Although my wife grew up in New York, she is a big Boston Red Sox fan. She gets it from me, I’ve been suffering with the Sox since birth, so them winning it all last year was great.
Several years ago, I saw a notice in a Boston newspaper for a casting call. A film company was looking for extras to appear in a movie starring John Travolta. A few scenes were to be filmed in Fenway Park and all the extras would be portraying Red Sox fans.
My wife is very photogenic, and I was convinced that the movie people would see her and put her in the film. It took me two days, though, to convince her to go down to Fenway Park to the casting call. Finally just to shut me up, she agreed and down we went. The casting call was being held at a huge night club next to the park called Avalon. We get there, and there are about 5,000 people inside, and this was the third day of casting! My wife went through the process, filling out forms, having her picture taken and so on, essentially an afternoon spent waiting in long lines. I was waiting with her as she went for one station to the other. As we were waiting in one line, a guy walked up to me and handed me a red ticket. He said: Hold on to this, an announcement will be made soon. Then he walked away. I thought they were giving away a door prize or something. Eventually, we all file into a huge room where the producers explain to the masses that if they still wanted to be an extra, they would have to get down to Fenway Park the following Monday at 6AM, in summer clothes (this was in late October) and be prepared to sit around for three days all for $40 and a box lunch.
This was not for my wife, so we got up to go when the producers announced that anyone with a red ticket should stay behind. In this huge room, I was one of just three people with a red ticket. Everyone else filed out, except myself and two African American women. I had no idea what the hell was going on by this time.
The two women were whisked away somewhere, so now its just my wife and I sitting alone in this big room. Finally another producer arrives. He thanked me for hanging around and then says he wants “me” to be in the movie. Was I interested in playing a bit part? I thought it was a joke, but he said I had “a look,” they needed. They couldn’t tell me what the part was, (it wasn’t for the Fenway Park scenes) but would give me more information if I was interested. I couldn’t believe it was happening — neither could my wife. So, even though I was writing a book on deadline, I agreed.
I had my picture taken a bunch of times and filled out many forms. By this time, after all the hoopla, I was convinced I was going to play John Travolta’s best friend in the movie. After I was processed, the producer told me his company in Hollywood would call me the following week. Sure enough, the call came late one night. They said they still couldn’t tell me what part I was to play, but that I should get to a place in Woburn, Massachusetts, (about 40 minutes from where we live) at 6AM the next morning, and that I should “Wear warm clothes you don’t expect to wear ever again.” That was the first indication that I wasn’t being cast as Travolta’s sidekick.
I showed up on the movie set the next day (actually it was an abandoned state mental facility) to find hundreds of Hollywood people, extras, lights, cameras, Teamsters, a huge production. I was processed yet again, pictures taken, forms filled out. I was dressed in very old clothes as instructed. I was told to wait in a trailer with about two dozen other guys, all my age, all of them also wearing old clothes. Frankly though, these guys looked liked they’d just been cast in “The Road Warrior” or a prison movie. Broken noses, missing teeth, scars, tattoos. A roomful of penitentiary faces. If there were any mirrors around, they would have broken on the spot.
Finally, a producer told us why we were here: we were all going to play workers in a hazardous waste factory. The movie titled “A Civil Action” is about a crusading lawyer (John Travolta) who stops a big company from dumping pollutants into Woburn’s water supply a true story, by the way. In other words, we were going to be the bad guys. We were all sent to the wardrobe trailer where they checked to see if our clothes were crappy enough for the movie. The wardrobe trailer was run by two guys who would have been perfect on “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” — if you know what I mean. They took one look at me and started screaming: “Complete make-over!” I was pulled out of line and put in even crappier clothes. They told me I’d have to pay for them if I lost them.
What followed was a string of very long, very cold days basically hanging around waiting for cameras to be set up, lights to be ready, etc etc. It was freezing out, (it was November by this time) but I got lucky the first day when they picked me to be one of two guys in a truck that was supposed to drive right through a huge scene where hazardous waste was essentially being smuggled out of the plant. There were about 50 people in the scene, so it took a long time to set up and choreograph and two days to shoot. We did this truck driving scene at least 40 times each day again, I was lucky because I was able to sit inside the truck between takes and we had the heater going full blast and were able to listen to the radio. The guy who was playing the driver was a human bowling ball who was all over Boston TV at the time playing a construction worker in Ford commercials. His name was Bob Dugan, another Boston Irishman, and a real nice guy. He once played Ricki Lake’s father in a movie. I still see him on TV ads occasionally.
When we weren’t needed outside, all us mug faces sat in the cafeteria and played poker. They fed us three times a day they call it craft services in the biz — and the food was outstanding. I got to meet John Travolta and also the guy who plays Carla’s husband Nick on “Cheers.” Before this, Travolta always seemed to me to be a typical Hollywood asshole, but I gotta say he was real down-to-Earth with us. He made sure he met and shook hands with every extra on the set, and he would always talk to us if we happened to run into him walking around. After a while people were turning up with stuff for him to autograph record albums and things and he was always very accommodating.
Meanwhile, I didn’t tell anyone what I did for a living, but every time I called home to check my answering machine there was a message from my editor asking me where the hell my next book was.
I wound up doing it for five days over the next couple weeks. I got paid $110 a day and won another $100 or so playing cards. As I was leaving on the last day, the casting director called me aside and asked if I was available for other work. I asked him for what kind of movies. He said:” Bar scenes and prison scenes, exclusively.” (See a pattern forming here?) I said, Sure, call my people.
The movie came out about a year later. One third of the way into the film, there is a scene where Travolta walks up from some woods and sees the hazardous plant with barrels of pollutants scattered all over it. A truck drives right by the camera. I’m the passenger in that truck. Total screen time: 1.2 seconds.