NAT GERTLER WRITER
Nat Gertler becomes a TV Star
Nat becomes a TV Star
Many of you may remember my report on being an extra on the set of the film Primary Colors. Now I've expanded into television.
It all started Friday, August 15th, 1997. I was sitting at home, enjoying the fact that I had recently completed the first draft of my new book Using PowerPoint. The phone rang. "Hello?"
"Hi. This is Jennifer from Central Casting."
Now I have to explain that there are two main extra casting agencies in town, Cenex and Central. They're actually apparently the same company. The difference between the two divisions is that Cenex books for non-union roles, while Central books for union roles. I was signed on with Cenex, because I'm not a member of a union (the Screen Actors Guild or AFTRA). If Central was calling, something was up. (Even with Cenex, only about 5% of the roles involve them calling you. Usually, you have to call in and check what roles are available. So this was ever more likely to be something interesting.)
She explained that they were looking for a "Ben Franklin look-alike" to do a day or two of work on the sitcom Teen Angel the following week. I guess I'd never thought of myself as a Franklin look-alike, but thinking about it, I suppose that with my long hair, my bald top, and my round face, I could qualify. And if they're calling me, it means they don't have a ton of people with the same qualifications.
One of these is a drawing of Nat by artist Batton Lash, the other is a famed painting of Ben Franklin... but which is which?
The role would involve a union voucher (which is a good thing; if I get several roles like this, I can join the union. I may not be a big fan of unions, but the reality of the industry is that I want to do TV or film acting, I have to be a union member.) As I had nothing pressing on my schedule, I said I was up for it. She asked if I was willing to shave my beard, and for an experience like this, I certainly was. She told me she'd send my photo over to the studio, and give me a call on Monday to let me know what was up.
Monday passed. I stayed at home all day. No call.
Tuesday, I call Central. I've forgotten Jennifer's name, so I just try to get through to "whoever's booking Teen Angel". This proves to be a problem. I explain my situation, and the person I reached paused while asking someone something, then told me "If they didn't call you, you didn't get the part". I'm perturbed not so much at not getting the part as in having had to wait around all day for a call that never came.
Wednesday, the call came, around 10:30 AM. Jennifer wanted to know if I was available to head in for a fitting today, to film on Friday. I was surprised, thinking the role was gone, but I was happy. I said that I was, and set to shaving off my beard while Jennifer contacted the show to find out just when today they wanted me.
The call came in mid-shave. They wanted me ASAP. I finished shaving, showered and dressed, then headed off to the studio.
The series is shot at the KTLA Studios. KTLA is the local WB network affiliate. Teen Angel, however, is an ABC show, produced by another branch of Disney. You'd think there'd be rhyme and reason about which shows are shot where, but it's quite normal for an NBC show, for example, to be shot at CBS Studios, while at the same time a CBS show is being shot elsewhere. That's just how the business works.
I park my car in the designated lot. Then I head in through the security entrance. I'm not on the list to be on the lot today... although there is an entry for Ben Franklin fitting, with someone else's name on it. I suspect that I may have gotten the call to show when another actor had to cancel. The security guy calls the set, and after several minutes of getting the run-around, finally gets the okay to send me in.
Heading in, I see the various set buildings labeled with the names of the shows being shot within. There's Mad-TV, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game. I get to the right set building, make sure that the red light outside isn't flashing (the red light indicates that filming is going, and you shouldn't enter), and head in. I talk to someone with a headset, who uses the headset to tell Dana (my contact there) that I'm on set. While waiting, I see them rehearsing a scene which apparently involves Abraham Lincoln and Cleopatra in a high school. While I'm there, several people look at me and say something to the effect of "You must be Ben Franklin". I'd never thought of myself as a Franklin look-alike, but I guess it's the case. Some people tell me I'm "perfect".
They're actually shooting today. Unlike many sitcoms, this one has no live audience. I'd guess that this is a more common way to shoot a series with a lot of teen stars, since there's more time and less pressure not to make mistakes, plus you don't have the very long shooting day that you have with an audience program. (I've been in the audience of a number of sitcoms; the audience is there for about 4 hours, and they often have two performances in the day, plus a lot of time getting ready.)
Dana (male) shows up, hands me my voucher for the day, and takes me back to wardrobe. Wardrobe has me try on the Franklin outfit--pants, shirt, dicky, buckle shoes, vest, coat, glasses, and a tricorn hat. The vest and shoes are a little large. Everything else fits quite well; the wardrobe ladies are pleased, as this is the easiest fitting they had for this episode. They photograph me for their records. I hear that Einstein is coming in later for a fitting. I put my own clothes back on (I've done enough theater acting that I have no shame about stripping down to my undies in front of a few females) and head off to find Dana.
Dana shows up. I hand him my filled-out voucher, and ask him when I'm supposed to show up for the shoot. He tells me that Central will give me a call on Thursday to let me know. I leave. I've been on the scene for about 15 minutes, and I've made about $20.
Thursday, Jennifer calls again. My call-time on the set was for 7:30 AM Friday. This is a bit unfortunate; I've finally learned to sleep late lately, working "writer's hours". I go to bed early, setting my alarm watch for 5:30 AM, which should give me about a half-hour buffer in the morning for something to go wrong. This is the first time I'm trusting my new alarm watch to wake me. (Some of you may have read my trials and tribulations of getting this watch, which I e-mailed some folks.)
I wake up about 5 minutes before the watch is to go off, and decide to try to get the few minutes extra sleep. And, bless it, the watch goes off as intended! I gather what I need for the day (including a spare set of clothes--usually expected on extra shoots, but really not needed if they're providing character costumes--some books to read during any down-time on the set, and lunch) and head off. Traffic is light, and I get to the set around 7 AM.
I can't find Dana; he may not be there yet. I head back toward the wardrobe area, and luckily for me, he's there. He explains that because the "historical characters" have to change into their own outfits, as opposed to the normal situations with extras, they've arranged for trailers for us. He takes me out to the street, and there are four trailers, each with two doors. Some of the doors have an actor's name, computer-printed out and stuck to the door. Others have character names sloppily hand-written on tape. We find the door marked "Franklin", and once we find the guy to unlock all the trailers, I head inside.
It's a well-lit room, with its own air conditioner, its own sound system, a well worn sofa and stool, a closet, drawers, and large makeup mirror area. All in all, a nice little room. I drop of my stuff in there, then head back to find the make-up folk.
When I head in, they're making up Cleopatra and someone I take to be Einstein, but turns out to be Mark Twain. The make-up ladies aren't ready for me; I have to wait for the hair lady to show up, as that's the main thing that needs doing. Apparently, what color they wanted my hair to be was an open question.
Hanging out in the hallway, I see a few of the names on the dressing room doors. Regular cast each gets a dressing room, as do the main guest actors, such as Cleopatra and Lincoln. I noticed one dressing room is marked "Dee Snider", and I wonder if that's who I think it is.
The hair lady shows up. They've decided that my hair should be very dark brown. She sets about to coloring it. She puts a lot of work into getting it all, even though much of it will be covered by the hat. She even covers my eyebrows. I take off my glasses for this work. Other make-up folk looking at me tell me I'm perfect. I tell them that I'm glad to hear it; I'd always sought perfection, and now that I've achieved it, I can die now.
When the hair lady's done, I put the glasses back on. The dark hair, and particularly eyebrows, is a shocking change...and I'm still not used to seeing my chin.
I move over to a make-up chair, and the make-up lady sets into powedering my face. In the mirror, I see that Dee Snider has shown up. Dee and his band Twisted Sister had a number of headbanging hits in the 1980s. He settles in for make-up and work on his long curly blond hair (including his extra set of attachable locks, which are refered to as "stunt hair".) Everyone in the room is chatting and exchanging quips. Other extras, playing Picasso and Valentino, show up. (I hear there is to be a Babe Ruth, but I never see him; presumably, he's in other scenes.)
When my make-up is done, I head back to my trailer, where the basic parts of my costume (shirts, pants, socks, shoes) are waiting for me. I put them on, and wait for someone to come get me. About 10 minutes later, they do. It's just about time to shoot (9 AM). The wardrobe folks help me on with the dickie, vest, and coat. The coat has a fastener that's designed to close it in front; when the wardrobe folks decide that they don't want the coat closed, one of them works hard at removing the fastener so it won't be seen on screen, and talks about how mad the costume company they rented the outfit from will be. The coat gets taped to the vest, to keep it from falling open. The actors are gathering at the set, and someone there affixes my hat at the proper angle. I get photographed again. I realize that, since I'm wearing the hat, my baldness would not be visible. They really didn't need to hunt me down; they could probably have easily found someone in the union with round face and long hair (or even without long hair; most of the characters are using wigs.)
The concept of Teen Angel is that a teenage boy's best friend dies, then come back as an angel to help him. The scene we're about to shoot is taking place in the boy's bedroom. The boy is running for class president, and the angel has brought experts from heaven to help with his campaign. Picasso is painting a campaign poster, George Gallup is in charge of polling, Abraham Lincoln is working on campaign strategy, Valentino is helping him with public relations or somesuch, Twain is writing his speeches, Einstein is blowing up balloons. It's not mentioned why Cleopatra and I are there.
The young star (the boy, not the angel) introduces himself to each of us when he has the chance, and gets our real names. It's kind of weird, because we've all been being referred to by character names all day. He doesn't know who Valentino was, so a discussion of his history springs up. The boy seems impressed by the fact that women used to pass out when the silent star appeared on the screen.
Due to the presence of Valentino, the history of male screen sex symbols is covered in conversations several times that day. One of the crew had a good story about her mother, who was friends with Robert Redford's kid sister. Apparently, the mother and the kid sister go to one of Redford's movies one day, and Redford himself is supposed to pick them up from the movie. He gets there a bit early, before the film lets out, so he goes in and finds his sister. The sister tells him he has to sit down and listen to the two teenage girls sitting in front of them. Apparently, they are lost in teenage lust over the Redford figure on the screen, and whenever his character appears, they go into passionate conversation about his physical attributes. After listening for a while, Redford leans forward between their seats, points to the screen, and asks "excuse me girls, who is that guy?" The girls see him, scream, and the theatre is reduced to pandemonium. It's a good story.
The scene is blocked. I'm talking (silently) to Lincoln (played by someone who regularly plays Honest Abe; most of our look-alikes haven't done these characters before) while the angel explains to the boy why everyone is there. Then while Lincoln has a few lines with the leads, I'm to cross behind them to talk (silently) with Gallup. We rehearse the shot that way a couple times, but then they decide that my crossing the set at that point disturbs the scene. Instead, while Lincoln talks to the lead, I watch Picasso at work. Then when Lincoln is done, he watches Picasso and I go talk to Gallup. At some point, when the historical figures are refered to as the angel's "elves", we all glance and grumble... or we're supposed to, but sometimes we miss the cue. (Including Gallup and me; we (the actors) have decided that I'm fascinated with his calculator, and with the focus that we have on that bit of business, we lose track of the dialog.)
There's a woman whose main job is to mark our "marks", the places we're supposed to be standing, with little color-coded stickers. My stickers are green.
This is a three-camera show. "Three-camera show" is a technical term for a show shot with more than one camera. In actuality, they're using four cameras.
First they do a master shot of the whole scene, working on getting the big picture. Then they run it several more times, getting close-ups. Minor things go wrong, characters are told to punch certain lines (those that have lines; I don't), but we get what we need. Then they discover that the camera they used for the main master shot has a hair in it; it's easy to remove, but the master will have to be done again.
Finally, the scene is done. We're told to take five... then we get called back immediately. There are publicity photographers there, one from the network, one from the production studio. The fact that the same company (Disney) owns both the network and the production studio does not stop the duplication of effort. Shots are taken of the two leads with the historical figures gathered around them. Some of the shots also include Dee Snider.
We're told to "take 5" again. Five is a euphemism; it ends up being more like half an hour. Most of us head back to the "craft services" area: the table full of food. I talk with the other actors, crew members, and one lady who apparently is the mother of one of the stars, who doesn't like sitcoms but thinks that this show is actually sometimes funny. The cast all thinks this is a particularly fun shoot, with a good group of people and an interesting atmosphere caused by taking on the historical personae.
Eventually, we get called back. The bedroom set is ready to shoot the next scene (well, the next scene we're filming; there are scenes between the two that have apparently already been filmed). A few things have been removed, and Picasso's name has been painted on the mirror (which is what took all the time.)
The setup is explained to us. Apparently, these historical figures have taken to enjoying the things available on the material world, rather than getting work done. Einstein is working on a Rubik's Cube. Valentino and Gallup are playing basketball. The director points, "Ben and Cleo, you're on the bed, making out. Ben, your glasses should be askew."
Benjamin Franklin is a happy man, particularly after he mentally rechecks what he just heard, to be sure that he's making out on the bed and not just making the bed.
Cleo (in reality, a pretty woman named Susan, who's married to a stand-up comic) and I get into position. They do the first run-through. I'm doing stage make-out, kissing past her right cheek, her left cheek, her neck. She responds similarly (along with moans and gasps.) We try a couple takes that way. I apologize for being out of practice at making out.
We realize we have a problem. The cameras are too close. We can't fake it as much as we have been. Sure, we can fake behind-the-ear and behind-the-neck kisses, but the ones to the face and lips have to be real. Acting, like all creative work, is grounded in suffering.
In the scene, we make out, then the boy yells at all the historical figures, and we leave angrily, heading back to heaven. We shoot it again and again and again. Cleo and I are the first things in the shot, and they decide they need both of us in profile, a full mouth-to-mouth kiss. On one of the takes, her headpiece and my hat get locked together. Other takes, my glasses or hat fall off in the midst of the action. None of these things interupts the action; when something natural like that happens, you go with it. Once, having trouble seeing, I stumble over the door jamb on my way to heaven. Isn't that always the way?
Between takes, when there's time (there isn't always; if something interupts the take before the exit, we just restart), chatting goes on. Cleo says that she never pictured Franklin as a kisser, and I point out that he really was a letch, which surprises her. Someone makes a comment about our all being "history", and I reply that if that's the case, then I'm "making history". I get threatened with several props.
Cleo (who, given the nature of the scene we're filming, is glad she decided not to bring her daughter along) is worried that her outfit may be see-through under the bright light. Einstein jokes about her Wonderbra being visible. Cleo points out that it isn't a Wonderbra, it's an underwire. I point to her chest and say "Any wonder in there is her own." She smiles. She explains she's proud of her chest, although she felt it was better before she breastfed for 22 months. She's not a vapid woman; she is an actress, and her looks are an important asset.
More takes, and it's done. We then get back on the set. They've got to do some audio-only recording. First we redo the grumble from the first scene (it takes a couple takes before we sound like we're grumbling, rather than being a group of vampires.) Then we do party noise; Cleo moans while I gasp, then we switch.
After the recording, I realize that Franklin's name is not mentioned in any of the scenes I've been in. I wonder if he's mentioned elsewhere, and worry that people may not recognize who I'm supposed to be.
And that's it. Bill-the-Assistant-Director lets me know that I've filmed my last scene. I drop my outerwear off at wardrobe. Heading out, I see Dee coming up the hallway. I toss him a goodbye salute, and he returns it.
In my trailer, I get out of the rest of the costume, and into my streetclothes. Dana stops by. I give him the filled-out voucher. He tells me what a great job I did, and thanks me. (This is standard, I assume; the only thing I had a chance to shine at is looking like Ben Franklin.) I let him know what a pleasure it was to do the work, and that they should feel free to ask for my services again. It's a long-shot, I figure, but it can't hurt to say that.
I finish dressing, grab my things, and go. It's a little after noon. For this day, I've earned about twice as much as I would've on a non-union shoot.
I head home, take a nap, and go to show off the dark hair and eyebrows to some of my friends. Alas, I've lost some color onto the pillowcase during the nap, so it isn't as impressive now. In the morning, I will shampoo the rest of the color out. I think I'll keep the naked chin for another couple weeks at least. It makes me look younger... but fatter.
Life's too short to not collect experiences while you can.
--Nat Gertler, August 22nd, 1997