Background! by Miles Fowler

In 1982, when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became what most movie-goers would call an extra, or what the movie business objectifies as “background.” I was in at least four movies, three of them big releases.

A friend of mine, John-Michael, told me he was an extra on the The Right Stuff and said if I wanted to be one, too, I should go to Northern California Casting in San Francisco. There I was told to get a haircut, put on a conservative suit, and show up at the Cow Palace the next morning.

The Cow Palace, just south of San Francisco in Daly City, has been used for livestock shows, political conventions, sporting events, and concerts. The day I was there, the arena stood in for the Houston Coliseum in order to restage the 1962 July Fourth barbecue where Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson feted NASA and the original seven Mercury Astronauts.

On the floor of the arena were rows of spits mounted with sides of beef, but we would be warned throughout the day not to eat it. It was prop food.

Assistant Director L. Dean Jones, Jr. looked us over and said to me, “Lose the glasses.” The movie was going for authenticity, and my glasses didn’t look right for 1962. Without them, I was legally blind and spent my first day on a movie set unable to see what was going on.

Next, we went to wardrobe, which was mainly rows of hats. We were already dressed conservatively, but hats are period-sensitive. Women were given early 1960s hats such as casques, while the men were given cowboy hats. This was supposed to be Texas, after all.

The unenlightened racial attitudes of 1962 Texas were reflected in the casting for this scene. All of the African-Americans seemed to be cast as cooks or servers, dressed in white uniforms, many with toques blanches. They had to stay near the spits and pretend to baste the meat with sauce. However, all of the extras were corralled en masse around the spits, so we were all cattle.

Our big scene came when we formed two phalanxes on either side of a path leading toward a big stage. Out of a tunnel at the other end of the set came a parade of seven vintage convertibles. Each car carried the actors playing an astronaut and his wife, waving as they rode slowly toward the stage. Some of the actors were famous or soon would be, including Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn.

The parade had to be stopped, backed up, and re-started several times, so we had to cheer the “astronauts,” then cheer them again. As the convertibles passed us cheering, make-believe Texans, separate cameras captured both the crowd’s point of view of the oncoming parade and the view of the crowd from on board the cars. In the finished movie, standing just behind a couple of cooks, there is a figure that might or might not be me, wearing a dark hat and waving an arm. You can almost see a face, but it’s out of focus.

Photo of eight men
Extras on The Right Stuff on location at Hamilton Air Force Base, 1982. From right to left in front, Miles Fowler, Richard Jack, and Buck Rooney. The rest are unknown.

I worked on another shoot on the same picture at Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, California. This was different from the cattle call at the Cow Palace. There were fewer extras, and we had our own trailer, which we shared. We ate the same food as the actors (salmon steaks and brisket), though those with speaking parts got to eat before us.

I almost got on screen when a few of us were directed to run across a corridor. I stood out because I had been assigned an orange flight suit while everyone else wore some variation of green-khaki.

Assistant Director Jones sent the other extras running across the corridor, but he held me back. Then he suddenly shoved me into the corridor with so little warning that I stumbled as I scrambled across the way. When we reassembled for another take, I heard Director Philip Kaufman say over Jones’s walkie-talkie, “The guy in the orange suit was great!”

On the second take, I resisted Jones, and when he pushed me, I scrambled across the corridor without stumbling. Kaufman had no word of praise for my performance in this or any subsequent take. The shot never appeared in the film. I guess a career specializing in pratfalls on demand escaped me that day.

Miles Fowler
Miles Fowler, a frequent blogger here and on his own site, lives and writes in Charlottesville, Va.

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