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MGM Town

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The cattle call that served to locate Harry Hollard for Don’t Make Waves was not unlike the Gladiator scenario two years prior. The word flooded the gyms like Gatorade and the muscular actors buoyed to the surface. This time the setting was the famous MGM Studios in Culver City, California, where silent films were made and Gable, Bogart and Monroe applied makeup, lunched and shouted, whispered and winked into the polished lenses.

The privilege was monumental -- to enter the hallowed halls of the marvelously run-down studios that echoed of stardom and celebrity. No tourist could buy a ticket to this show. The hopefuls lined up to register their names in a less-than-orderly fashion. The distracted guards unwittingly gave me the opportunity to wander down the driveways between the massive studio walls, peer at their heights and pretend to be a part of their importance. I noted the blinking red warning lights at entry ways that indicated filming was under way: Silence, please … do not enter. The great and unseen powers were at work piecing together another lifetime full of wonders and more emotions than the ones we knew as our own, heroes and heroines more alive than the people with whom we worked, ate and slept. I couldn’t help but feel lost, ordinary and alone. Jealous is an ugly word.

I moved on and hastened across an abandoned and dusty streetfront with plank walkways, hitching posts and wooden wagons still before old clapboard storefronts and a sheriff’s office. Confused for a second I hesitated and glanced to the left and the right; long early morning shadows still formed and a breeze stirred an embroidered curtain in an open window above the Mercantile Shop. The strong smell of coffee wafted along the street and I imagined it came from the saloon or the hotel on the corner. Muted voices carried from a mingled distance and laughter gave a gaiety to the dark beyond the swinging doors of the parlor. Small chirping birds circled overhead and flapped their way to a sprawling oak tree beyond a white fenced cottage. A sudden roar broke the calm and antiquity of the make-believe world. I spun to confront a diesel tractor-trailer bearing down Main Street with a plush mobile home in tow that had “Director” written in bold letters above the front door.

I waved as they rumbled by me, just another prop man or electrician earning his wage. A Boeing 727 appeared briefly overhead in the near skies as it readied for landing at the Los Angeles International Airport only two miles away. I grabbed the wooden and metal spokes of an old wagon wheel and tugged to stretch my lats and flex my grip. The sound of a bullhorn in the distance seemed to be giving orders to dutiful wannabe actors -- something about the next bus to Back Lot Three. With pause and reluctance I returned to the group, wondering where I was going.

I remember sitting on a vast green and grassy slope where the camera on a dolly and a boom mike were positioned. It was sunny, warm and casual. One by one the performers who made the final cut were given their one minute before the directors, producers and assorted attendants. We were requested to walk up the lawn hand in hand with a Sharon Tate look-alike to a mark five feet from the camera, face each other, speak clumsy sweet nothings, turn and walk away. I thought for sure Larry Scott would get the part as he was a confident and capable guy who already done a beach party movie and was occasionally seen doing strings of cartwheels and back flips in good form across the manicured lawn. Mr. California, after all. Hollywood is full of surprises. The greatest part about being chosen for a co-starring role in a feature film is being chosen. The second part is working.

This ever happen to you? You recall incidents in your life when you were much younger and wish you could do them over again, not to make major changes, but to tidy them up a little? Born in the east coast vacuum, I was slow to appreciate the things that were happening to me in the brave new world.

Working side by side with Tony Curtis, who couldn’t have been more impressive, generous, fun and easy, was a privilege diluted by my stunted self-esteem. Tony got through to me and easily revealed his own insecurity, which we all share, when his words before the camera would not come. He stood with me out of camera and said, “Sometimes I can remember my lines, but they vanish when the director calls for action. I step off the set, close my eyes and in the blackness of my mind I’m able to relax and go back to work in thirty seconds. It happens to everybody.”

He genuinely laughed when he tried to lift a refrigerator that I’d been carrying around the set for most of the day. The crew dared him to move it to the background and it didn’t budge. He believed they nailed it to the floor to provoke his competitive nature, expecting him to move it or die. He called their bluff early on and I, on cue, walked over, grabbed it and carried it up a short flight of stairs… between scenes slapstick. The old refrigerator trick is always good for a few laughs. Just don’t ask me to tell a joke.

Sharon Tate was younger than I and a few solid steps ahead. We became friends like kids in school. I carried her books. She was wrapped up with Roman Polanski and I was married. She felt unthreatened and we could pal around and travel together when promotions required our presence. She held onto my arm and wouldn’t let go as our four-passenger aircraft worked its way through a storm on a flight to Charlotte for a preview of Don’t Make Waves. I treasure more than anything the late evening I saw Sharon at Los Angeles International Airport a few years later. She was with friends and dressed in black. She squealed my name and came running over to give me a big hug. We passed in the night like lost friends.

Did you know that Claudia Cardinale lives in a villa in Rome and has a sister who is a world famous photographer? We sat together in director chairs in the darkness of a soundstage the size of a football field. The day’s filming was complete and the entire set was closed down early for a holiday weekend. A three-man skeleton crew prepared to pick up two unfinished scenes, one with Ms. Cardinale and one with me. We yawned and talked about nothing, as there was nothing to talk about. But we did the awkward thing without awkwardness and it became a pleasure to be simple, unpretentious and ordinary. The next day we were scheduled to take a handful of publicity shots outside the same sound stage. She said she looked forward to it, presented her brief scene to the camera in one take and was gone. I was yet to climb behind the wheel of my bus and suffer the loss of my beloved Malibu.

Adventure in the daily life.

*****

This was an excerpt from Brother Iron, Sister Steel, pages 251-259.

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