Lights! Camera! Action!
I was an actor for 20 years before I became an eBay seller.
I had some success in commercials. I was the dancing husband in a Payless Shoes commercial, the frustrated business traveler unable to phone home because he didn’t have Call Waiting and the mushroom loving dad for Brown’s Fried Chicken among others.
More often, I was an extra in commercials and movies. I gained a little insight into “This business we call ‘show’”.
The lights, the camera, and the action are important, but the actors are sometimes almost an afterthought.
First let me explain the title, stick him on a half apple and hit him in the face with a baby. An apple refers to a box that actors sometimes stand on to look taller. They originally used the wooden crates that orchards would use to transport fruit. It’s about 8 inches high. The original apple boxes were replaced with specially made hard wood boxes with handles. Half apple boxes are half the height.
A baby refers to a baby spotlight. These are the smallest of many types of studio lights, usually used to highlight an actor’s face. They would hit you in the face with a baby if your hat was creating a shadow or any one of a thousand other reasons.
Show biz isn’t all red carpets and celebrity interviews.
It takes hard work and perseverance to get your foot in the door to even get on the set of a movie or a TV show or a commercial.
Lots of visits to agents, “Anything today?” (brightly) “No.” (sourly)
Keep at it and you get the occasional audition. The agent tells you you’re going to be a dad dropping off your little girl at school in a touching insurance ad. You spend all morning trying to find clothes you think the dad would wear. If you are really into it, you devise a whole life for the dad. He’s a manager at grocery store. He married his high school sweet heart and they have 3 kids, 2 girls and a boy. He drives a Ford and he bowls on a team.
All of this is background to prepare you for the role.
You spend an hour getting to the casting office. You walk in to be greeted by a bored receptionist. She hands you a script for a firefighter worried about his prostate.
You protest this wasn’t the part you were sent for. She says “That’s what you get” and points to the crowded waiting room. You work on your new lines and try to make them your own. The wait is from a few minutes to almost an hour.
You walk into the audition room and meet the casting people. They will see over 100 people today and don’t want to become your best friend, even though you want to be theirs.
They know the second they look at you whether or not you have the job.
The most pleasant among them runs the little video camera. “Okay, say your name, give it a beat, and read your line.”
You clear your throat, try not to look nervous. He turns on the camera, waits a second and points to you. “Hi I’m Johnny Conlisk! …. Charlie, I’m a little worried about my prostate.”
“Okay” He says, and turns back to the talent buyers, they murmur and he turns back to you. “Can you do it again? Only this time hit ‘little’ harder.” This is a good sign. I’m still in the running or they wouldn’t ask.
“Charlie, I’m a LITTLE worried about my prostate.”
He turns back to them, then quickly back to me. “Thanks for coming in.” It’s the kiss of death. You walk out knowing you didn’t get it. And now half the day is shot for your 30 seconds in that room.
The next week, you get a call about an extra job in another commercial. You show up at 6AM at a suburban shopping mall with half the clothes you own slung over your back in a huge garment bag. The crew has been there since 5.
You check in with a production assistant with a clipboard and dreams of being the next Scorsese.
Then it’s your turn to act, or at least to extra. Today, you walk from left to right in the shot, window shopping in the mall. They have you do it 30 times, always looking away from the camera. If you look toward the camera, you become recognizable and they have to pay you more, a lot more. You know your place, you do your job and you look away
But sometimes you get lucky. I was once an extra in a commercial for Walgreen’s photo finishing. It was a birthday party and I was to pretend to eat potato chips way, way in the background. At the last second, the director asked to see the male actors’ hands. He needed someone to cut the cake. That’s an upgrade. Hand models make more money than extras. I had dirty fingernails from working in my garden. Another actor got to be the hand model. I went back to my fake munching and didn’t think anything more about it.
A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the agent telling me that I was recognizable in the shot through no fault of my own. I don’t know who decides these things. I ended up making a lot more money than I would have if I had clean fingernails.
Another time, I was an extra in a McDonald’s commercial. It was a big time production that would be shown during the Super Bowl. It featured a special McDonalds where they have a waterfall in the dining room.
The brief shot focused on 2 senior ladies eating fries. I was right behind them. I was sure I would be in the shot. The camera was pointing straight at me from 12 feet away. I told everyone I know I was going to be in a Super Bowl commercial. At a party for the big game, I hushed the crowd when the McDonalds ad came on. Everyone was very supportive. The camera zoomed in on the 2 ladies through the waterfall but all you could see of me was my jaw as I sipped a cup of coffee. The crowd at the party got a big laugh out of that.
The biggest problem with Show Biz is that you have no control. You could be the most talented actor in the world, but if you don’t fit the image that the ad agency’s 23 year old wiz kid has of what the fireman should look like, you don’t have a chance.
If it’s so bad, why did I do it for 20 years? There’s an old story about the guy who is sweeping up after the elephants in the circus parade. He’s always complaining to his friends about the smell and the hours and just about everything about the job. When one of them suggests he quit, he says, “What? And give up show business?”