A Small Claim To Fame For a No-Frills Feline

AT good light, I was awakened by the sound of machinery grinding away in the street in front of my house. Going over to the window, I looked out to see a young man in a cherry picker, the basket suspended above my neighbor's camphor tree. He was picking Spanish moss out of the branches, handful by handful. I also saw Red, my neighbor's cat, on his way to my house, his body an orange streak as he dashed across the street.

The film crew had arrived to begin work on a movie that was being filmed on my block. And while in reality it was late winter in Savannah, Ga., for the sake of the movie it was Indiana in the summertime. Evidently, Spanish moss doesn't drape Indiana trees, so it had to be removed. Our respective lawns had earlier been planted in winter ryegrass, and flowers bloomed out of season in gardens and window boxes. My neighbor's house had been chosen as ''the grandmother's house'' for the film, both for interior and exterior scenes.

As the huge trucks rolled in and the stars began to arrive, the entire neighborhood was in a state of excitement. Except for Red. Red doesn't get excited. At least, I've never seen him in that particular state. Red is a ginger-colored tomcat who belongs to my neighbor but has adopted me. By breakfast time on the first day of filming, Red had already checked everything out and had opted for breakfast at my house. He's serious about his meals and doesn't like being disturbed.

When filming began, most of my neighbors and a number of townspeople stood behind barriers or in my side garden, watching as the movie was being made. Red, on the other hand, took it all in stride. He watched the excitement with all the aplomb of a pharaoh surveying his armies, stalking through the rooms, and wandering in and out of the legs of director's chairs, his orange-and-cream-striped tail like a banner. He was so blase that he made the rest of us look like yokels.

I didn't know much about making movies. It is astounding how many times they do something; one scene will be shot over and over. They shoot it, then somebody yells ''cut!'' and then they do it again. It's a lot like being in the Army; evidently you hurry up and wait.

Then at some point, someone decided that having the cat in the scene would make it homey and warm. The plan was that Red would be picked up by the star, walked to the front porch, and deposited outside the front door.

Sounds simple enough, right? But somehow, Red figured out that someone had a plan for him, and in minutes he changed from pharaoh to serf. Where before he had stalked majestically through the sets, now he skulked around the corners of the room, ears back, tail lashing dramatically.

''What can we do to calm him?'' someone asked.

''Feed him,'' said his owner.

''Right,'' said his surrogate mother (me).

''Come help,'' his owner said to me.

''We'll feed him,'' I said to the person in charge of deciding to use cats. ''He'll be fine when he's full.''

Now, like most cats I've known, Red does not take instruction well. Or at all. The only thing Red responds to is the sound of his plastic food bowl being banged against the side of the porch. Then he comes running.

So in order to prepare Red for his big scene and a chance to be in the movies, we fed him. Then the scene was shot. Then it was reshot. We fed him again. Same thing again.... By the fourth take, Red was still gamely eating just before the cameras rolled, but he was getting logy. The star no longer had to take a step in order to pick him up. She just had to flex her muscles and reach down for him. He was getting heavier, but he wasn't going anywhere.

By the fifth take, Red couldn't eat another bit. Even he was full. ''This one better work,'' I thought, ''or Red's a goner. He'll never be famous.''

''Quiet on the set!'' ''Roll 'em!'' The star reached down, pulled Red into her arms, walked to the front door, opened it, and put him down. The cameras were rolling. Red stood still for a minute, then slowly walked across the porch, as cool as any veteran actor, looked directly into the camera as though born to it, then walked down the steps and stretched out on the bottom step for a siesta. It was as far as he could get.

''It's a wrap!'' and Red's a movie star.

You just have to hope that he doesn't end up on the cutting-room floor. He's so sensitive, we'd never get through explaining life in the fast lane to him.

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