It's a living: hot lights and cold chicken for $40 a day

WHOEVER said Hollywood was a tough nut to crack was right. It's been three days since I was on prime-time TV, and no producers or directors have called. No bookings on talk shows. No offers to star in my own Jazzercize video. OK ... so it wasn't a speaking part. I didn't have to memorize any lines - just chew food, nod, and mouth the words ``peas and carrots'' to make it look as if I were talking.

I've been onscreen as an ``extra'' with J.R. Ewing of CBS's ``Dallas'' and Bob Newhart of the ``Newhart'' show. That was me standing behind Dick Loudon, at a town meeting where he proposes a new stoplight for the town. Many people don't know that an entire industry thrives on getting the sets of Hollywood to look realistic. That means lots of people and lots of out-of-work actors hounding the phones just so they can be chosen.

To check it out, I signed up with a casting service here called Disc Entertainment Services, one of about four major companies that each place about 400 extras a day for such shows as ``Dynasty,'' ``Hotel,'' ``Falcon Crest,'' and all the rest.

Before I could make it as an extra I had to let the company take my picture and put it on file with 10,000 others. After a few weeks it called and told me to go to Lorimar Studios in Culver City with nighttime formal dress, and a change-of-clothes to daytime business suit. You get paid extra for props (like tennis rackets or luggage), or if you get wet, or if they have to put makeup on you. Union members get $90 a day; I made $40, plus $7.50 for extra wardrobe.

Of course, I was a journalist looking for a good story, not a new career. But lots of the extras I encountered were unemployed professional actors, who take these jobs just to keep close to other actors, directors, and producers. If a director notices you, he might ask you to speak. Then you're an automatic member of the Screen Actors Guild, and get a union card. Or he could ask you to be a featured guest on a coming show. But at worst, you get to watch the actors and director at work - which can be very revealing.

Like my scene on ``Dallas'' the other day. Larry Hagman (who plays J.R.) kept flubbing his lines, so they had to keep yelling ``Cut!''Or the waitress would come up and turn the wrong way when she left. One time she came to deliver a drink, but forgot the drink. Another actor kept running into a plant until it was finally moved.

At the beginning of each scene a buzzer goes off; somebody yells, ``All quiet!'' and somebody else yells, ``Rolling.'' The old black-and-white clapsticks they used to use at the beginning of each scene to synchronize audio and visual tape have given over to digital clapsticks. Between takes, makeup people still pamper the actors, powdering their faces and combing their hair endlessly. Larry Hagman coughed once and somebody jumped out and said, ``Cough drop, sir?''

The interiors for ``Dallas'' aren't shot on location. The ``ranch'' has no ceilings, only three walls. And there's no outside - just a bunch of three-sided fa,cades crammed inside a sound stage. Pieces of masking tape mark the borders for ``Bobby's bedroom,'' ``Upstairs hallway,'' etc.

All the extras are lined up in the hallway on folding chairs doing crosswords, waiting to be called over to the Oil Barons' Club. That's where my first scene was shot. I'm having lunch, while Cliff Barnes and Sue Ellen are gossiping about J.R. just behind me. Nobody told me what to do, so I went ahead to see if the zucchini on my plate was rubber. It wasn't, thank goodness. It was hard enough chewing the ice-cold chicken divan with the knowledge that 40 million people would soon be watching from three feet.

They have to shoot each scene about 10 times from every angle to get a perfect print. Luckily, there's a guy right behind the camera with the script to help actors when they forget their lines. It took us five hours to film two short conversations.

And then you never know which scenes they're going to cut. One woman I met spent from 1 p.m. to midnight on ``Newhart'' just to be seen for a split second. They say if you're in it for the exposure, you're going to be frustrated. But only about 30 percent of these people are taking the whole thing seriously, trying to learn and become good actors. The rest are in it for the ``glamour,'' or a few extra bucks in their spare time.

There were about 30 of us for two short restaurant scenes. All the extras seem to know each other. ``Helen, haven't seen you since `Hill Street Blues'! Weren't you a blonde then?'' said one. ``Yeah,'' said Helen, ``but I'm gray today. Don't want to be out of a job.''

``The more you're seen the less you work,'' one man told me. If directors begin to notice the same extras on a lot of shows, they're not likely to use you. This guy looked just like Tom Selleck, and it turned out he was his double for many years in the series `Magnum P.I.'''

When it was time to start shooting the first scene, the assistant director (they call him the ``AD'') started telling everyone where to sit, paying attention to our size and color, and whether or not we looked as if we belonged with the person across the table from us. They rejected me in the first scene because I was too tall. Later, I almost didn't make it in because I had on a light gray suit. It's unbelievable how much time they take with color balance and lighting - things most viewers don't even think about.

But finally they wanted me and a woman to come walking through the set while they filmed an actor at the bar.

``Let's face it, most people are extras because they can't face the real world,'' she told me as we waited for our cue. ``It's mindless fantasy, but it's work.''

Not so, says another. He's been an actor in Hawaii for seven years and is trying to get the lay of the land here in Hollywood. That means finding out where all the different studios are, getting to know the production crews and directors. He says you can't just walk into town and get yourself a good agent without being ripped off. You have to get to know people first.

``It's how a lot of big stars first got noticed,'' he told me. When he gets his first opportunity, he doesn't want to blow it. ``When your chance comes, you'd better be familiar with terms like `camera left,' `reverse angle,' or `gaffer.' Otherwise, you'll look like a fool.''

To keep a full schedule, all these full-time extras have to keep phoning the casting service a day ahead. Some of them even pay telephone services to do it for them. The people I talked to said they liked the diversity, the chance to do something different every day rather than sitting behind a desk.

It's true. Being on ``Newhart'' was much different, because it's filmed before a live audience. So there's more rehearsal time to get everything right before the audience comes in.

But the thing that struck me about being on the shows is how much fun the actors have doing it. They clown around off camera right up to the moment of being filmed.

I wish I could have that much self-control. I suppose I'll learn. I may keep trying this until I make it onto ``Dynasty,'' so I can see Linda Evans play Krystal. If she notices me, I could get my first speaking part, and the rest will be history.

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