Ray Davies once said, “Everybody’s a dreamer, everybody’s a star, and everyone is in movies, it doesn’t matter who you are.”
While I doubt he was talking about the collective stage and screen career of we the collective moiling herd, the song did put me in mind of my one shot at the silver screen, fortune, fame and the red carpet life.
Alas, it was not to be. As it turned out, I was destined to join the paparazzi rather than be pursued by them.
About 20 years ago, when I was still a dazzling urbanite living in the promised land of Atlanta, one of my roommates at the time was working for a small advertising agency. Somehow the agency had landed a gig working with a Hollywood production down south of the city. The project was none other than the mini-series, “Andersonville,” and it would star such luminaries as Frederic Forrest, William H. Macy, and, little did they know at the time, yours truly.
But back to the script: what happened was my roomie managed to land us a Saturday gig as extras on the Andersonville set. We were to play two Yankee prisoners -- two of something like 3,000. All we would have to do is get to the set at some insane hour of the morning, like 4:30 a.m., get put into costume, and voila, we would be stars. We would even get paid for our time and talent -- something like 80 bucks and a baloney sandwich each.
That’s what we did. As I recall, they signed us in, handed me a dirty shirt and a pair of blue hip waders to wear for this scene, formed us into ragged military formations, and marched us into a perfect replica of Andersonville prison, the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp.
We sat in the dirt and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. You do a lot of sitting around waiting in the movie business. In this case we did it for seven and a half hours, broke for lunch, then went back and sat around waiting for pretty much the rest of the afternoon, until the light was just right for this panoramic shot highlighting this poignant and dramatic moment in the film.
According to one of the assistant directors, the scene went like this: The Confederate prison camp commandant -- can’t remember the actor who played him -- was supposed to stand on the guard tower and try to get the prisoners to renounce the union and pledge allegiance to the Confederacy and in return they would give us 40 acres and a mule, or some such, at the end of the war. We would stand in our companies, en masse, at attention. Our commanding officer, who I believe was played by a young William H. Macy, was to turn to us and yell, “Company dismissed!” whereupon we would all about face, showing our insolent blue backs to the commandant, and march out of the enclosure and back to our camp hovels.
Finally, the big moment came. Believe me, even an extra gets into this really exciting electric moment. You’re really doing this! You’re in the movies, kid! The director -- in this case the great John Frankenheimer – yells, “action,” the camera rolls, and magic happens. The next stop can only be Rodeo Drive!
So to this day, I still can’t figure out how this particular brand of magic happened. William H. Macy yelled his orders, all several thousand of us, standing at attention, turned on our heels smartly and started marching out of the camp -- except my roommate and me.
For some reason, we turned and started marching the wrong way -- against the thousands marching toward us. I think I actually bumped into two people at the same time and the entire line crashed around me, sort of like a multi-car pile up on at rush hour. Our company, formerly a precision miltary drill machine, became a shapeless clot. It was reminiscent of the parade scene in “Animal House” when Stork leads the band down a blind alley and they all march mindlessly into a brick wall.
Then the director yelled, “cut” and the day’s work was done.
Did we ruin the scene? I don’t know. No one said anything but my roommate swears he said “hello” in passing to Macy and received a cold stare and a “You’re Number One” finger puppet show in reply. I don’t remember that, but I do remember we were not asked to return the next day.
Ah, jealousy. I guess it’s true -- talent and a pretty face just ain’t enough to make it in Hollywood.