|Austin-Bergstrom International Airport|
Rites and Wrongs of Passage
by Marco Perella
Id been performing IN THE WEST in Dallas and some of the local casting directors had come to see it. One of them was casting a movie called, THE PASSAGE, and when she saw me with my hair slicked back she called me in.
Normally Im a fairly pleasant looking person in a curly-headed, Mediterranean sort of way. But when I slick my hair back I can manage to look like a psychotic mole rat. This comes in handy for roles like Wendall Hitch and I got the part.
THE PASSAGE is set in 1920s Alabama and is about Young Samson, who gets teased a lot because hes a long haired, woodsy kind of fellow who lives in a cabin with his beloved grandfather, played by Brian Keith. They both work for the tough lumber boss, played by Ned Beatty. Ned has a beautiful daughter played by Alexandra Paul, a future Baywatch Babe. (The smart one.) Ned also has a toadie named Wendall Hitch.
THE PASSAGE is what you call an independent film. That means none of the Hollywood studios is paying for it. Rather, Young Samson is paying for it. Young Samson is from an oil family in Fort Worth. He not only wrote the script, but made an easy casting decision as to who would play the lead.
He has also rented practically the whole East Texas town of San Augustine as the movies location. This is a real old burg just north of the Big Thicket with period buildings and an operating steam train that will figure prominently in the story.
I drive up from Austin and report to the location. My home for the next three weeks will be an old resort hotel out in the boonies. This place has been closed for awhile and the production has rented it to house the actors. Each of us gets practically a whole wing to ourselves.
It is with some anticipation that I arrive at the dinner hour. I feel like a twittering teen. Im about to meet real Movie Stars! Oh gosh! I sure hope they accept me! Welcome me into the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff or something. Golly! What if they want to talk Concept!
I stagger through the door of the hotel with three weeks worth of my luggage. Im in some kind of anteroom, but its so dark I cant see much. I start dropping my stuff in a noisy heap.
"Hello! Anybody home?"
Nobody seems to be extant.
Then I look off to the right and see one dim light shining in what seems to be a vast, dark room. The light hangs over a long Gothic dining table around which I presume are the faces of my fellow cast members. They gaze curiously in my direction. Lest they think I do not belong, I quickly identify myself:
"Hi! Im Wendall!"
They dont exactly all jump up at once and pummel me on the back and say "Welcome, Comrade!" In fact theres no response at all. Ned Beatty, especially, has that "no vacancy" look about him. I try again:
"Wendall! In the movie!"
Finally Brian Keith addresses me:
"Close the door, Wendall, and come get some dinner."
I obediently come to table. As I sit down, I start to introduce myself and explain that my actual name is not Wendall. But the familiar looking woman next to me gives me the shush sign. She looks meaningfully down towards the other end of the table. Now I recognize her: Barney Millers wife on TV! Barbara Barrie! I go into the classic goofball fan opening:
"Didnt you used to be on..."
Barbara shushes me again. Oh. I am beginning to think I must have interrupted something deep.
Brian and Ned are locked in passionate conversation about... well, I guess theyre talking about fishing. Yeah, thats it all right. Ned is telling a clever story about a big one he hooked in Tennessee. I turn back to Barbara and then look across the table at Alexandra Paul. She gives me a smile and rolls her eyes. We are evidently expected to remain silent.
The rest of dinner passes without any conversational input from anyone except Ned Beatty and Brian Keith. Ned tells flamboyant stories but seems to be addressing only Brian, as if they were alone. Actually its more like hes giving a performance for Brian, who spends most of his time heartily consuming victuals but occasionally comments on one of Neds remarks. The rest of us listen. Im not sure yet what the deal is and at one point give a little chuckle and say something like, "That certainly is funny, Ned!"
Beatty stares at me like I just passed gas in church.
Barbara is playing Neds wife. After dinner she takes me aside and explains to me that Ned has some problems and gets very upset if anyone other than he or Brian speaks at dinner. Thats because theyre the big stars and Barbara, Alexandra and I are not quite on the radar of fame yet. "I know its ridiculous but Id rather just eat and not make a fuss about it", she says.
Gee, thanks for the warning. I guess Ill go to my quarters and scourge my unclean flesh.
My first scene is at the train station. Alexandra is coming home from her school in the East and I, Wendall Hitch, am there to assist in baggage handling. I will assign a young buck from the local sawmill to load up the damsels collection of fripperies. The young buck in question turns out to be Samson, who immediately falls in love with this fabulous creature who is so high above him. I will notice this and make him pay for his insolence. Thats how movie plots work.
I go to wardrobe and get outfitted in period suspenders. Then to makeup to perform my magic hair-slicking metamorphosis. When I report to set Barbara is waiting for me: "Ugh! Are you the same guy from last night? Wow! Stand back a little bit, will you? Listen, the director is a fool. Dont listen to a thing he says. Youll have to direct yourself. Just inhabit the character and do your best."
What? Dont listen to the director? Oh jeez, what gives? This is my first big role. I am hideously conflicted. Maybe Barbara is insane.
Here comes Brian Keith. He says, "Listen, Wendall, dont worry about the asshole director. The idiot doesnt have a clue. He wanted me to come out a week early so we could talk Concept! Ha! Can you imagine? Just do your best, son. Youll be fine. Jesus, what happened to your hair?"
It seems that Young Samson has hired his over-aged acting teacher, Harry, to direct this feature, but Harry has somehow failed to make a good impression on the cast. As a matter of fact, he is pretty much banished from the set after the first day, never to appear again while Ned or Brian are around. Over the next three weeks I will occasionally see him sitting by himself under a beach umbrella, far from cast and crew, pretending to still be the director. He'll even stand up and shout "Action!" once in awhile, just to keep his hand in. But nobody pays the slightest attention to the poor guy. Hes like a ranting street corner preacher who you quickly pass by so you wont get involved.
Meanwhile, Im trying to inhabit my character. Ned Beatty quickly fills the director vacuum in this train station scene. This will be the pattern for the duration. Ned directs all the scenes hes in and Brian directs all the scenes hes in and if theyre both in the scene, well then, therell be some discussion.
The train blows its whistle and steams into the station. Beautiful Alexandra steps down. I scuttle around for her bags. (Neds direction to me has been clear and concise: "Stop being taller than me, dammit!")
Scuttling helps to maintain my shrinkage. Actually this works out well. Since my character is an obsequious toad licker, constant groveling fits right in. Likewise, it helps Ned get in character to order me around and belittle me in front of the crew. We have soon established an effective, symbiotic acting unit.
The shoot unfolds fitfully. The crew is schizoid from adjusting and readjusting to the different styles of substitute directors Ned and Brian. When neither of them are on the set, the very competent director of photography takes charge.
Young Samson also tries to direct, especially the love scenes with Alexandra. ("Take forty-four!")
Samson is catching on fast. Early on, we shoot a scene where his character gets so ticked-off at Wendall that he almost crushes me like a grape. This is an essential scene for Wendalls motivation because it will lead to all kinds of dastardly revenge. However, Samson looks bad beating up a mole rat.
He decides to cut the fight and replace it with some more love scenes.
Dinners are still surreal, but Im starting to make friends with the cast. Alexandra Paul is refreshingly level headed. Shes charming, intelligent and dedicated to her acting. She spends most of her free time swimming laps in the pool. Shes maintaining that sleek look so essential for Hollywood Leading Ladies. (Im over on the Sophia Loren side of things myself. I dread swimming and am naturally sleek, so I usually sit at poolside and drink.)
Little does Alexandra know that her affinity for water will eventually make her fortune.
Ive also buddied up with Brian. Brian is in his seventies now, and his career has been so long that hes worked with everybody. He was actually a child actor in silent films and got sick of the whole business early on. He got out of the Marines after WWII and was going to be a New York cop. Somebody offered him a summer stock acting job that paid a few dollars more than the cop job so he got into acting again.
Brian maintains high good humor most of the time. He entertains us with tales of John Ford westerns. He laughingly informs me that the only people who will ever see THE PASSAGE are members of the country club to which Samsons father belongs. (Hes right. Samson will refuse to accept the ritual screwing that seems to accompany the efforts of most independent film makers trying to get distribution. In protest he will refuse to release THE PASSAGE even on video.)
The only thing that gets Brians goat is any mention of Brian Dennehy. Hes convinced that he should be getting all the roles that are now going to Brian Dennehy.
Unfortunately, my relationship with my initial friend on the set, Barbara Barrie, has soured. This is because of tennis. Barbara is from the Hamptons or someplace like that and her big deal is tennis. Since we have a lot of free time she recruits a foursome. Theres me and Norman and Charlie. Norman plays the country doctor and Charlie plays the country preacher. Theyre staying at the hotel too, but neither one of them can stand Ned Beatty so they dont eat with us.
We play doubles almost daily. The problem is Im not very good and when I hit a bad shot I tend to cuss. When I hit a good shot I also cuss. Cussing just seems to be my natural response to the game of tennis. Barbara doesnt care that Im a bad tennis player but she gets very huffy when I violate the sacred etiquette of the game. I don't know what the big deal is. Hasnt she ever seen McEnroe? Anyway, I enjoy cussing when I play tennis and Im already taking so much crap from Ned that Im not inclined to defer to Barbara. I cuss away. Poor Barbara is stuck with me if she wants a foursome.
Barbara also spends a lot of time lecturing the Texas crew on the rules of the Screen Actors Guild. The producers have talked a lot of film students into serving as cheap assistants on the set and the kids dont really grasp the concepts of overtime, meal penalties, and forced calls. (A minimum of eight hours of rest between two days of work and they have to feed us every six hours.) The students dread coming to fetch Barbara after shes been kept waiting for hours in make-up while the train gets up steam.
One morning she really lets everybody have it and tells one and all she wont report to the set until she gets a penalty check laid on her dressing table. Somebody has to go get Samson to write the check.
Ned is such a good actor that I begin to wonder if his imperious behavior is just character development. I mean, this nightly dinner performance cant really be an attempt to impress Brian, can it? Maybe his conflicted boss character is leaking into his psyche and hes lost in the Method.
Im starting to have serious doubts about my commitment to Wendall. My natural tendency is to model myself after these master craftsmen. Should I be a toad licker all the time to stay in character? But I have to wash my hair sometime, dont I?
Damn, this is a confusing business.
Ned has formed a habit of donning an apron and serving food at the big on-set meal each day. He enjoys being a man of the people, I guess. He serves up the southern fried and jokes with the proletariat. This is peculiar because in private hes hardly the egalitarian. In fact, Ned is always referring to the locals who are working in the crowd scenes (extras), as though they were some nascent life form.
He tells the story about the time he hired a baby sitter and kept thinking she looked familiar. Then it came to him...
"That woman is an EXTRA! (Dramatic pause)... I went right home and got my kid!"
Although I dont realize it at the time, Neds attitude is fairly typical in the business. Although extras are an absolutely essential component of making a film, almost everybody on the set treats them with contempt. The areas of the set where the extras stay are called "holding pens".
One night theres a local rodeo over at the fairgrounds and I talk Brian into going with me. Hes not sure its such a good idea but hell try it.
Brian loves me now because I lent him my car to drive to Houston so he could visit his old drinking buddy. This saved him a hefty rental fee and even though he is socking away half a mil on this three-week project, he enjoys saving money. (Depression kid. They never have enough.) He also loved driving my little ten-year-old Toyota. I guess a man whos been in Cadillacs all his life finds it novel to hunker down that close to the road.
We arrive at the rodeo and take our seats in the stands. Therere about a hundred people there and just about all of them come over and get in line to ask Brian for autographs. Not just one signature each, either. "Can you sign one for muh mother? And one for muh step-brother Alvin? And jus one more for muh cousin Hilda over in Lufkin?"
Brian almost literally never sees the rodeo. And people couldnt care less. They are completely oblivious. Brian is a good sport but I recall he did try to warn me. Its as though hes being consumed like free ice cream. And Brian Keith is not exactly at the top of his career: what must it have been like earlier? I arrive at a new appreciation for what people like Tom Cruise go through.
A big ole country gal wants Brian to kiss her. No deal. "Ive been in these little towns before", he confides. "Theres always a jealous boyfriend with a monkey wrench."
After a little more of this we decide to try a casual escape act and head for the car. We're ambling over by the bullpens when the amorous country gal makes her move. She leaps out of the dark, grabs Brian and starts kissing him. It doesnt matter to her that hes a seventy-year-old man. Hes a Star and by God shes gonna kiss him! Poor Brian just stands there and endures it until the gal has been thoroughly irradiated by the glorious aura of his celebrity. Finally she runs off giggling to her dingbat girlfriends.
Brian laughs about it as we drive home in my Toyota.
"You sure you want to be famous, son?"
In addition to avoiding all references to Brian Dennehy around Brian Keith, everybody has been very careful not to mention anything concerning pigs around Ned. This, of course, is in deference to his most famous role as the love interest in DELIVERANCE. Theyre not even serving pork at meals. Thats why it comes as a considerable surprise when Ned himself brings up the subject.
Its probably Wendall Hitch who instigates this incident. Were having some downtime on the set. (Waiting for the train to back up, no doubt. Weve spent a cumulative week of shooting time waiting for the train to get in position.) In my continuing dedication to toad-licking I bring up the subject of NETWORK and what a fine performance Ned gave in that movie. Ned proceeds to tell me how he "really had his man in that part" and how its one of his favorite roles. Then I get real dumb. I ask him what his favorite role is.
"Oh, I guess the pig thing in DELIVERANCE."
I keep on smiling. Ned continues, "You know the squealing wasnt scripted. That was my idea. The original script just had us rolling around in the woods. I thought it needed something so I suggested the squealing."
"Wow! You thought it up yourself!"
"Yes. Thats what made the scene memorable, I think."
"Oh, you bet! Memorable for sure!"
"My career really took off after that movie. Funny how just one scene can make such a difference. Because of that scene I bought a farm in Kentucky."
(Dont say it. Resist... resist...) "A pig farm?"
THE PASSAGE is drawing to a close.
Alexandras character gets knocked up by Young Samson when they get caught out in the woods by a rainstorm. (Whenever it rains in a movie, theres sex.) Ned disowns her, thus denying himself access to the passel of adorable grandchildren she and Samson start producing. Alexandra is fulfilled even though she has to live in a hovel instead of in the big house with her Dad and Mom.
Brians grandfather character has a heart attack while hes clearing land and does such a poignant death scene that everybody cries. I ambush Samson in town with a gang of lumberjacks and we beat him up for no discernible reason since they cut the scene that was supposed to inspire my vengeance. It does give Samson the opportunity to fight bravely against impossible odds and then go home to Alexandra so she can lovingly daub his bleeding lip.
Diane comes to visit for the last few days of the picture. I havent really explained the peculiarities of our dining regimen here at the resort and she starts talking to somebody at the table while Ned is telling one of his stories. Everybody tenses and Ned turns toward her with disapproval. Diane has no idea what the hell is going on. I manage to whisper to her:
ME: Nobodys supposed to talk! Just Ned!
DIANE: What are you saying? Why?
ME: Im not certain. We have to know our place, I think.
DIANE: Thats the most insulting, outrageous thing Ive ever heard in my life! Nobodys going to tell me not to talk!
And she proceeds to interrupt Ned at every opportunity. She holds forth on topics that she knows nothing about and in general has a wonderful time flapping her lips together until she totally dominates the conversation.
The power center of the whole dining group has shifted. Barbara and Alexandra are starting to look at Diane like she is Gloria Steinem. Brian is enjoying the hell out of the situation and Ned, strangely enough, turns all meek and patronizing.
Were packing up to leave when I drop by Neds room to say goodbye. He tells me, "That wife of yours is one of the most beautiful, intelligent people Ive ever met! What an impressive person! I have new respect for you, Marco."
Oh the irony! All my toad-licking has earned me nothing. Only through my backbone-endowed spouse have I garnered any respect at all from this man. I vow never to buy into anybodys Star trip again.
I say goodbye to Brian as well. He asks me what Im doing next and I blurt out that Ive been cast in a picture with Barbara Hershey and Brian Dennehy. Oops!
He gets a stricken look on his face. "Brian Dennehy. Always Brian Dennehy." I quickly add that its only a TV movie and that seems to make him feel better.
Brian thanks me again for the use of my car and asks for my headshot so he can recommend me for a role "when they need a good actor." Hes bullshitting me, but its still nice. Then he leaves me with these words of wisdom:
"Remember the young bull and the old bull. The young bull says, Im gonna run down the hill and screw one of those cows! The old bull says, Im gonna walk down the hill and screw em all!"
Darn good advice, dont you think?