Welcome to another blog. I am a retired Senior Executive (GSA) and the author of a recently published book, Confessions of a Government Man: How to Succeed in Any Bureaucracy. It has been my pleasure to post these blogs.
This post is not a book excerpt but a chapter which didn’t make the final cut due to its minimal relevance to the rest of the book. Nevertheless, it represents another humorous event in my long government career and govies could use all the humor they can find these days.
This is a first person account of my foray into the glamorous world of Hollywood during the New York shooting of Batman Forever. Apparently, the critics felt my role was not significant enough merit a review, but the entire episode continues to generate Happy Hour conversation.
I shouldn’t have been offended at not receiving an invite to the world premier. My contribution may have been overlooked. Until going Hollywood I was your arch-conservative bureaucrat, toiling by day for GSA. My career had been successful, but now I was putting it all on the line with a new challenge. I was going before the cameras.
As payment for GSA allowing them to turn the stately old Custom House at New York’s historic Bowling Green into the Ritz-Gotham Hotel to shoot a piece of Batman, Warner Brothers reluctantly agreed to hire ten selected GSA aspiring actors as extras. The group was chosen by a casting lottery. I have to thank my staff for entering my name without my knowledge or permission.
I knew something was up when the White House-appointed head of our region walked up to me one day and offered hearty congratulations for no apparent reason. My first reaction was that I might have slept through an important staff meeting because nothing happened to command this sudden attention. I was told that I had the distinction of being chosen number eleven in the lottery, meaning I was the first standby extra and would perform if one of the ten was unable or unwilling to undertake this important mission. Considering that the filming was to be from 6:30PM until daybreak on a workday, I considered myself in.
For the next few weeks I made sure to casually mention my upcoming enterprise at every social gathering. “I’m afraid I can’t join you for dinner. I’m scheduled for a shoot that evening.” My staff suggested I prepare a personal portfolio when they tired of my spouting Shakespeare in the office and my tripping all over the place because of the tacky Hollywood shades I acquired for the proper image. When I subscribed to Variety I was testing everyone’s patience. “OK, so it’s not a starring role, but a small part does not mean a small player.”
Our movie careers almost ended before the first take. I took it upon myself, as senior member of the group, to act as spokesperson and demanded that the studio supply a limo to transport us to the set and to assure us proper dressing quarters. The answer was to take the Number 5 train to Bowling Green and bring a shopping bag for our gear. So much for status.
Our first exposure to Hollywood was humbling. Batman stars Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman and Jim Carrey were nowhere to be found. Their quarters were obviously more ample. We were told to report to “holding” and have identification ready. Did they expect impostors for the privilege of working through the night for $60?
Some two hundred extras of various size, age and personality were gathered for what was termed “Operation Blinko.” The first buzzword we learned was “SAG,” meaning Screen Actors Guild. If you were not a member you were designated “Non-SAG” and a second class citizen. SAG actors sign in first, go to wardrobe and makeup first, eat first at breaks and eventually check out first. In the holding pen they were separated from the non-SAGs by one of those yellow police ribbons used at a crime scene. “Non-SAGs sit at these tables only,” was the first instruction we had from Allison, a 5’2″ drill sergeant in charge of this shapeup. She used a megaphone as if she were Cecil B. DeMille on location and struck fear in everybody. Some of the regulars cautioned us that to agitate her was an invitation to be thrown off the set and be blacklisted for life.
There are many levels of Hollywood extra. The bit player may get in a word of dialogue. Among extras, this is prestige. The walk-on extra passes a featured player or stands with a uniform or prop. In Batman some of these elite extras were paparazzi, staff at the Ritz-Gotham decked out in gaudy uniforms or guests entering the elegant party attired in flashy tuxedos and gowns. Next there were background extras who were none of the above but get close enough to the action to be recognizable on screen and can cause a retake of a scene if they mess up. Then there was the GSA crew. We were “non-descript extras,” meaning we would be as distinguishable in the film as someone in a wide angle shot of the Yankee Stadium bleachers during a power outage. We were the lowest of the low.
Most of the assembled extras still had day jobs but from appearances, conversations and egos, one would think it was a room full of Bruce Willises. There were even some distinguished Barrymore types. I heard someone say “I just shot Die Hard.” Translation, “I did a day’s work as an extra last week.” There were people in shades, berets, ascots, bowler hats, evening gowns and miscellaneous garb worthy of Oscar night during Hollywood’s Golden Age. It was difficult to tell who was in costume and who was in their everyday dress. We were joined at the table by a Julia Roberts look-alike who claimed she could have had the lead in “Pretty Woman” but was too busy to audition. She accepted a lesser role as a $100 a day extra.
We had been cautioned to arrive in dark clothing, as non-descript as our parts. I was issued a Salvation Army topcoat which I guess had antique value because I had to leave my driver’s license with the wardrobe sergeant to assure the coat’s proper return.
The most degrading part of the assignment was when Allison commanded, “All non-SAG women are to line up for inspection.” If I said that at GSA I would be facing sexual harassment charges.
TO BE CONTINUED
My next blog will describe the balance of my short Hollywood career. Fortunately, I kept my day job at GSA.