A Face in the Crowd

Today we are taking a peek at what goes into being a background performer. Like the composers, costumers, and cameramen, the group of people surrounding the stars is a critical element for every television show.

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If you were a fan of Friends, think back to Central Perk.  While the group of friends on the show held court on the orange sofa, there were people all through the coffee shop chatting and drinking tea or lattès that you might not have paid much attention to.  If you watched The Big Bang Theory, you’ll remember the cafeteria scenes when the guys had lunch together. The room was full of other staff members enjoying their lunch as well. 

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While you can relate to these scenes, you probably can’t give me any details about specific characters who appeared in them. That’s what a good background actor is; someone who has a nonspeaking role and is in the setting to make the scene appear more realistic. Although you don’t notice the actors in the background, you definitely notice when they’re not there.

There are many people who choose to become background actors. Perhaps they are waiting for their acting career to escalate, and this is how they are making a bit of extra money. Maybe they are a fan of television and just enjoy being behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes is definitely where you’ll spend most of your time waiting and waiting and waiting. Usually the 2nd Assistant Director or Background Production Assistant will let you know what your instructions are.

Typically background actors who aren’t part of SAG or other unions earn minimum wage. There are a few situations where you get a bit of extra money which is called a “bump.” For example, you get a bump if you are required to smoke, if your car is used in the filming, or if you have to bring some personal effects with you such as sporting equipment or a unique costume.

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Background actors on Hawaii Five-0

You can take a look at Central Casting’s website. They cast hundreds of roles daily, including stand-ins and doubles. They have offices in Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, and Georgia.

On the day I wrote this blog, some of the positions they were trying to fill included men who owned a snake that they could be booked with; men who were okay getting a very short, military-regulated haircut; men and women in their 20s to 50s who are familiar with a variety of firearms to play law enforcement roles; and Hispanic house painters ages 28-40.

This is not the glamorous life most people envision when they think of filming television shows or blockbuster movies. Often you are waiting for an upcoming scene or you have to repeat a single shot, perhaps dozens of times. It’s not unusual that after a fifteen-hour day, your part is cut from the episode.

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It’s hard to see him, but Bruce Willis was just a
background actor in The Verdict early in his career.

When you’re on the set, it’s like a long game of “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl.” You have to appear to be realistically having a conversation or reading, or whatever, but you cannot make any noise that could interfere with the dialogue occurring on the set.

The conditions you are working in are not always comfortable. It might be a beautiful 85-degree summer day, and you find yourself standing around in a parka and mittens, filming a snow scene for a long, long time.

While stars might have access to an amazing food banquet, extras have more limited choices. You are encouraged to bring snacks for the day.

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Before they were stars, Damon and Affleck were extras in
Field of Dreams as part of the crowd watching a baseball game.

Some people might think that a perk of working on a television show is getting to talk to your favorite star. Think again.  Most of the time, stars are considered off limits for background extras. It probably goes without saying that phones are not allowed on set and photos are a big no-no.

I talked with an actor friend of mine who lives in New York. She did background work at the beginning of her career. I asked her for an honest assessment of what the work was like. She said if you are in the union, the wages are actually not bad and you earn health and pension credits. If you’re not in the union, it can still be beneficial; you just have to understand the reality of the job. She said first of all, “be on time and bring whatever they tell you to bring.” Understand if you want to make a living this way, it is hard work. “You will always be hustling for the next job. Your days will be long ones.”

She said another downside to the job is that “a lot of your time is spent in holding; it can be exhausting because some people want to talk constantly.” That might be okay for an hour but not so much for a ten-hour day. She often took earbuds and a book along for quiet time.

Know that you are being hired to be insignificant. You will wear drab clothing, you might work in the rain, you might work overnight. My friend mentioned that sometimes you have to realize that you are “a walking hanger,” because they need you because of a specific item you have, perhaps a blue-sequined evening gown or a gorilla suit.

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Background performers on Grey’s Anatomy

My friend recalled one of her first jobs when she was a stand-in for a movie. She didn’t get breaks because she had to watch the star in rehearsals, so she knew what would be required of her. When the star went to rest or to eat or to make-up, my friend would stand in. The crew would figure out lighting and blocking and sometimes she had to be in the same position for more than half an hour. She did this for two weeks, and it was a long, arduous process; however, she said the knowledge she gained made the experience worth it. She learned so much about the filming of a movie and all the different crew members and what their specific roles were.

Mark Falvo is an attorney and sports broadcaster in Pennsylvania. He has a lot of experience in background acting both on television and in movies. You will see him on the big screen in Slap Shot, Hoosiers, Bull Durham, Happy Gilmore, Twister, and Remember the Titans among many, many other films. Tune into the small screen to see him in Veep, House of Cards, and Law and Order. His experience was that every job was positive because he learned something on each project. He said that “after a while, the crowd scenes in sport movies became tough because you had to continue to move around, but they were jobs.”

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Mark Falvo in character

Falvo said he was able to get to know other actors. “Meeting old friends and getting a chance to talk to them even while waiting was good. Hurry up and wait is part of the job, so bring a book or some work to do.”

His advice to beginners is “Don’t have high expectations!!! You are there to do a job, no matter what the director wants, keep your energy high and always be ready.”

Let’s take another look at that group of coffee drinkers at Central Perk. When you place your order, most likely Gunther (James Michael Tyler) will be your barista. Gunther is a permanent member of the show, working at Central Perk and in love with Rachel. He never really becomes part of the group, but he is invited to some of their parties and get-togethers. Tyler got the part because he was the only extra who knew how to use an espresso machine; he received his first speaking line in episode 33.

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So, every once in a while, there is a happy-ever-after ending. You just might be the person who finds it.

Moonlighting: An Unusual Romance

We are in the midst of our series about crime-solving duos. We looked at husband and wife teams on MacMillan and Wife and on Hart to Hart. Today we tackle the wise-cracking David Addison (Bruce Willis) and the sophisticated Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) on Moonlighting.

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Madelyn Hayes was a successful model who lost all her savings when her investment advisor left the country with her money. Her only assets are her house and a run-down detective agency she used for tax write-offs. Detective Addison convinces her to try something new and run the agency. Addison and Hayes agree on almost nothing except that they both think it’s important to find missing people, foil murder attempts, and spy on unfaithful spouses. Addison is a bit of a ladies’ man, carefree, and easy going; Maddie is not. David is a tap beer in a red cup and Maddie is an exotic champagne in a crystal goblet.

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Maddie renames the agency Blue Moon, which was the name of the shampoo she was best known for promoting.

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Rounding out the cast of characters are Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley), the receptionist/secretary, and Herbert Viola (Curtis Armstrong), another gumshoe. These were both quirky characters but lovable in their own way. Agnes usually answered the phone in rhyme. Herb is well meaning but not the brightest light bulb. Later in the series, these two explore their own romance.

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The role of Maddie Hayes was written for Shepherd.

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Addison’s role was harder to fill. Robert Blake and Rick Dees were both considered for the role. Willis was one of the last people to audition for the spot; he was chosen from about 3000 actors.

Jazz great Al Jarreau cowrote and sang the theme song. The lyrics to the show are:

Some walk by night
Some fly by day
Nothing could change you
Set and sure of the way

There is the sun and moon
They sing their own sweet tune
Watch them when dawn is due
Sharing one space

We’ll walk by night
We’ll fly by day
Moonlighting strangers 
Who just met on the way

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Beginning in 1985 and running until 1989 on ABC in the Tuesday night time slot, the series resulted in only 66 episodes. The show was a new genre. It was a mystery and had drama and romance but was also intentionally funny. It can best be compared to some of the screwball comedies from the 1930s and ‘40s such as It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, or His Girl Friday. The show was also recognized for creating some unusual plots and filming techniques. For example, in one episode, David and Maddie are told about a murder that occurred in a 1940s nightclub. Black and white dream sequences show us how each of them imagined the murder happening. The episode, “Atomic Shakespeare” is an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, performed in iambic pentameter. The show begins with a young boy being reprimanded by his mother for watching Moonlighting instead of studying for his Shakespeare test.

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Filming the shows was always expensive due to the specialized lighting and cinematic effects. The estimated cost per episode was a whopping $1.6 million. A typical script for a one-hour length show is about 60 pages. Scripts for Moonlighting tended to be twice as long. An episode from Moonlighting took 14 days rather than the average seven to film. The attention to detail and quality took its toll. Production delays occurred often, and shows weren’t completed in time for airing, resulting in reruns when only 16 of the required 22 episodes were finished each year.

It didn’t help that Shepherd became pregnant during the run of the show, and Willis broke his clavicle skiing. Both of these situations added to the delays. It got so ridiculous that it became a running gag. ABC had an ad campaign showing network executives impatiently waiting for the most recent Moonlighting tape. Television Jeff Jarvis narrated an introduction to one show, telling viewers he wanted to summarize what had been happening on the show that year because it had been so long since a new show had aired.

Despite the problems with filming, both viewers and critics loved the show. Moonlighting received 41 Emmy nominations with 7 wins including one for Willis for Lead Actor in a Drama. In season three, ratings went from 20th place to 9th place.

During the fourth season, Maddie and David finally get together, ending the sexual tension and back-and-forth attraction between the two characters. The ratings then began to decline a bit, but the show still came in at 12th place.

The reason for the ratings drop in the final season, as well as the eventual cancellation of the show, was usually placed on the two stars and their relationship. It’s amazing how much chemistry the characters had because they did not get along well from the start, and it only got worse as the series continued. By the fourth season, they were rarely on the set at the same time. Willis was also developing into a movie star, and after Die Hard, he didn’t want to continue dealing with all the negative issues the show produced.

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The finale includes Agnes and Herb’s wedding and a weird plot where David and Maddie find the Blue Moon sets being dismantled and learn that the show has been cancelled. The two stars try to figure out what is happening, and the show ends with a message that Blue Moon ceased doing business in 1989.

The limited number of shows made it unpopular for syndication. The series was released on DVD, but they are hard to find and very expensive. On ebay.com, the complete series was going for $250. Amazon listed season three for $99 and season four for $149.

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The show was an interesting concept. With actors breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, the interesting plot themes, cinematic lighting and filming techniques, the quick and witty banter between David and Maddie, and the cultural and literature references, it’s not like any show that has aired before or since. It’s always hard when you have two characters attracted to each other when trying to decide if they get together or not. If they do, the audience is often disenchanted with the show; if they don’t, it can drag on too long, so it’s a hard timing to get right. It’s too bad the DVDs are so pricey, especially since syndication was not an option for the show. The characters hit it off perfectly even if the stars did not. There are a lot of factors that made this show special.

What’s Going On? Nothing. Then It Must Be Seinfeld.

August 13 is International Left Handers Day. Looking at classic television shows, there are plenty of famous left handers to celebrate including Pierce Brosnan from Remington Steel, Lisa Kudrow from Friends, Sarah Jessica Parker from Square Pegs, Goldie Hawn from Laugh In, Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, Mary Kate Olsen from Full House, Drew Carey from The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Tim Allen from Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, and Ed O’Neill from Married . . . with Children and Modern Family.

Any of these actors would be worth writing a blog on, but today we are going to concentrate on a show that featured two left handers: Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander. Seinfeld celebrated the continuing misadventures of neurotic New York City stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his equally neurotic New York City friends.

seinfeld

This show, always defined as being about nothing, was on for nine years, producing 173 episodes. The show featured one of the most unique concepts for a sitcom.  Like Burns and Allen, Jerry Seinfeld stars as himself, a comedian. He and three of his closest friends live in New York City and we get to listen in to their conversations, adventures, and boring daily chores. Each of the main characters has his or her own quirky traits.

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Debuting in 1989, the show was created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. The characters were based on people they knew. Jerry’s best friend was George Costanza (Jason Alexander). His ex-girlfriend and now close friend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus) was often stopping by his apartment to discuss life. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), known as “Kramer,” lived across the hall from Jerry.

jerry

Jerry is usually the calm in the storm in the group, handing out advice and being the voice of reason. He is a germaphobe and a neat freak. He always has a box or two of cereal on top of his refrigerator and we often see him eating it. He also loves the Mets. Jerry was an Abbot and Costello fan in real life and if you watch the show closely, you will see many references to the show and the actors.

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George has been Jerry’s friend since high school. He has a lot of poor traits including being cheap, a liar, and often petty. He often uses an alias, Art Vandelay, as part of his elaborate lies. However, he is loyal to Jerry.  Other actors considered for the role were Danny DeVito, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier, Kevin Dunn, and Brad Hall.

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Elaine is trying to find Mr. Right but has to date a lot of Mr. Wrongs to get there. She is sometimes to honest for her own good. She has several jobs during the course of the series. Dreyfus beat out Rosie O’Donnell, Patricia Heaton, Mariska Hargitay, Jessica Lundy, Amy Yasbeck, and Megan Mullally for the role.

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Kramer is his wacky neighbor. He wears vintage clothes and is a bit naïve, but intelligent and caring.  As Kramer (Michael Richards) became more popular, his entrance applause grew so prolonged, that the cast complained it was ruining the pacing of their scenes. Directors subsequently asked the audience not to applaud so much when Kramer entered.

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Another recurring character on the show is Newman played by Wayne Knight. Newman lives in the same apartment building as Jerry. He’s a mailman. He bonds with Kramer but doesn’t like Jerry at all.

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Many episodes are based on real life experiences of Seinfeld and David.  Characters and plots from past shows are often referenced or expanded on. Like real life friends who have inside jokes, several themes reappear. Plots are often everyday activities. In one show, Jerry, George, and Elaine spend the episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

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Like Friends, it truly was an ensemble cast. While the audience loved Kramer, each of the characters was equally important. In a May 14, 2018 Variety story, authored by Scott Huver, who was reflecting on the popularity of the show, Jason was discussing the last episode. His quote sums up how crucial they all were: “And he (Jerry) said this really beautiful thing. He said, ‘For the rest of our lives when anybody thinks of one of us, they will think of the four of us, and I can’t think of any people that I would rather have that be true of.’ And as we all began to weep over the fact that Jerry had said that, that’s when they started calling our names and we had to go out and pretend that everything’s just hunky dory.”

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Unlike many other shows, Seinfeld was slow to gain a fan following. In season four, they finally it the top 30.  However, the show ranked number one for its entire final year.

Jerry Seinfeld received five Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, but never won. The show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1992-1998 but only won the Emmy in 1993.

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Jerry Seinfeld turned down an offer from NBC that would have made him one hundred ten million dollars for a tenth season of the show.  There was talk this past year about a Seinfeld revival. After watching Will and Grace’s revival, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Rarely do revivals live up to their predecessor’s quality.

The finale was viewed by 76 million people. Many fans found the show offensive. The entire group of friends are taken to jail for violating the Good Samaritan law in Massachusetts. They watch an overweight man being robbed and instead of getting help, they mock him.

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None of the friends did the right thing, but perhaps Seinfeld and Alexander can be excused since they were left-handed. Finales are tough especially for a much-beloved show and this one did not do the show justice. In my opinion, it deserved a more creative going away party.