By D. "Darteo" Sommese
When making films in Hollywood, the producers always choose the hottest days of the year to do their Winter scenes and the coldest days of the year to do their summer scenes. Why this is I will never know. The 1st Assistant director, is a job title and a person. If the Director is equivalent to the Captain of the ship, then the 1st Assistant Director, is equivalent to the first mate.
I wish I could remember the name of this movie set I worked on in Pasadena one record hot summer day. It was something about a Tribe or was that Bribe? It was with..... what's his name...I have a block with this guys name..... The one from American Graffiti and Jaws and "Who's life is it " (Oh...Richard Dryfus) ...anyway he, Elaine Stritch and Tom Poston worked this picture on this particular record hot day. It was one of the better shows to work despite the heat which was in the 90's. Everyone in front of the camera was dressed for winter. It was shot at a private elementary school auditorium in Pasadena which was supposed to be somewhere in Upstate New York. There was no air in the tiny room, but I could see how it would be perfect to represent the small town Elementary school auditorium they wanted it to be.
The first day was a rather large "call". The $40.00, non-union "background actors' were not allowed to eat off the cast and crew food truck, but a equally good hot breakfast was provided at a buffet table set up for them. The background actors belonging to the screen actors Guild were allowed to eat off the cast and crew table only after showing their union membership card. God forbid, the cast and crew should have to eat with non-union people. It all seemed so dumb and it must make more work for everyone in the long run, but the caste system must be perpetuated, like they all have a grudge against the American ideal of "equality for all."
This particular production was what we call in the "biz" a "feature" which distinguishes it from a TV show. It normally has a bigger budget and lots more time is taken to get a shot. A feature has the luxury of time and money. The 2nd Assistant Director seemed to have some breeding. People who do this job can be devoid of normal human emotions, but this one wasn't. He gathered us all together and explained the plot and story line. This is rare. We found out that we were to be parents in the audience of the elementary school. He also told everyone the name of the woman who was the 1st Assistant Director, which I promptly forgot, but what can you expect from a person who can barely remember Richard Dryfus' name.
The 1st, (as those that are in this position are called) was a woman in her late 30"s. She must have been raised in the Bronx or something, her accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife. She was by far one of the rudest people I have ever seen on a set. She never said "please" or "thank you" and bleated every command like a goat, in short annoying staccato blasts, using phases like "be quite" which clearly meant "shut-up"!, or she yelled "no tawking" in her thick NY accent. When she asked a "background actor" to move or change positions she would bark, "YOU come here, YOU move there". Never a "please" or "thank you" to go with it, or indicate that they might disserve some normal human respect. Even though the crew notoriously has great disdain for "background actors," no one wants a "Mommy Dearest" on the set. How could she have gotten so far, with so little class is my question?
The temperature in the tiny auditorium was at least 110 degrees. The close quarters and a room full of people puts a strain on everyone. It is always a pain in the ass for the crew to work on a set with a bunch of "background actors". It makes for a lot more noise and it obstructs their bonding with one another. So even though the scene could not play without the "background people" there is always a bit of unreasonable resentment from the crew. Go figure? To me, its like people who go to the beach, but hate the sand. So the crew just looks past the background actors or through them, or they ignore them completely. From my perspective the background actors were 60 professionals putting up with excessive heat and delivering all the appropriate reactions asked of them.
Richard Dryfus, a class act, was the only one who acknowledged the background actors. In between shots he took it upon himself to address the group with a bunch of trivia questions that revolved around Julie Andrews being the answer each time. As far as any of us knew she was not in the picture at all. Perhaps knowing that all actors are a bit nutty, everyone played the game and was grateful for the attention and the diversion from the excessive heat. Remember everyone in front of the cameras was dressed up for winter.
Before every shot, Richard would get the background actors to shout very loudly, "Julie Andrews"! Which became a running joke for the 2 days we were all there. The rest of the cast and crew ignored this completely, as if all the background actors and Richard were doing it on some other planet. The loudmouth 1st AD put up with it, but grudgingly. I think Richard in his own way, was using our shouting "Julie Andrews" to get at the 1st AD in some way, as if he were invoking the name of a woman with so much class, in the face of the 1st AD, a woman who clearly displayed so little.
Elaine Stritch is a legend "second banana" Broadway Star. Legend aptly describes her professional career. Her musical comedy credits are a long list of Broadway smash hits. But I was sure that no one in Hollywood or on the set seemed to be aware of this. Most of her musical comedy performances I have only heard on records, but I have always enjoyed her characters and performance. She is the epitome of the old trouper, often changing into her wardrobe right on the set in front of us all, which is more of a theater thing to do than a Hollywood thing. I have to say, that it did not shock any of us. Really it was so hot in there most people resorted to just staring straight ahead, sort of transcendentally leaving the body.
At one point Elaine began kidding with her "dresser" and the two of them broke into a Tap Dance time step. Elaine must be in her 70's by now, but you would never know it by her lively step. I was delighted, as were all of us, who were close enough to see the action. This sort of levity is rare.
Elaine then said to the woman who was helping her with her wardrobe, "Your the Tops" which to any Broadway minded person, is a song cue! To my great delight "Elaine" began to sing the Cole Porter hit in duet with the dresser. "Your the tops..... This is any situation would have been magic moment. Those of us close enough were all primed for this little treat of performance. Imagine Elaine Stritch giving a command performance! I almost swooned with the thought of such a privilege. Then the unspeakable happened. The crass, loud mouth, 1st AD bleated "Quite!!!!!!" She couldn't have been more harsh if she tried. The intonation meant "SHUT UP!!!". Imagine telling Elaine Stritch to shut up? So in her best obnoxious manner she cut Elaine off in mid stride. I could see those sitting around me visibly deflate, and sink slightly in their seats with disappointment.
Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. Her face went blank as she tried to process the insult. She must have been thinking "Pearls before swine" as she returned to her seat. I said in a voice way too loud, "How about that, telling a legend to be quiet just when she was getting going." I have a voice that carries over everything. The entire room heard it including Elaine. The people in front of me turned and nodded in agreement. Elaine cocked her head in the direction of the voice as she sat down. For a quick fraction of a second I had the feeling she thought it was a sarcastic comment, but I could see in the instant before her face turned away from me, that she knew it was inspired by my disappointment.
All this did not go unnoticed by the classless 1st Assistant, who was displaying the blank expression of someone who wished she had looked before she leapt. In truth it is her job to keep the production moving along, but there is a thing called finesse and allowing the interjection of levity in really oppressive work situation. There should be classes given in show business tradition before people are allowed to have a job like this. Imagine stopping and impromptu performance by a Broadway legend! Perhaps one day I will get to see Elaine finish her song, because she (and Richard) surely were the tops that day!
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