March 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF MATLOCK-ITUS

My network television debut was on September 19, 1989. I was an extra in a bar scene on the fourth season premiere of “Matlock” on NBC. I was still in college and working summer stock theater in Manteo, North Carolina, when I learned that Andy Griffith was bringing the cast and crew of his series to Manteo (where he lived). All the actors and aspiring on the entire Outer Banks salivated at the oppportunity. This was the Big Time!

Now when I say “summer stock,” it conjures up images of performing in “A Streetcar Named Desire”or “Guys and Dolls.” But for me, this particular summer, the best I could do was performing at a living history historical site called the Elizabeth II and run by the state of North Carolina. A group of actors with sharp improvisational skills were hired each year to portray the crew of the 1588 English expedition to the New World. A replica of the ship was docked at the site and an encampment was set up down a path from the dock.

I played Randall Latham (we chose our names from the actual manifest of the expedition) and was a soldier at the encampment from June until August. Clad in authentic cloth and wool clothes, I sweated my summer away entertaining tourist by answering their questions and making fun of the way they walked, talked and dressed (because I was still in 1588, you see…)

So when “Matlock” came to town and began casting extras, most of the cast jumped at the opportunity. Two actors got to play reporters one day. The rest of us covered for their absence. About a week later, myself and two other actors got cast as barflies for two days of filming. Now the boss decided that enough was enough and we we not allowed to do the show. I was furious because we had covered for the other actors and now we were being denied our day on a real TV show set. Plus, I grew up watching “The Andy Griffith Show”and wanted to see him in person.

So when the morning came to film I (and my fellow two actors) called in sick to work. I told them I had “Matlock-itus.” By the end of the shooting day, the boss found us outside the bar being used for filming and told us we could keep our jobs only if we came back to work the next day instead of continuing as bar extras. Only I refused to return to work. It was a good thing, too, because that was to day I was able to get my face featured in the shot!

I was sitting in a large room with chairs dubbed “The Holding Tank.” This is were all the extras hung out until they were asked to come to the set. The first setup of the day was a camera dolly down the bar stopping at guest star Jeff Wincott and the bartender. Primo visibility for an extra. Well, they looked us all up and down and picked the three they wanted at the bar. I was not among them. About ten minutes later, one of the assistants came back with one the chosen actors. he was too tall and made the guest star look very tiny. They asked for someone who was 5’8″. To my surprise, no one raised their hand, so I did. I’m 5’10” plus wearing cowboy boots that add another inch, but I figured unless they measure me, why not? I may be 5’10” but I can play 5’8″!

So I got the bar stool next the Jeff Wincott and drank real beer all morning long during each take. After lunch they poured me one and told me to stop drinking the “props.” So after lunch the stunt men come in to film a fight scene with a knife, then the guest stars step back in to film the close-ups. I loved the entire day and made sure my face could be clearly seen in between guest stars Casey Biggs and Christopher MacDonald! (Remember, if you can see the camera, the camera can see you.)

In the end I kept my living history job, made me network TV debut and got to be on a set with Andy Griffith. Andy was not friendy I remember, but after all he was not “Andy Taylor” on the set, he was Andy Griffith, a working actor and star of the show. He could be friendly in real life, but this was work.

Whenever I catch the episode on TV, I always watch the first 15 minutes to see my scene and remember just how important and special that day was.

I’m just saying…

BEHIND THE SACRED CASTING DOOR

Auditions are the lifeblood of an acting career. Without them, you’re just an guy with 500 headshots in the trunk of your car. For my part, commercial auditions made up the bulk of my professional life. There are several locations in the greater L.A. area that house a number of commercial casting directors. 


The first rule is NEVER be late. Now the casting director may likely be 30 minutes behind schedule, but it is unwise for you to be lagging behind. Usually finding parking takes longer than the actual audition. Nothing sinks your stomach faster than running late and having to leave your car in a spot where shattered glass sparkles along the curb. I’d feed the meter with as much as I could afford or the meter could take and walk briskly into the building. 

In these multi-casting director places I would walk into a large open space with doors lining the perimeter. The rest of the room often resembled a mosh pit, a sea of actors undulating to and fro as everyone shifted their weight from having had to stand so long. There were never enough places to sit and if you had the opportunity you were rewarded with a hard bench and no visibility.

Being able to see what’s happening can be the difference between getting in when it’s your time or getting passed by. Each of the doors lining the perimeter of the room led to a casting director’s suite where the audition takes place. Next to each door is a white-board listing what commercial is being casted. The sign-in sheet is below the white-board. I’d find my white-board, sign in and take a look at the copy (script of the spot). Sometimes I was able to obtain a fax of the spot the night before the audition, but most times I would have to walk in cold. I only knew what part I was up for. For me, it was either “Dad,” “Executive Boss, ” or “Bald Guy.” 

At a time of their choosing, a casting assistant would poke his head out of the sacred door and call the next actor’s name. Here is where you can get passed up if you can’t see the assistant. In the cacophony of actors milling and mulling it’s easy not to hear your name called. So for that reason, I almost always stood regardless of space on the bench.

Once inside the sacred casting door, I would hand the casting assistant a photo-resume and head for a red piece of tape usually on wrinkled gray carpet. That was the “mark.” Sometimes another casting assistant sat watching, perhaps reading the other dialogue in the script or sometimes just eating a burrito from Taco Bell. Just as likely I would be there with only one assistant who read the dialogue, operated the camera recording the audition, and directed the actor. From the caliber of some these casting assistants, I used to suspect that their previous job had been making the burritos at Taco Bell. 

I would slate (say my name and my agent), turn left and then right (profiles) and begin the scene. Commercial auditions are largely impersonal and quick. Dozens of actors will vie for the coveted role of “Bald Guy” in the next Jack In The Box spot. Perhaps five will be called back to read for the actual casting director and the commercial’s director. Only one gets the job. The spot may be local, regional or the ever-desired national. A national commercial can run up to 21 months, paying the actor residuals all the way. 

Some actors are lucky enough the star in a continuing series of commercials. Others are just as lucky by have the “in” look. Ever notice how you will see the same actors in different commercials for about a year? They have the current “in” look. I usually looked a lot like other actors who already had the “in” look and were taking all the jobs I could potential be cast for. It can be a lonely and occasionally depressing life as a journeyman actor driving from audition to audition. Rarely would I leave an initial audition feeling good. Most times I felt like a monkey searching for his organ grinder. 

However, when my agent would call and tell me I got a call-back, I would be elated. The call-back was, for my money, the real audition. I loved call-backs because I would sit in a room full of actors that I had seen on TV. This was the level of competition I enjoyed. You’re treated better at call-backs. They don’t try to know your name, mind you, but they don’t look through you as often at this stage. They also give the actor more professional direction than at the burrito-eating assistant level where I was once directed to play the scene as if I was retarded on one take and then as a child molester on the next take. This was for a telephone company commercial where I played a man asking someone directions! What’s up with that?

If this missive seems tinged with bitterness, I apologize. It should read only as being tinged with wry contempt!

I’m just saying…