The following hilarious story about standing in comes from Stand-In Central’s newest contributor, Peter Anderson.
Peter is a writer and author currently living in Sacramento, California, whose career began in the newspaper industry. His oeuvre includes books on notable people living in Marin County, CA, books for teens facing addictions, and online and magazine contributions covering sports, politics, lifestyle trends, and human interest stories. Peter’s bio and all of his Stand-In Central contributions can be found here.
We thought Peter’s story about standing in was priceless. Give it a read!
— The Editor
In the summer of 1990, I was a daily columnist for the Marin Independent Journal, a paper just north of San Francisco. Mine was a popular column because I involved the reader in a first-person fashion. For example, when I interviewed George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch a few miles from the newspaper’s location, the reclusive filmmaker gave me a rare one-on-one tour of his sprawling estate, offering never-before-scenes I would later describe for information-hungry readers.
I forget exactly how I got involved with a film crew that had just started production of a John Larroquette movie being filmed in San Francisco around the same time as my Lucas interview — I think the casting agent was a reader of mine — but I do recall agreeing with her that I would happily spend a day working as Larroquette’s stand-in. I had done extra work in locally produced films like The Candidate, Angels in the Outfield, and Final Analysis, but being a stand-in for the lead actor would be a totally new experience for me.
I am a fun-loving, laid back individual always looking for the lighter side of news stories, so when I agreed to do the work, I was determined to have a great time, write an engaging color piece, and let the chips fall where they may.
Little did I know that the chips would fall harder than I anticipated.
I was a journalist trying to make the most of a day off from the newsroom. The people on the film crew were hard-working, focused individuals just trying to get the day’s shoot done on time and under budget. They were no-nonsense. My style was yes-nonsense. The two were certain to collide. And did.
The day began on a positive note. I drove to San Francisco, met the casting lady, and was quickly ushered around the hotel lobby being introduced to the cast and crew. Instantly, I realized that being a stand-in was several notches higher than being an extra. In fact, it was kind of embarrassing, because the casting lady was introducing me in a gushing, effusive manner, and she kept re-introducing me several times to the same people who began to look understandably annoyed. I was a Nobody being treated like a Somebody, and I think it rattled some of the Somebodies.
I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of some of the cast members – Joe Pantoliano of Sopranos fame, Kathy Baker, Beah Richards, Roy Walston, Phil Hartman, Angela Bassett, and Concetta Tomei. The film was a little-known production called One Special Victory. It was about a hotshot San Francisco executive (Larroquette) who had been arrested for some unknown misdemeanor and who was now being sentenced to perform public service hours as a basketball coach at an urban center for developmentally disabled youth.
When the ebullient casting agent was ushering me around, she kept referring to me as something of a well-known local expert who would have a lot of inside knowledge to offer some of the out-of-town cast and crew. She was speaking the truth because I am, indeed, a native San Francisco/Marin guy who loves the Bay Area and is well-versed in local color, history, and personalities. But I can see how the way she bragged about me rubbed some of the production people the wrong way. In fact, I noticed Larroquette himself rolling his eyes in dismay at one point.
He approached me warily, shook my hand, and welcomed me to the set. I was a good fit as his stand-in because we both had salt ’n pepper middle-aged lengthy hair, we were both tall and lanky, and — of course! — we both had chiseled movie star good looks! At 6′ 4″, he must have been very proud of his height, because he kept sizing my 6′ 3″ frame up and down. He had me by an inch, but he kept checking my shoes to make sure I wasn’t wearing lifts. Or so I thought.
The first scene was spectacular, and I started digging it right away. It was an uncommonly clear and hot San Francisco summer day, very rare for the city once famously mocked for its weather by Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
My job was to sit behind the wheel of an open-air Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the mansion that served as Larroquette’s home in super-wealthy Pacific Heights. The view from his driveway afforded a breathtaking panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz in the near distance. Not bad work, if you can get it, I thought to myself while I posed for the test cameras in the driver’s seat. As his stand-in, I needed to provide the crew a model for camera angles, proper lighting, and close-ups before the star himself took over behind the steering wheel. This one simple chore took about two hours, and the blazing sun started to play havoc on my forehead and in my mind. I kept asking for bottled water, much to the chagrin of a huffy production assistant who must have thought I was some kind of diva.
I reminded myself to keep things light-hearted, so I started engaging the serious-looking clipboard-bearing crew with anecdotes about San Francisco. They not only looked disinterested, but they also started walking away. It began to dawn on me that I was violating the first rule of being a stand-in: You are to be seen and not heard. Muttering to myself like a fool, I stumbled over to the catering wagon where the chefs were setting up for lunch. I remembered how great the food was on the sets of the other movies where I had worked. I reached out for some chicken breasts and some greens with the distinct scent of pesto, lemon, and garlic. One of the chefs literally slapped me on the wrist. “Actors first!” he barked. I walked humbly over to a bench, stared at the Golden Gate Bridge, and wondered what in the hell I had gotten myself into.
Undeterred, I was among the first to pile onto the large company van after lunch when we were told we were moving locations to busy Union Square. John Larroquette walked down the aisle, saw an empty seat next to me, then continued to walk toward the back of the vehicle. I tried to console myself after being so rudely snubbed. You were introduced as a local, well-known expert, a star, I thought, so act like one! I think the sun on my forehead was really twisting my judgment, but I couldn’t help myself. I was a chattering fool as the city’s beautiful scenery flashed past. I pointed out locations famous for being in long-ago movies. I commented about some of the homes of the famous we were driving past – Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, Harry Houdini, former Mayor Joe Alioto, Robin Williams. I raved about some of the great restaurants we were passing – Ernie’s, Tadich Grill, Enrico’s, The Stinking Rose. I could no longer tell if anyone was listening. I was having a blast as tour guide even if I had been hired to be a stand-in. But – hey! – the casting lady had touted me as a local expert, right? What was wrong with these stiffs from Los Angeles burying their faces in cell phones when the city’s beauty and history flashed past them outside the bus windows? (Yes, cell phones in 1990 – the really big, clunky kind used only by drug dealers and Feds).
We disembarked from the bus at a famous corner, Powell & Post, right outside the majestic St. Francis Hotel where President Warren Harding had died. I pointed out the side door of the hotel where 45-year-old would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore had taken a shot at President Jerry Ford in 1975. The bullet hole was still etched into the side of the building. I was actually there that day, if anyone cares. Nobody cared.
Finally, we took our spots on the street at the busy intersection of Union Square and the St. Francis Hotel. My job was to walk across the street to a storefront — you guessed it — right where a pet shop had been used during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. In the famous opening scene, Alfred Hitchcock was filmed walking out of the store as a customer. He always inserted himself at least once in most of his films. I continued to ramble.
Well, anyway, I was having a great old time if nobody else was appreciating me. Right after I verbalized the story about Hitchcock, Larroquette came over to me and asked, “Just who the hell are you, anyway?” I think I saw a thin smile form in the corner of his mouth.
Time to leave downtown, off to the poorer section of The City where O.J. Simpson was raised – the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. It was still four years before the horrific Simpson tragedy would unfold in 1994, but that didn’t stop me from raving aloud about Simpson’s already substantial notoriety as a San Francisco native. We piled out of the van again, the crew taking their spots in the midst of a downtrodden area where the basketball gym was located and where Larroquette would assume his role as coach, thereby fulfilling the sentence handed down by the court.
Again, long delays and unforgiving ennui. I looked around for more trouble. I saw a lonely figure leaning against a bus stop sign across the street from where we had just parked. It was the wonderful actress Beah Richards who was adjusting her position for the next scene to be shot. She was very famous for her role as Sidney Poitier’s mother in the Stanley Kramer-directed 1967 San Francisco classic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. I loved Richards in her role as Poitier’s wary mother, who was most cautious and nervous about her doctor son marrying a wealthy white woman. I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I admired her work. And besides, as my near-sunstroke was making me blur the line between reality and fiction, she looked so lonely and humble all by herself that I just couldn’t resist approaching her.
Beah Richards looked horrified as I started yapping away, telling her how much I enjoyed her work, including such epic roles in The Great White Hope and In the Heat of the Night. While I chattered away, she kept looking up at the bus sign. That’s when I noticed a microphone stealthily taped to the back of the post. Someone somewhere was listening to my every word. No wonder Miss Richards was not answering me! Lesson learned: Everything on a film set is mic’ed up and overheard.
Man, this was getting weird. The assistant director came running across the street and thrust a walkie-talkie into my hands. “Dude,” he said, “John doesn’t really need much more help from a stand-in for the rest of this scene, but we’d really like you to walk down that hill for about three blocks and monitor incoming traffic for us. We don’t want any cars interrupting the filming.” In that instant, I saw my film career go down the tubes. I was being run out of town, literally and figuratively. Also, there was no traffic whatsoever. I was being ostracized.
Oh well, I consoled myself, stand-ins rarely get film credits, anyway, and they definitely never win Oscars, so cheer up and carry on.
The final scene of the day was on a wooden, rickety walkway leading to a yacht berthed in the Marina Green harbor with a gorgeous late-afternoon sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This was Larroquette’s home away from the mansion, and he had been sleeping here on his yacht during his humbling experience as a basketball coach for the developmentally disabled youth.
It would be the completion of the circle for the actor in his role, from haughty, defiant bigshot to humbled, repentant citizen now fully redeemed.
My job was to walk down the shaky plank about 20 times before the scene was filmed, back and forth, as the camera people checked for the fading afternoon light, various ideal angles, and whether or not the scene called for a close-up of what would be Larroquette entering his boat at the end of the day.
On my final pass, Larroquette approached me with a wide smile, shook my hand again, and said: “Just wanted to thank you for your help today. That’s quite a sunburn you got, my friend. Hope it didn’t hurt your performance?” Whether he was being sincere or giving me a shot, I’ll never know.
The casting lady came over to me with a check for $93, thanking me profusely. I told her if she ever needed a voice-over actor for an upcoming film documenting the sights and sounds of San Francisco, I’d be available. She laughed and said, “You never give up, do you? I have a feeling we will be seeing you again.”
I ran to the bank and cashed the check before she may have decided to stop payment.