Last Sunday was the first time that I didn’t post since I started this blog. No matter how busy I was I always was able to make it work, but last week I was working on Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” at the Toronto Film Festival and the schedule was pretty relentless. Unfortunately, this blog was one of the few that was to be anchored to a particular date, in this case the anniversary of 9/11.
My idea was to tell an anecdote from my life that brought up a more innocent memory of the World Trade Towers, before it became an icon of horror and death, and more recently an opportunity for some to stir up ignorance, hysteria, and prejudice.
Here’s my story:
When I first moved to New York as a movie-mad Midwesterner, I’d never been on a Hollywood movie set. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to find out that scenes from Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong remake were going to shot in New York. I sure couldn’t miss that! So the night of the filming, my friends and I headed down to the World Trade Center, not having any idea whether we’d get close enough to see anything.
Arriving on the scene confirmed our doubts – there was no place where we could find even the most distant vantage point. We were about to leave when my friend Gary suggested that we go around to the other side of the Towers. Maybe we’d be able to go inside, head through through the lobby and get really close. This was such a stupid idea that I thought it might work. In any case, we had come this far and we had nothing better to do.
Coming around the bend we discovered a line. So we went to the end and got on it. It turned out to be the line for “King Kong” extras. Once we got inside, we filled out the forms to be SAG Waivers. Not only were we going to get close—we were going to be paid $30! We were pros! Soon were outside staring up at the dizzying spectacle of Carlo Rambaldi’s 40 foot tall “mechanical” King Kong lying on his back, totally in scale with the Twin Towers looming above us. Unlike the original King Kong, which was a puppet, or the Peter Jackson’s CGI King Kong, both of which were highly animated, this Kong didn’t groan, grimace, exhibit convulsive death spasms, or really do anything at all --he just lied there like a ginormous slug. To paraphrase John Cleese, this particular Kong was CONVINCINGLY BEREFT OF LIFE and was giving an Academy Award worthy performance as an EX-GORILLA!
But can you imagine the wonderment for a kid making his first visit to a movie set? A forty-foot gorilla! What magic!
I was soon introduced to another astonishing marvel--the craft service table. You could fill your stomach with all the candy and junk food you wanted, totally free. Ho-Hos! Bagels! Coffee! Root Beer! And guess who came by for a nosh? Jeff Bridges, that’s who. I told him about my admiration for his performance in “The Last Picture Show,” and particularly “The Last American Hero” (which I had shown at my college film club) and that I totally agreed about what Pauline Kael said about him possibly being “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.” After a while I asked him if I was making him uncomfortable with all my exuberant praise, and he hugged me and said, “No man! I love it!”
I was soon introduced to the torpor of a movie set. You wait around for hours and hours and hours waiting for something to happen. Soon it is the middle of the night and absolutely nothing has happened. The only thing that was fun was the guy who went on top of Kong and spilled buckets of blood on him to the cheers of the crowd. Joel Siegel also climbed up on Kong’s chest and did his evening news report.
The director, John Guillermin (“The Towering Inferno”) seemed kind of puny amidst the huge crowd and ape, but from a distance I watched him work with the actors. (Years later I proudly told the late Claude Chabrol that I watched John Guillermin direct, and he said, “You watched him do what?”) I asked people who the pretty blonde was, and they said she was “some model,” and I said I thought she was pretty good. Which was a fair assessment since she was Jessica Lange making her screen debut. Still, most of what Lange did that night was run through the crowd towards Bridges shouting “Jack! Jack!” and getting all worked up. Over and over “Jack! Jack! Jack!”
I was determined to work my way into the shot, so I slowly pushed my way to the front. And when it came time for the final crane shot, I was pretty close to the action. My 22-year-old profile can clearly be identified in the lower right by my Proto-Bieber 70s haircut and big shnoz, identical to photos of me from the time.
I’ve appeared in many films since then, but I think this is my best performance to date. I was supposed to playing a guy looking at a huge supine gorilla, and I look exactly like a guy looking at a huge supine gorilla, because of course I was a guy looking at a huge supine gorilla. If you compare my work here to all the actors delivering their lines to light stands today, you’ll know that this is the real deal. But I was a contract player then, part of the studio system. Those were the golden days of the movies and sadly, they’ll never be back.