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My Brush with Greatness

 
Spanning a period of thirty or so years, I’ve skimmed and occasionally dove into The Biz – movies and
television out in our beloved HollyTinselWood, California.  I’ve done theatre there, a couple of indie films,
a showcase or two, student films at UCLA and USC.  Even got to play Richard Nixon in a Cal State Northridge
student film – such great fun.   They’d never allow me to do that in the real game.

Yet for the big stuff – mainstream movies and television – I’ve only gotten as far as background acting.  Extra work. 
I either lack talent or luck for the talkie roles – probably both.  Yet you “meet” many of the A-listers nonetheless. 

By “meet”, typically that means you’ve seen them up close.  Two feet away, ten feet, forty feet. 
As an extra, it’s not often you get to speak to one of the stars or get an autograph or even shake their hand. 
After all you’re there to work, and any such fan fawning is severely frowned upon. 
You could be struck from the set.

So I’ve “met” some of the big boys and girls, including all the folks on ‘Friends’, Will Smith, Catherine Bell,
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Diana Ross, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves and others. 
Yet the one I remember most fondly is my brush with Martin Sheen on West Wing.

I got picked for the show because of my clean-cut looks and good lines in a business suit.  Secret Service agent. 
Typical – that’s my usual role.  CIA, FBI agent, business executive, lawyer and so forth.  I got picked for the
‘Friends’ role because I had my own tuxedo and looked sharp in it.  For this assignment, I only hoped I’d get
the chance to somehow shake Martin Sheen’s hand because I had admired his body of work for so long. 
Didn’t care about connecting with anyone else on the show.  Just Sheen.

We’re at Warner Brothers studio, one of the huge soundstages where they shot West Wing and it’s an Oval Office scene. 
They positioned everyone, and I’m standing on my mark just outside the door of the Oval Office.  I peeked back and
could see Martin Sheen sitting behind his desk.  Well out of range for a handshake, a hello – anything.  Terrific. 
What was I to expect?  I’m just a lousy extra.  In The Biz we’re just barely tolerable.  A set prop capable of
independent movement, which somehow must be endured by crew and principal actors.

Okay, ready to roll.  “Sound!  Camera, Speed, Background and…. ACTION!”  The scene proceeds. 
No good, we have to shoot again.  “Everyone back to Position 1”, shouts the AD, irritated, and you
wonder if you perhaps moved the wrong way, screened a principal actor (boy is THAT a no-no) or whatever. 
“Okay everyone, are we ready?…  Sound!...Hold!” and then the director stops. 

I feel a tap on my shoulder.  Oh Christ, yeah terrific - so I was the one who probably screwed up. 
I turn around, expecting to see the AD’s face of fury – but instead it’s Martin Sheen.

MARTIN
Hi, I don’t think I’ve seen you on the show before, is this your first time?

ME
(stammering)
Yes.

MARTIN
What’s your name?

ME
Um, Dave.

MARTIN
Well Dave, I want to welcome you to West Wing, and thank you so much for being here!

ME
Thank you Mr. Sheen, it’s an honor to work with you.

MARTIN
Good luck!

I was, understandably, nonplussed.  Here I am, hoping to sneak in a greeting somehow,
yet it’s the star of the show doing a role reversal.

Martin Sheen was even better than that.  Between takes when the crew was resetting a scene
or the lights or whatever, you know what he’d do?  Come over and mix with us extras! 
All the other principal actors flee to their dressing room trailers (apparently), but not this guy. 
He’s just as down to earth as can be, talking with everyone, no false airs, respects each of us. 

During one long reset, I was able to talk with him, one-on-one, for about 20 minutes. 
We’re both from Ohio, both Catholic, our politics very much the same.  And he quite enjoyed
me bringing up roles and movies from the past that is seemed he’d nearly forgotten about. 
He even ate lunch with us lowly extras!  Wow.  Class.  Pure class. 

I always told folks afterwards that every actor should be made to observe a day of shooting
on West Wing and watch how Martin Sheen conducts himself.

Side note: I was on the West Wing set in November – exactly on Election Day, 2000. 
Between shots, we’d all crowd into the TV room – all the principals, extras, crew - and watch the returns. 
You could have heard a pin drop as we witnessed the Florida drama unfold.  We kept looking
at each other in silent horror – trying to comprehend that this thing – the “election” of Der Monkey
 – might really happen.  All of us too horrified to speak.  Like being at a solemn funeral.
 Dave

 

Dave, good one - thanks.


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