by D."Darteo" Sommese
In the late 1990's the S. show was number one in the ratings. From my level, as a union Hollywood background actor, the tell-tale signs of this success, was the amount of food laid out on what is normally the junk food snack and coffee table of most shows. A sound stage after all is like a vast airplane hanger. The tops of the scenery, which form the familiar walls of all the homes of all our favorite shows, are dwarfed by the huge amount of space and things that go on above it all. There are layers of scaffoldings and lights and more catwalks above more lights. It is all very industrial looking and only beautiful to dyed-in-the-wool film-sick puppies, like myself. So to see banquet tables brimming with a sumptuous feasts in the middle of and in back of, all this industrial theatrical paraphernalia, boggles the mind. There was no way that the cast and crew could have eaten all that food in one night. Since it was the last night of shooting, all the deviled eggs, artichoke hearts, vegetable cuts, cold cuts, sliced fruit, breads and on and on, (no humming bird tongues though), would have to be thrown out. With conspicuous consumption, come conspicuous waste.
I walked on the set only to be greeted by the hulk of a woman who was my captor once before on a short lived show now gone by the wayside. I had to crouch low through the railing of the bleachers where I was sitting to talk to her. She, like a jailer, was separated from the prisoners (the background actors) by the metal railing. I was talking to the most controlling assistant director that the film world had ever known. An assistant director is a classroom monitor, all grown up, but meaner in some cases. The second assistant helps the 1st assistant, who yells things like "Quiet!" and "Roll 'em" on the set. This particular assistant director is known as the "2nd second", which means she is hired to help the second assistant director. If a movie set were a ship, the director would be the Captain, and the 1st assistant director would be the 1st mate. The second assistant is both paper-pusher and glorified gofer (go fer it). Some handle the position with class and calm, others are mean and self loathing, some with often yet undiscovered clinical mental problems. The Director's Guild insists it screens these people, but some just naturally get through the cracks. You have heard of "bad cops", well...yes Virginia... there are some "bad" second assistant directors too. We all have stories....
This particular second assistant, was hired just for the day to deal with the large group of background actors called in for a day's work . Let's just say this particular second assistant director or "AD" (aye dee) for short was a "Mommy Dearest" type. The smartest thing for me would have been just to stay away from her. But like another voice speaking through me, I heard myself enthusiastically saying. "Hey, I know you...I worked with you on "Wahtsit!." We were both taken aback by my long-time-no-see routine. I think she was just ready for people to ignore her. I swear I don't know where that came from. All I could think of is that is was my dear sainted mother, or my recently departed dear older friend Mary Carlson, were intervening from on high to keep me from angering this "Big Nurse" type right off the bat. I wondered if as a child she had ever been given baby rabbits to play with and they wound up boiling in the pot? Talk about anal and controlling! The first thing she told me was not to talk to, or go near the actors. I was to be in one of three places. Number 1: The bleachers, were I was already sitting, which would be used for the audience later that evening. Number 2: the snack table, set up in back of the bleachers, or Number 3: the bathroom.
The cast, by the way, are fellow Screen Actors Guild union members. We all pay dues to the very same place, but this has never stopped anyone from treating me like an plantation slave, while they, the actors, are all treated like little Lords. Ms. "Control" then held out an ink pad and a stamper, and without so much as an explanation she said "Give me your hand". I have to tell you, no matter how convenient it may be, I do not like to be stamped for any reason. What the hell is this Nazi Germany! I asked her, "What is that for? (I was thinking, "Treat me like a fu***ing professional...and who the hell does your hair!") The idea of being branded like a cow did not sit well. "This is so the people at the cast and crew snack table will know you are member of the SAG (The Screen Actors Guild)" she said. I said in the cute little blunt manner I have perfected over the years. "I don't want my hand stamped." She said, "I am not going to stamp your hand, I am going to stamp your wrist."
This thought horrified me even more, stamping my wrist where the veins are!....Haven't these people heard of osmosis!. I said, "Can you assure me that this ink is non-toxic?" (I really worry about things like this?) That question seemed to stump her. The ink for those things is designed to stamp paper, they meet no standards to be used on a human. God knows what PCB's or other carcinogenic vial things are mixed in with that stuff. So like Hardy would say to Laurel, I said, "I don't want that stuff next to my veins." She seemed to understand this, which amazed me a little, but having to have the last word she said, " OK, but you wont be able to eat off the cast and crew snack table." "Fine", I said, and thinking further ("I"ll eat fucking cake!" I said to my self.
The S. Show was then the number one show on television. The real live Jerry S. was making a cool million and a half for every episode. The food for the cast and crew could never be eaten by them in one day. Since no one would dare to eat leftovers kept on a dirty dusty stage, it would all be thrown away. All this hand stamping is a plan devised to keep the non-union "background actors" who were making $40.00 a day at the time, from eating at the same table as the cast and crew. (And you thought we were living in democracy!) The non-union background actors were treated like the untouchables of the untouchables, and kept from eating the food that would eventually be thrown out anyway. I can not explain how unkind I thought this was in a world of spectacular excess. Can you believe this? I remember wondering if Jerry, Elaine, George, and the other one with the funny hair, were aware of this? They looked like such nice people, I couldn't imagine them being a party to all this.
I waited in the bleachers as I was requested to do, by the 2nd Assistant. (She was the ist second assistant AD) It really was a best seat, to see all that was going on. The actors who are very funny when the camera's was rolling, were very serious when they were not. To be sure acting requires a lot of concentration. It is more hard work than fun. Time is money and too many mistakes make the night drag on. Everyone wants to get the thing done and go home. As it is, a day on the set often lasts well over 12 hours. Jerry looks the same off camera as he does on. Elaine looked like she was fighting a nasty cold when the camera's were off her. George and Mr. K looked as they appeared on TV also. For a bunch of comics, non looked very happy. Well at the time Jerry was making all the money and the rest were not.
While I was watching the cast of this show, I could not help but think of the nights my Aunt Mary and I spent watching them all on re-runs when I was visiting her in New Jersey. She really got some good laughs from the show and would never think of missing it. Thinking about Aunt Mary laughing made me smile all the more. Jerry kept casting glances at me, like I was some sort of nut. The smile on my face worried him. He made it clear he didn't like it. I caught this out of the side of my eye. God forbid that I should look at him directly. This is a definite no-no in the film business. You learn early not to make direct eye-contact with the principals. It makes them wild. I have been in the business too long for that one. You would think they as actors would realize people have become used to looking at them on TV. It's nothing personal, more like a habit than anything else. After all, this is why he was making the big bucks, wasn't it? I wasn't looking at him, but I was fighting a smile the whole time. The show is a comedy! I know he was thinking I was some crazed fan ready to stalk him. Such is the price of fame, and how the mighty fall before it.
Mommy Dearest, the 2nd assistant, to my great relief was concerning herself with the non-union people. They had my sympathy, but I was grateful the heat was off me. The cast was really funny when they rehearsed. You can not deny that as actors, they were good at what they did. After working together for 8 years, they seem to have it down to a science. So there I was, NOT watching Jerry watch me, laughing at Elaine's bit. It was rather weird since all the time I was thinking how funny Aunt Mary would have thought the whole thing was. I thought of asking for an autograph for her, but it seemed very unprofessional. I was not there as a fan. Besides Ms. Control, the assistant director would call for the nets if I even walked near one of the actors.
The high point of the show was an appearance by Lloyd Bridges, who was well into his 80's then. His class act shines through any performance. He seemed a bit feeble then. I thought it a sad fact of life that a treasure of his calibre had to age and leave us. I remember running into him at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, Easter week 1962. He was quick stepping down the grand staircase as I was going up. I was just a kid at the time, but we made eye contact and he shot me a smile and a hello. What a thrill that was. He was at the top of his form then, and this image of him coming down that grand staircase in his prime is an enduring one.
His son, Bo and his family came to see the show and had dinner with the cast and crew that evening. You can't help but like these people, they project a great family spirit. One of the woman background actors I have worked with for years, had worked with Lloyd for years on the Joe Forester series. She has been doing background work since she was 10 years old. Like a normal human being, she went over to say hello to an old friend. Immediately the 2nd assistant director, jumped up and holding out her arms in a grand gesture and blocked her path. This was all to save Mr. Bridges from being said hello to. Other assistants from the directors guild jumped up as well to protect him. They acted as if she were protecting Mr. Bridges from a stray bullet or something. It was painful to watch, and so unnecessary.
The non-union background actors were treated especially poorly that day. When we all arrived they were all given a written statement that said , they would be released (fired); if they so much as talked to one of the actors; if they strayed from their bleacher seats; or ate from the cast and crew food table. The last directive being the worst of all since the food display for the S. show cast and crew bordered on the obscene, when you consider the amount of food there was there. There would really be enough to feed the audience if they had to, and that is before they sent out for more, which they seemed to do every two hours.
After dinner, I got a chance to talk to Mr. K. as we were both in the wings waiting to make an entrance into the Coffee shop set. I needed to know what scene we were doing, because I had to make an entrance on cue. The assistant director should have told us what scene we were about to do, so we could keep track of the dialog. They expect the background actor to be clairvoyant. We never see a script, very often they tell you to listen for a word in an entire speech and then enter. No actor is ever expected to do this. So here we are, all considered beneath normal intelligence, often doing the job with the least amount of information possible. If it works nothing is ever said. If it doesn't, all hell breaks lose.
Mr. K was a real bitch, he barked the scene number to me as if I were a dog, in answer to my question. He was obviously put out that I had dared to speak to him. He also was the "consummate professional", when he blamed the very same 'background actress' (who had the audacity to try and say hello to Lloyde Bridges), for making him forget his line, when her chair made a noise on the floor and distracted him. It was so unnecessary.
Very often on these shows with a live audience, the scene is re-shot after audience goes home, for one reason or another. Lloyde's scene was the last to shoot after the audience left. When it was finished, the cast and crew gave him a big round of applause. He, like the trouper he was, thanked us all and complimented the crew on their professionalism.
Afterwards, I was at the food table standing over a pot of Miso soup, ladling a cup for myself. Mr Bridges walked up to me and poked his cup in my direction and asked me to fill it, like any co-worker might to another. He was aware that I was a member of the background, but he insisted on ignoring it. I had a feeling it was his own rebelion to a movie business that surely had changed for the worse since he first walked on a set. For me it was a tense moment, because I could see the eyes of all the crew members were on me. Ms. Control, the 2nd second assistant, was biting the inside of her cheek. She was worried, lest I would begin to grovel on all fours, or start pissing myself or something. Lloyde and I just smiled at one another, two adult professionals, being two human beings, and nothing more. It is moments like this that make the bulk of the bullshit in this TV/ Film business worth it. What a thrill is was to work with a consummate professional like Mr. Bridges. He still shines above the rest. Those other stars of the moment don't seem to be working much any more.
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