By Larry Teren
My buddy Tony has a vivid imagination. At least, that’s what I think. He is the guy who should have been sitting in the back seat of that car with Rod Steiger instead of Marlon Brando in the movie, “On The Waterfront”, and speak those immortal words- “I coulda been a contender!”
Tony works for a company that helps with film production in Chicago. You know, whenever they need to do location shots for a story that has a Chicago background, he is the gofer on the set who makes the actors happy. It isn’t easy because a lot of the shots are what they call “exterior”, meaning they have to do them outdoors in all types of weather. The Hollywood mavens know that there are eight million of us people in the Chicago metro area who can spot a phony street sign or license plate in a film or television show. So, they look to recreate accuracy.
The other day Tony tells me how that guy who played Fraiser on tv- what’s his name- was acting like a real jerk just like the character he played in the television movie he was doing. He had to go running around town just to find him the right brand of bottled water. Then Tony says that Fraiser is nothing without Niles helping him chew up a scene.
I asked Tony how he liked being a gofer for all these celebrities. He says, “hey- I coulda been just like them but I turned it down. Remember our senior year in high school in the Spring of 1970? Our class decided to do My Fair Lady? Remember that?
“Mr. Wheezebaum, the school’s music teacher, orchestrated the play and planned each song and dance routine. However, he didn’t pick the cast. That was kinda unfair. He let our class president and his pals do that.
“So who got the lead role? Our class president, Robert Manley- that’s who. Why? ‘Cause he could talk a song as good as Rex Harrison. And remember who they gave the Mr. Doolittle part to? Little Stevie Cryer. What was he- 5’3” with his shoes on? I shoulda got the part! I could dance and sing better than that midget any day. They made me his henchman in a couple of scenes. In fact, in our one big scene he mouthed the words as I did the lead singing.”
I asked Tony if he didn’t think that this was a little bit of sour grapes over something that happened forty years ago. He said, “’C’mon- you know what happened? I got typecast after that. Always the henchman, the extra, the gofer . You forget that the last night of the four performances we put on that Lee Van Pelty was in the audience and that he came up to me after the show to offer an opportunity to be in a production he was putting on at the Mill Run Playhouse.”
I said, “Oh, yah? I guess I forgot. What was that all about again?”
Tony went on: “They were gonna do My Fair Lady and he wanted me to play Doolittle’s henchman. Can you believe it? Okay, I took it. We did thirty shows. After the twentieth performance, Lee sponsored me for my equity card. Big Deal. I still have it till today and it cost a lot of union dues even though I haven’t been on stage in what- uh, twenty years.
“Hey, it wasn’t bad. I got 75 bucks a week at the time. Lee hired me for his next show- Fiddler on the Roof. I played the fiddler that you see on the rooftop in the opening scene. I got a raise to 90 bucks a week for that and it lasted a year. I didn’t have to understudy anyone and my role had no lines to memorize- just to pretend like I was playing a violin. Not bad for 1972, huh? I helped get some of the other actors ready for their scenes to keep myself busy.
“You know, it pushed back my educational aspiration. I was gonna go to one of them two year business colleges downtown and learn how to type real fast. I figured that anyone who could type 90 words a minutes would always have a job. And maybe I could grow into being a court reporter at some point and who knows- make big money like $300 a week!
“Then the show was over and Mr. Van Pelty decided enough was enough and he was quitting being an impresario. That kinda left me out in the cold and I had to hustle some income. Lee was nice, though, and wrote me a letter of referral. He said I would make a great production extra.
“Things were a little slow for a bit. Then someone told me that I had to go to New York. That was where all the stage action was. I saw in the trade papers about some guy named Joseph Papp who used to be the stage manager for them Goodson and Todman game show productions. Papp was putting on some type of outdoor show in New York’s Central Park, something to do with Ceasar. I flew out there clutching my letter of introduction hoping to speak to Papp. When we met, he took one look at me and said I would be perfect for the scene where this guy stabs Ceasar. I was so excited. Ya see, I thought this was a comedy and I was doing a funny death scene with Sid Ceasar, But then I found out that I would have to speak some type of queer English and that it was Sid’s cousin Julius I was gonna be working with. I realized that this wasn’t gonna happen.”
I interjected, “but didn’t you also work at The Marriot in Lincolnshire?”
Tony: “Wrong. I wish. The place was different, for a more sophisticated crowd. Even the sixth-billing actor had to be someone known to the public in movies or television, and I had no history as such. But the rest is history. I met Gary Marshall on a plane on my way to Los Angeles to look for work. I picked up his wallet that had dropped in the bathroom and returned it to him. He rewarded me by hiring me as an extra for his television series Happy Days. He said I looked a lot like Ronnie Howard.
“I started out making $200 a week. By the time the show was over- what- eight years later or so- I was up to $500 a week. Not bad for the 1980’s but in Los Angeles it don’t go too far. I did have one chance to get a good role in a tv movie that was gonna be directed by Jerry Paris, who also directed most of the Happy Days episodes. But, then poor Jerry ups and dies.
“I went from being an extra to what you call a stand-in. Ya know what that is? When the real actor is gonna get hit in the face or pushed down, the director yells ‘freeze!’. The actor gets out of the way. I come in and get roughed up and then the director continues the action with the real actor. After doing that for about ten years- by then I was making $750 a week, I decided I had enough with being in front of the camera. I was also tired of having no winter in Los Angeles. Yah, I missed the snow. So, an opportunity arose for me to come back to Chitown and still be in show business, in a way.”
Before we parted, Tony said to me, “hey, remind me next time we get together that I tell you what I had to do for Rosie O’Donnell.”