I think in some ways we have all wondered what it would be like to be a movie star.
As someone who has spent his life in front of a camera as a TV reporter, I figured I’d have as good a shot as anyone. I mean, how hard could acting be? Then again, I was happy telling stories for a living.
I heard a movie was being shot in town.
I was working in Huntsville in the mid-1980s when the news came that Hollywood would be shooting a big-budget film called Space Camp in town. Of course, I wanted a part. I figured since I had a good relationship with the Public Relations guy at the Space and Rocket Center I might get my foot in the door. Besides, I had been part of the test group that went through adult Space Camp, and I had a great time.
Turns out there weren’t any speaking parts still open for someone my age, but they did need some extras.
Not only would I get to be in a movie but I wouldn’t have to take any days off, since I was doing stories about being an extra. Since this was basically a kid’s movie and they needed some adults, I was hired to play a camp counselor. The plot was simple: a bunch of campers are accidentally launched in a space shuttle that almost blows up.
There were some household names in the movie: Lea Thompson (Back to the Future), Tom Skerritt (Alien, Top Gun, Picket Fences), Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and Kelly Preston (Jerry Maguire).
The first day all the extras showed up, signed in and were immediately sent over to the wardrobe truck. I was measured and given a counselor shirt, then sent over to the property master who gave me a clipboard. My role was to stand behind the stars and pretend to be checking people in.
Things went smoothly the first day. The director and his assistant told us what was expected of us, and the shooting began. And then we broke for lunch when all the extras got a big surprise.
The menu was off the charts.
Steak, lobster, shrimp, you name it. Like everyone else, I loaded up my plate and grabbed a seat at the long table with a bunch of the older extras.
And then Tom Skerritt sat next to me. I never expected the actors to sit with the extras.
People started talking about his movies and I asked him about that horrifying scene in Alien, when the creature explodes from John Hurt’s stomach. “That’s about the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi movie,” I said. “You actors looked terrified.” Skerritt nodded. “It scared the hell out of us, even though we knew it was coming.” Skerritt turned out to be a really nice guy.
Since this was a kid’s movie, it needed a child star, and we were stuck - and I do mean stuck - with a kid named Leaf Phoenix. From the family of Phoenix kids with all those wacky Hollywood names. And since River, Summer and Rain were his siblings, he wanted to be called Leaf. (I guess Pond or Stream were not available.) Leaf later changed back to his given name of Joaquin and would eventually win an Oscar for Joker. But for this movie, he had a dual role as the lead child actor onscreen and an obnoxious pain when the cameras weren’t rolling.
This became evident on the second day when it was blistering hot. The extras had to walk up a hill past Phoenix, but he kept screwing up. Take after take, up the hill in the heat. And every time he laughed when he ruined the scene.
Several months later we were all invited to the premiere in town with a black-tie cocktail party to follow. And I had actually ended up in the background of a promotional press kit photo, so I was feeling like a star. So that night all the extras were in tuxedos and gowns, feeling like we’d walked the red carpet as we sat down and watched ourselves…
In a really. Bad. Movie.
We kept our chins up as we went to the afterparty. And then it got worse. I was talking to one of the Hollywood types when he started laughing. He pointed at someone across the room. “Check out at this guy. Doesn’t know what black-tie means.” I looked and saw a manager from our station… wearing a black necktie.
Space Camp bombed at the box office. It didn’t help that it was released the same year the actual space shuttle Challenger exploded. Why some movie executive didn’t shelve the film for a few years is beyond me. The whole thing is sad because attending the real Space Camp is a fantastic experience.
Anyway, my chance at being discovered ended up on overnight cable along with the infomercials for non-stick pans and is rarely seen.
Over the years I did throw my hat in the ring whenever a movie was in town. I scored a role as a reporter (a real stretch) and had to yell, “Mister Secretary!” at the Secretary of Defense in a straight-to-video movie called Firehead. Just as well that I ended up on the cutting room floor, as this was another clunker.
I did try out for a speaking part as an advisor to the president on another film. A friend working on the crew told me I had the part, but then the role was cut from the film. Too bad. My one line would have been the funniest in the movie: “Mister President, you can’t nuke Los Angeles during an election year.”
But I’m not giving up. Hey, if Clint Eastwood can star in a movie at the age of 90, I’ve still got a shot.
Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].