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You’re Welcome, Gerald

It takes the efforts of not only the famous, but also those of the not-so-famous to make the Hollywood machine really work.  The annals of filmdom are filled with many moments that today are unheralded, but at the time of production were vital to add coherence to the whole, whether it was a movie or a TV show.  Finding and closely analyzing these moments can even lead to a deeper understanding of the careers of those involved.  One such moment occurs at 17 minutes 10 seconds into episode two, season one, of the CBS series “Simon & Simon.”

I arrived on set early for my call time of 8am, that bright sunny morning of August 4, 1981.  I was about to turn 14, but I didn’t let any pre-birthday excitement distract me from the job I came here to do.  “Simon & Simon” stars Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker were waiting for me to arrive so we could film my scene.

Alarmed, I realized I seemed to have been left out of the script sessions and the rehearsal read-throughs.  That’s OK, l knew coming in I was going to have to bring my A-game (as I always tried to do) and improvise.   Improv was a nascent passion for me, the young actor and auteur.

Prior to arrival, my mom, who was my agent and booking manager, and I had our own skull session.  She emphasized the critical point that I had to get my face in that scene, no matter what.  After we arrived and the placements were all set, I realized to my disdain that as the scene unfolded I would have my back to the camera.  Luckily, I had obviated that little problem by bringing along the loudest Hawaiian shirt in my collection.  Hawaiian shirts, then and now, are great attention-getters.  I quickly changed into it.

I knew my mother’s focus on face-time was driven by her feeling that I needed to get maximum exposure in order to get bigger roles.  I understood that all and well; but for me, it was really about the art.

“What can I do to improve this scene?” was my question and my mantra.  Naturally generous, I also wanted to give a dramatic boost to those speaking dialog closer to the camera than I.

SHOT 1  TAKE 1:

I was placed right at the entrance of a video arcade (ah-ha, the Hawaiian shirt thing got their attention!).  I was instructed to play a pinball machine while the actors entered the room right behind me.  I emphasized my interest in the game without hamming it up and…..

“Cut!”

There was a problem with the entrance and they would have to redo it.  I went to Holding while the Director, Gerald and Jameson discussed the redo.  Argh, I was just getting into it, becoming that kid playing the pinball machine.  Slightly frustrated, I paced around, wringing my hands in the air, releasing tension.  Then I sat down and contemplated my role as a Featured Extra, giving silent thanks to the lighting and prop crew who, really, were here for me, oh, and of course the other actors.

No, not the arcade manager, or the kid behind him. Wait, there I am, in the back.

TAKE 2:

The first shot of this scene went off without a hitch, “Simon” and “Simon” walked over to the proprietor of the video arcade and busted on him for conning a kid.  Cut.  After this busy morning we all headed over to the (separate but equal) crafty tables.  My wrists were a little tired from playing pinball, and with the sound turned off, I had to concentrate more to get a good score.  But part of being an actor, I knew, was to roll with the long hours and the occasional physical discomfort.  For I was one performer who would always insist on doing his own stunts.  The hot lights and inherent tension in the scene caused me to sweat a little under my Hawaiian shirt, and I was grateful for the break.

Though I was not privy to this info at the time, I learned later that the episode was called “Love, Christy.”  It involved a beautiful blonde, a stolen sports car, and Rick and A.J.’s attempt to recover it.  All the while Rick is also trying to “make time” with the blonde, to awkwardly humorous effect.

I felt that this was theme of blondes and sports cars was one that really went under explored in 80’s crime dramas.  The scene I was in involved the brothers’ attempt to brace a video store owner, a guy they had pumped for information before, for information about the possible car thief.

Beautiful.  I wish I had known these plot details at the time, but I didn’t even have access to a script, let alone the day’s call sheet.  Luckily, I was fortified with my 8th Grade drama teacher’s (Mr. Crumb) generalized instruction on this subject; that total immersion in the atmosphere would make me stand out and even contribute something poetic, maybe even wistful.

I held onto that and rode it.

SHOT 2  TAKE 1

This was really the meat of the scene; I knew the guys were going to need my help more than ever.  The director started to place the actors….

Wait!  They’d repositioned me!  They moved me to a video game 15 feet away from the pinball machine and right behind the dialoguing actors.  My first thought was that the continuity person didn’t eat their Wheaties that morning, but then I realized what it really was.  They needed my help to carry this scene, “Well, you’ve got it guys!” I thought.

And roll ‘em!  The Assistant Director had put 99 credits on my video game (the multiple credits trick was one I’d later learn from my friend Robin) so I wouldn’t have my concentration broken by worrying about mastering, what was to me, a new game.  That was thoughtful, but as the shot unfolded I realized they’d left something out.  Though the actors were talking, we in the background had to play the scene what they called M.O.S., or, without sound.  This explained why the sound in my pinball machine was turned off.  The A.D. had forgotten to turn off the sound on MY GAME.  My player’s-learning-curve had become audible to all.  My concentration was now shot. All the actors turned toward me.  I stood there and worried about how this could play out in the trades if I got blamed for botching this scene, it wasn’t my fault!

“AJ Simon,” or, as you might know him, Jameson Parker, seemed to give me a weird look that I had to admit I didn’t quite care for.

“It’s OK guys, we’ll get through this” I thought to them all.  But I too threw my hands up, mimicking the frustration of the others.  The A.D. scurried over, opened the machine, and muted it.  We were ready to resume but then the set tutor came over to collect us (there were about 6 kids my age).  For it was time for school.

Chatting with one of the other kids earlier I’d received some sage advice; that is, to downplay my level of learning so I wouldn’t have to actually work on this school nonsense and I could sit and focus on my craft.  We all piled into a trailer on the Universal lot.  The tutor stepped up to me and I gave her a guttural grunt.

“Okay,” I thought, “focus, she won’t believe I’m that dumb.”  She asked me if I’d taken algebra.  Though I was in fact in my second year I shook my head no.  She then laid down what looked like a coloring book and let me have at it.

After an hour, having fulfilled our Union requirement, we headed back to the set.  I wrung my hands out again, loosening up, again becoming the video-jockey.

TAKE 2, TAKE 3 & THEN 4

Procedural snags caused the restart of this shot several times.  I was helping them as much as I could but there’s only so much one player can do.  It was nice to have the attention focused elsewhere however.

LUNCH

We all headed back to our crafty tables, each one of us certainly in thoughtful deliberation.  What would we all have left after this arduous morning?

TAKE 5

I was getting to be pretty good at this video game!  I also felt pretty good about this scene, I was getting to know and rather like this fellow I had created, the young video game player.  The three principals stepped towards me and the actor playing the change clerk of the arcade.  I played it cool and let them take the spotlight.  They conversed and stepped away, still talking.  Almost….almost…….

“Cut!”  Nailed it!  I think the craft services did us all good, restored our energy.  We broke for 20 minutes.  During break I thought about making my move.

SHOT 3  TAKE 1

I emerged from the Holding Room, ready to put this sucker in the can.  It was time for a special contribution on my part; they started to place the actors and…. Wait!  They’ve moved me back to the pinball machine!  In a moment of unnecessary modesty I thought they must REALLY have loved this Hawaiian shirt.  But I knew, deep down, that it was an “OK-GO” gesture on their part to allow me to add a little something “extra,” if you’ll pardon my pun.

“Roll ‘em!”  The actors started talking; I’m jamming on the pinball machine again, getting a little more into it.  They started to exit behind me.  I leaned a little over to my right (pinball empathy), and then I paused a little.  Reaching down inside to something I didn’t know I even had, I kind of stopped playing and as Gerald and Jameson passed behind me I looked back at Gerald McRaney.

Exiting the scene

I was saying to “Rick Simon” after his tough interrogation of the arcade manager,

“I hear you, I get you.  I don’t know you but I know you really care and want to find this sports car for this nice lady, and that makes me care too.  I wish you Godspeed.”

I was also saying to Gerald, the actor,

“I give you this gift of gravitas, from me (representing all of the kids in the arcade) to you.  You’ve earned it my man, you and I carried this scene and we are all in this together, making each other better artists.  I think you’re going great places, fella, so get ready!”

I tried to convey all of this in that gesture; plus as a bonus I got to get my face in the scene like Mom wanted.  And, just like that, “Cut!”  It was a wrap!

I took home a sweet 267 dollars (thank you very much!) for a hard day’s work.  And owing to the Coogan Law (thank you very much Jackie!), my mom couldn’t blow it all on ceramic statuary.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity, at the beginning of December, 1981, this episode aired for the first time.  Naturally we all gathered around in our living room to watch it.  I felt great and thought I had acquitted myself well, though in recent months I had honed my craft even further. Looking back many years later, I think the episode and in particular, that scene, has aged very well.  The dramatic balance between the foreground and the background (aw, it was nothing!) makes it a timeless piece.

A look back, full of meaning

But I’ll leave it to you, the reader (and now viewer) should be the ultimate judge.  Go to Netflix or Hulu and check out “Love, Christy” for yourself.  “Simon & Simon” Season 1, Episode 2. Focus on it about 17 minutes into the episode and decide for yourself if indeed something wonderful did not just happen right there in front of your eyes!

I can’t just sit here and attempt to take all the credit, but look at some of the cool stuff Gerald McRaney has done.  After I (and we other video game thespians) gave him my blessing he went on to have a lot of success.  Wasn’t he just a bad ass in “Deadwood?”  And did you see him as General Morrison in “The A-Team” remake?  Gravitas indeed. Not to make comparisons, nor to seem petty, but it seems that Jameson, the guy who shot me that weird look, didn’t really go on to have so much in the way of fame and fortune.

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