extras during down times with stories about how he played Gus the lie-detector operator in the "Melrose Place" episode of Seinfeld.) First out of the building, however, was the school teacher, who ran over to the car, opened the door, helped Lisa out of the car, and asked her if she felt okay. CUT! She'd given herself a speaking part, and that led to a half-hour break while they drew up a new contract for her in case they wanted to use that take and had to include her lines. When shooting resumed, word came down that director Nora Ephron wanted fewer people running out to the car. The crew member next to us told me, another female extra and the teacher to stay back in the building for take two, the one they used so they wouldn't have to pay the gabby teacher.
So after three days of sitting around that upstairs office, there's not a second of film with me on it. I got paid, my car got paid, I created a bit of a stir with my autograph session, but I never actually did the thing I was there to do: appear in a scene in a movie.
And what does it say about me that both movies were bombs at the box office?