Rush, rush, rush, over hill and down dale, to audition for a commercial advertising pickles. At the audition, there was a story board describing the commercial. It showed a man hanging from tree branches over a waterfall. A little note explained:
This will be shot over a real waterfall on the Snake River in Idaho. You will be rigged with many wires and there will be a boat directly under you. However, this commercial is not for the timid.
“In that case . . .” I thought. I told the casting man, “I think maybe I’Il leave now.”
“No,” he said jovially, “you were a client request. We’ll take good care of you.”
I read my lines, but all I could think of was a scary, lethal waterfall roaring below me while I sold pickles. Then off to Paramount to read for a small part in MacGyver. It was evening by the time I got to Paramount.
The audition turned out to be in the Writers’ Building, where William Holden hung out in Sunset Boulevard. To my shock, I was kept waiting for a half hour. I felt so affronted that I almost stalked out. But I stayed, read my lines, and did something cute. When the line says that I told someone to “terminate” MacGyver and he says, “Who me?” I’m supposed to say, “Do you see anyone else in the room?”
Instead I said, “No not you. Nixon.”
The producers laughed, and I had the part. In this one, I get to shoot a prop machine gun. At MacGyver. From a flying helicopter.
I’m so glad I didn’t walk out. Humility always pays off. Always.
Back to my condo. I was about to fall into dreamland when the phone rang. It was K., a friend who is very much like a combination of yours truly, P. T. Barnum, and Ken Lerer. He had a tale.
“So, I wrote this treatment,” he said, “about a midget who becomes head of a big investment bank and then gets to be President, and I got an invitation through my uncle, who cleans his pool, to pitch it to B., who’s the head of —- Studios.
“I went in there, and he says, ‘You’ve got eight minutes. Tell me why I’m not wasting my time talking to you.’
“I told him I had the greatest story since the parting of the Red Sea, better because I would also have a lot of great cars in my story, and that it was guaranteed to make money, and so forth, and suddenly B. slams his fist down on his desk and says, ‘That’s the worst story I have ever heard. Get out of my office right now.’ I thought he was surely kidding, and that he’d soon break a smile, but he didn’t.
“So I sort of sauntered out, collecting my dignity as best I could, and started to laugh as if it had been a joke, and suddenly I saw the door open and a studio guard came in.
“‘Get this man off the lot right now,’ B. shouted to the guard, and before I knew it, I was out on the street. When I got home, there was a message on my machine from B.’s secretary telling me not to call or send him a letter. What did I do wrong?”
“You didn’t walk out when he told you that stuff about how you only had eight minutes of his time,” I said. “You came to Hollywood. You let him have space in your brain rent-free. You did a lot of things wrong.”
I made toast, then got back into bed with Trixie. The phone rang again. It was K., my landlord. I had left him a message that I was moving. He was sad.
“You’re the only good tenant I ever had,” he said. “The others were frightening. The one before you had a swimsuit line and went bankrupt and just disappeared. The one before that was a drug dealer and had Satanic rituals in the living room.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“No, I’m not. They used to kill chickens and draw pentagrams on the floor. Then I had to fight for months to evict her. I wish you’d stay.”
Up at the crack of dawn for a trip out to Valencia and Saugus, two cities surrounded by miserable-looking desert and scrub about forty miles north of Hollywood. I’m out there to work on location for MacGyver. I play a daft variant of General Secord who’s working for an aircraft company, trying to sell high-tech weapons illegally to a Latin American dictator, or maybe a Caribbean dictator, named President Peugeot.
This is my very first part in an action show, and I’m in eight scenes, so I like it a lot. The pay is very small, far smaller than people outside Hollywood would believe, but I still love doing it. For one thing, it gets me out of the house. For another, it gets my face on the screen. For another, I get a very square meal at lunch.
The whole area was scrub brush and fruit orchards just a few years ago. Now it’s shopping centers, housing tracts, car dealerships, K-Marts, Taco Bells, MacDonalds, the whole thieves’ market that is Los Angeles. An instant slum is what I would call it, but the people who run the place, Newhall Land, would probably beg to differ.
I followed my studio directions past a row of houses that would have made Erich Honecker envious, and then past some that were even more horrible, and finally to a sign saying discreetly “Location.” I followed it to a dirt road that ran under enormous power pylons, over rocks, far away from any houses or stores, past innumerable lizards, and then through a gate that had apparently just been used for a movie about the Mexican border. It had warning signs about leaving Mexico and a Mexican flag, and then a little border patrol post. Entering a new country, the land of going-on-location-in-the-desert.
The first day on a new set is a lot like the first day in a new school. You don’t know anyone, and the grips and gaffers and sound men are all standing around playing frisbee and talking about cars and guns, and they ignore you as if you had leprosy. This MacGyver set was particularly difficult because it was an adventure-show set, and it obviously had a macho flavor, since it’s about guns, shooting, and tough guys.
I walked to my little dressing room, a tiny compartment in a long trailer called a “honey wagon” for reasons I have never known. I checked into my little cubicle, marked with a masking tape sign that read “Major Sneed,” which is my character.
I had no sooner put down my bags than a young A.D. summoned me to make-up and hair. A touch of warmth. The make-up man, scion of a long line of Hollywood make-up men, and his daughter, a sprightly gamine, were talkative and friendly. They made me up while telling tales of Hollywood and jokes about murderers, and were like the school nurse — the first friendly people you meet on your first day of school.
Our first scene involved putting me, my co-guest “stars,” and MacGyver, played by Rick Anderson, into a sealed helicopter. We had to pretend we were drugged and sort of lie in a heap on top of each other. My co-stars are Shelley Berman, David Naughton, and Lance LeGault, the world’s most long-winded and funniest human. It was fine, except for the cruel heat. The temperature was over 100 in the shade, and this was in the sun, in a sealed Plexiglas cockpit. It was painfully hot, about as hot as I have ever been, and I was extremely glad that the star, Rick, was in the chopper with us. I am convinced that we would have been allowed to bake like pigs on a spit except that the studio, one Paramount Pictures, would have been pretty angry if they lost Rick to sunstroke.
After the scene, I ate lunch with a day player named Lezar, who, although a Jewish immigrant from Yugoslavia, played the German bodyguard of a Caribbean dictator. Eventually the dictator joined us as well. He was played by someone named Time Winters, whom everyone called “Time Warner”. Time’s a hilarious guy. He’s putting on a French accent for this role, and it works incredibly well. He’s a sort of nutty but dangerous guy, and he will have a sitcom of his own one day. I would bet money on it.
Lance LeGault, world’s most talkative guy, also appeared. He was boasting about his horses, about his ranch, about his planes, about how much money he makes on voice-overs. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but he was funny all the same. Then David Naughton, who had starred in An American Werewolf in London, appeared, and pretty soon we were all laughing.
In about three hours, I had gone from outcast to one of the boys. We all talked about who the prettiest girl on the set was (a stand-in named after Natalie Wood), about other sets, and then we had to scatter because of an attack of bees. That’s the problem with desert locations.
“I’m not complaining,” Lance LeGault said. “We’re getting paid to have a picnic.”
Back to the copter for some more coverage. I should mention that the location is a ranch used only for movies and TV shows. It’s got a Latin American plaza (which could also be a Spanish plaza), a presidential palace of flyblown stucco, a jail, and a cantina, and it’s perfect for Bronson or Eastwood, as we call them. For this shot, there are about two dozen extras, or “atmosphere,” mostly dressed in fatigues, carrying around extremely real AK-47s.
Now, here’s the thing about sets. When you get there, you wish you were at home in bed. But when you are released at the end of the day, you hate to leave. The set has become your home. It’s like the last day of college.
Oh, happy day. On this day, unlike any other day on any other set, I get to shoot a gun. Or at least point a gun. Yes, it’s true. I had a 7:00 a.m. call, but it was worth it. In my sleepy stupor, I was taken to the veranda of the presidential palace, where I pretended to be awed by Time Winters’s magic tricks, which never worked right, and then got to pull a gun and say “Drop it!” to Lance LeGault, who was an FBI agent. (I’m the villain.)
The prop man and Lance LeGault were chortling with glee at my handling a gun. Hee, hee, hee, the big nerd handling a gun. Little did they realize that I own many guns and know and love them all.
An extremely rare rain was falling on us as we did our shot. “Are you all right?” the director asked me. “Are you okay with this?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m in front of a camera, pretending to be a tough guy, pointing a gun, and getting paid. I’m very happy,” and indeed I was. We took the shot from many angles, and we all laughed and scratched, and then we broke for snacks.
The more I think about this, the more it reminds me of boy’s camp. There are almost no women on this set. The talk is all about cars and guns and planes and hunting and fishing. The men smoke and scuff their heels and strike poses of toughness. It’s kind of nice for a change. No worries about political correctness, no fears of feminist revenge. A big change, anyway, from normal Hollywood routine.
After lunch, another great shot. In this one, I approach a helicopter (yes, the same helicopter), and tell the dictator who I am.
“And who might you be?” he asks.
“Major Sneeze?” he asks in a truly funny accent.
“Sneed,” I shout at him.
There are guards all around pointing their AK-47s at me, and it’s all kind of fun. Nothing in the world is so exhilarating as to be menaced without effect and to get paid for it, as Churchill almost said.
This morning, I am working on a gallows. The plot calls for the dictator to have sentenced MacGyver and Berman and Lance and David to hang. I’m up there watching, looking stoic.
Once again, it’s amazingly hot. There is dust everywhere. But I’m a happy guy. I’m not really on a real gallows. The SS is not about to hang me for anything. This is just pretend, and it’s swell.
It’s especially bitchin’ because between takes, the star, “Ricky,” as some call him, came up to me and told me how much he “loved my work.” This is what we actors live and die for. I told him I wasn’t a real actor, but he didn’t believe me, or at least that’s what he said. I’m getting so I don’t believe it either.
Back on location, this time in Fillmore. It’s about another twenty-five miles past Valencia, just past Magic Mountain, past the sandy strip where a helicopter killed a few people not long ago and then past innumerable orchards, and then you get to Fillmore. You can tell it’s an old-fashioned farming kind of town because, among other reasons, it has only dealerships for American cars. Buicks, Fords, Chevrolets. No Toyotas or Mitsubishis that I could see.
Anyway, there is one main street (called Main Street) with a post office, a few grocery stores, about fifty beauty shops, a newspaper, and not much else. The buildings are brick-and-masonry, all very cute and old-fashioned.
Our honey wagons are in a very, very dusty lot. It’s incomparably more dusty than the one in Saugus. It’s also far hotter than it was in Saugus, and my first scene today is in a car, outside a police station, where I just have to shout out the window at my co-guest “stars” that I want to talk to them in some sort of fake spy lingo.
We do the scene over and over again, from every angle, but always very briskly and with little wasted motion. As we are shooting, I notice that a crowd has assembled by the side of the car where I am reading my few lines. Women with strollers. Little kids on bicycles. Older women and men stopping on their way back from the grocery store. Americanos come to watch the fun and games.
Between takes, I talked to two young mothers. They giggled and had an innocent, non-malicious quality that I like a lot. They looked like Americans are supposed to look — not nutty, not angry, just small-town friendly. That’s my image, anyway. John Gregory Dunne used to tell me how wrong I was about that, but I’ll keep my illusions, just as the small-town people can keep theirs about Hollywood.
“LaManna, Elliott,” I said into the camera over and over again. “Get over here. Privileged interface.”
At lunchtime, two friends from Washington, D.C., came over to watch. They were in California vacationing, and they wanted to see a set. They watched, and then we had lunch at the caterer’s truck. A feast. Halibut and salad and cheese-cake.
I told them about the coup in Russia. They thought I was kidding. It’s interesting, but no one, and I do mean no one, on the set was talking about the coup. Not one word. At first I thought it was odd, but then I realized that I could see why. People at the State Department and CNN and the New York Times are paid to worry about coups in Russia. That’s their full-time job. We’re making a show here in the desert or the high desert or whatever it is. That’s our business. We’ll talk about the coup after we’re done with our show.
These lighting men and make-up women and sound women and cameramen are the foot soldiers of Hollywood. They will never have their pictures in the LA. Times. They’re like Ernie Pyle’s GIs: they work in the business because they have to feed their families or because they love working with lights or because of chance. But they are the assault troops of fantasy creation, the ones who actually hit the beaches and make the fantasies appear on the screen. They don’t have time to talk about coups.
Another 7:00 a.m. call at the set. There’s a dense fog hanging over the Santa Clarita Valley, and I am driving through it while listening to Gennady Yanayev give a press conference. Actually, he sounds quite reasonable. He’s no Stalin, that’s for sure, because Stalin, as far as I can tell, did not hold press conferences.
My job this morning is to pretend that I’m in a van listening to and watching various monitors which are tracking MacGyver. Then I jump out, pull my “hog leg” pistol out of my belt, and chase after MacGyver. The director, Mike Caffey, the world’s most competent person, takes the shot from various angles, and then sets up to take it again.
The outfits we wore yesterday are the same as those we wear today. The words we say in close-ups are the same words we say in medium shots and when we’re just mouthing the words “m.o.s.” which means, literally, as Billy Wilder used to say, “Mit out sound.”
I have one more scene where I race around a corner, pretend to get ready to shoot, and then mutter when MacGyver gets away. I actually made myself skid on the alley, and I felt pretty good about it.
I ate lunch at the table with our star Rick and a staggeringly pretty girl who was visiting him from Minneapolis-St. Paul. She was a beautician, and a fantastic beauty. She seemed to have a mad crush on Rick, but I could be wrong.
Rick talked about his early days riding freight trains, hitch-hiking, and wondering what he would do with his life. Shelley Berman came over and told hilarious stories about how people come up to him and say, “I know you’re someone” or “Didn’t you used to be someone?”
The worst, he said, was when a husband would come up to him, point to him, and say to his wife, “Guess who this guy was.”
After lunch, I was dismissed and told that our next day’s shooting would be “second unit” work, which means that the star would already have moved on to the next episode, and that we would only have the second-unit camera people, sound people, and so forth.
One more seven a.m. call, this time at Van Nuys Airport. As I drove past Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, alma mater of Michael Milken, Michael Ovitz, and probably many other Michaels as well, I heard more on the radio about the end of the Soviet coup, and what looks like the end of the Soviet Union altogether. Wow. Maybe I won’t have to be incinerated by a Red Bolshevist H-bomb after all.
The second unit is spread out at the vacant Air National Guard hangar at the sprawling, seldom-used airport. It’s sort of shabby and depressing. There are little moguls of trash and even some abandoned cars.
We have new honey wagons today, and I liked the old ones better. And the caterers are different. I guess the others are over doing the first-unit work.
My part today is to run out of a hangar, and stop my pals Lance and David from shooting MacGyver’s pal Shelley as he steals a stealth helicopter. Again, it’s hot, and there’s a forlorn quality about this second-unit work. It’s as if the real party were somewhere else, and we were just watching it over closed circuit TV. But I love it anyway.
Then one more scene of yours truly inside a fantastically hot van, watching a radar screen, then grabbing my “hog leg” and running out. Finally, a close-up of my hands, my surgeon’s hands, on the radar control, and I’m done.
I had a nice farewell talk with the director, Mike Caffey, gave away a few copies of one of my books, and drove off in the blinding heat. On the radio, I heard a man talk about people in Russia killing themselves. On my car phone, my agent said that I was wanted over at Universal to audition to play an undertaker in a new movie where I would be embalming Meryl Streep.
God, I hope I get it.
Benjamin J. Stein is a writer, economist, and teacher living in Malibu, California.
Stein, Benjamin J. “Terminate MacGyver.” The American Spectator. November, 1991.