Friday, August 23, 2013

Ceiling Fans or My Movie with the Man Who Killed Spidey

I have to thank former Marvel colleague, writer Dan Slot, for this posting. It was he who reminded me of the incident, when I stopped by his table at a Big Apple Con a while back. I was a bit taken aback by the lack of attention the comic scribe garnered. It’s not as if he were secluded in a corner of the floor. His table was located just to the right of the main entrance—you couldn’t miss him!

Well, maybe you could! A cross between Danny DeVito and a minion, Slott isn’t much taller, and no less stocky. He has an endearing cherubic face and a Muppet eyebrow, which belie the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It was sinful that Slott wasn’t fronted by a horde of fans. He’d been writing for Marvel and DC, since 1992, with a successful revival of She-Hulk and a Great Lakes Avengers limited series. Unfortunately, his attempts at relaunching a Thing—the rocky member of the Fantastic Four—comic were not as good, despite a snarky attempt to rally readers with a “Pull my Thing” campaign (in comic-shop vernacular, frequent buyers create “pull” lists, from which the store reserves selected titles before they’re put on the shelves).

The momentary low didn’t deter Slott, however. He went on to become one of a rotating crew of scribes on Amazing Spider-Man; wrote Avengers: Initiative, which led to his picking up the writing duties on Mighty Avengers after fan-favorite Brian Michael Bendis’s departure; and had recently become the sole regular scribe on Amazing, when I saw him.

Had anyone realized the 380º turn the diminutive writer’s reputation would take less than a year later, they not only would’ve been mobbing his area, but also clamoring for his head! Dan is now one of the hottest and most notorious, writers in comics, as much beloved as he is vilified. Why? Perhaps you heard in the news recently about the death of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man. That was dastardly Dan’s doing. 
And merely offing Peter Parker wasn’t good enough for the whimsically wicked wordsmith. Oh, no… As he lay dying, Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as the Web-Spinner’s multi-appendaged foe, Dr. Octopus, transferred his mind with Parker’s at the exact instant the Grim Reaper swung his scythe. In essence, Octavius became both Parker and Spider-Man, destroying his hated nemesis, while also depriving him the respect and mourning of his loved ones. That’s just plain nasty!

To add insult to injury, Marvel canceled Webhead’s signature title, Amazing Spider-Man, first released in 1962, and replaced it with Superior Spider-Man. Superior?! As if to say Doc Ock’s super-arachnid, whose only accomplishment at the time was ending the life of one of Earth’s greatest heroes, is better than the original model, he who’d only saved the planet and countless lives for more than five decades. Why not just spit on Spidey’s fans and piss on his grave. Oh, wait. You can’t. He doesn’t have a grave!

Contrary to the seeming vitriol of my previous paragraphs, I’m far from joining the Slott-Hater bandwagon. Sure, I consider the radical writer my friend, but I honestly don’t have a problem with the way he’s treated the Wondrous Web-Swinger. After all, one of the character’s signature aspects is his continued heroism, not only in the face of overwhelming odds, but also whilst his unmasked Regular Joe self deals with a life seemingly crumbling around him.

But Spidey’s dead! you’re thinking. What greater obstacle to overcome? His demise also calls into question the hero’s raison d’être, that being “With great power comes great responsibility.” Does that sacred creed hold true after death? And how does a once nefarious ne’er-do-well like Dr. Octopus deal with the onus of such responsibility. Will Webhead’s legacy ultimately prove to be Doc’s undoing?

I also don’t believe for a second that Peter Parker is gone for good. Seriously, people?! Fellow comics cognoscenti should be ashamed of themselves. Have we not learned anything in the past fifty years. Times were, if there wasn’t a body, you could be assured the character wasn’t dead. Marvel’s obituary section stood at three entries for decades, encompassing Parker’s Uncle Ben; first love, Gwen Stacy; and Captain America’s Golden Age kid sidekick, Bucky. In fact, whenever a character “died,” the cynical response was, “But are they Bucky dead?” meaning truly having entered the Pearly Gates. Even that rule was shattered during writer Ed Brubaker’s run on Cap a few years back when the scribe brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier, the storyline of which will be featured in the upcoming second film of the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger. Suddenly, “Bucky dead” meant bupkes.

More heinous was the resurrection of Uncle Ben a few years back. Ben’s death at the hands of a burglar, whom Peter had allowed to escape due to his selfish intention of using his newly acquired spider abilities for fame and fortune, led to the youth’s realization about the relationship between power and responsibility. His uncle’s return was a slap in the face of the Wall-Crawler’s basis for being!

So to all you so-called Spidey-o-phile nay-sayer’s, I say, “Get over it!” Enjoy the ride. The character’s been mired in mediocrity for years, and hasn’t raised this much contentious behavior since the ignominious Clone Saga of the 90s. Heck, it’s not as if our woebegone Web-Swinger hasn’t been killed and replaced before. Kraven the Hunter did the deed in the epic six-part “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which ran through all three of the awesome arachnid’s titles, Amazing, Spectacular and Web of Spider-Man back in the late 80s. And in that scintillating saga, our bedeviled hero actually was buried!

The death of Gwen Stacy, the original clone story and its more notorious sequel thirty years later, the infamous black costume, Peter Parker’s wedding, the “One More Day” storyline; these and many others have been some people’s excuse to bellyache and bemoan the demise of their Spider-Man, when, in fact, they have done no such thing. All the stories still exist, and will long after the Web-Slinger has truly “shuffled off this mortal coil.”

As for the members of the hoi polloi who are grabbing their torches and pitchforks to storm the Marvel offices over the death of Spider-Man, you are no better than your geek counterparts in your misplaced hysteria. I have three words for you: DEATH… OF… SUPERMAN. Given all the import of a terrorist attack with no less the sensationalism, the media stoked into a conflagration what would normally be a minor news item buried in the celebrity gossip segment of their broadcasts on any other day with a modicum of activity. DC wasn’t just offing a fictional superhero, they were killing baseball, hot dogs and Mom’s apple pie, the American Dream, in one fell swoop. HOW DARE THEY?!

At the same time these Superman aficionado wannabes were descrying DC, they were buying up and hoarding copies of the seminal issue like gasoline in Mad Max, thinking they could parlay their purchase into tuition for their children a few years thence. I tried to explain the worthlessness of this Man of Steel milestone to the colleague of a friend of mine I was visiting during the height of the hullabaloo. She had just come into the office exalting her purchase of a copy, like she’d been one of the first to snag a Cabbage Patch doll.

As respectfully as I could, given the bile rising in my throat over the speculative hyperbole, I explained to her the comic was worth little more than the paper it was printed on. She would have none of that, citing Action Comics #1, the poster child for comic speculation due to its exponential rise in worth every year—even copies in extremely low condition sell for several hundred thousand dollars—as proof of her savvy investment.

Released in 1938, the sacred tome introduced Superman, the first ever superhero. Born in an age when comics were in their infancy and viewed as little more than cheap entertainment, and then sacrificed by the boatloads during the paper drives of WWII, there are few more than a dozen copies of Action Comics #1 in existence, never mind the one or two copies in better-than-shitty grade. Contrarily, DC shipped between 2.5 and 3 million copies of the “Death of Superman” issue, a large percentage of which were being hermetically sealed in Mylar and boarded with archival materials. To equate the two would be like comparing the Holy Grail to a Dixie Cup.

My calm rationale was greeted with the kind of look Homer Simpson gave Lurleen Lumpkin as she suggestively sang “Bunk with Me” to him. But unlike the famous animated Fox patriarch, my target never got the subtext of the message. “But this is the ‘Death of Superman’” she blurted with sudden finality as if I were the one who didn’t “get it,” before turning away and ending the conversation. I would imagine she’s since discovered that the only educational institution she can afford for her children from her “wise” investment is the School of Hard Knocks!

Which brings us back to Slott, whose career began in the early ’90s at Marvel, first as an intern, then as an assistant under Editor Fabian Nicieza. “Under” would not be an exaggeration. The young wannabe scribe followed Nicieza like Marley padded after his master. He was equally as loveable as exasperating, incessantly yammering story ideas and humorous anecdotes whether the beleaguered editor was listening or not. No wonder he was pegged as the writer for the Ren & Stimpy comic, which debuted in 1992, bagged with a scratch ’n’ sniff air “fouler.” The rascally raconteur proved the perfect fit for the popular animated pair, and the title’s subsequent success launched Slott’s career.

We’d begun reminiscing about out days at Marvel, when I’d asked him if he were interested in contributing something to the “Closet” as a guest writer. It was at that moment, a fan stopped by, and having overheard our speaking of working at Marvel, understandably asked if I’d worked at the House of Ideas, too.

“He was Spider-Man,” Slott chimed in.

Ever wary of people’s reactions when my former alter-ego is revealed, I quickly and succinctly explained that I was a character actor for Marvel at the same time Slott was interning.

“Cool!” the fan responded, genuinely impressed.

Our short exchange, however, prompted Slott’s recollection of his own “favorite Steve/Spidey story.”

Cue flashback graphics and sound effects... 

When I wasn’t on the road Web-Spinning or at the gym, I was hanging out at Marvel, kibbitzing with editors and trying to get writing assignments. Sure, being the company’s mascot helped in my getting more than a foot in the door, but it also proved to stigmatize my being seen as anything but “the guy who plays Spider-Man.” I often felt I wasn’t taken as seriously as others, whose vocation was strictly “writer.” Still, I cajoled my way into steady work penning articles for Marvel Age and eventually sold a Spider-Man story, which is an epic waiting in the wings.

More important, my Marvel colleagues were also my friends. So when someone snagged a block of tickets to an advanced preview of The Babe, starring John Goodman as the legendary Yankees slugger, I was asked if I’d like to go. A free movie? With my cohorts? Hell, I’d go to a documentary on quilting if it meant hanging out with friends (I’m just asking for it from the Etsy crowd!). The pass was actually a baseball card featuring John Goodman as the titular baseball star. It was a neat souvenir and hoped I wouldn’t have to cede it at the door to get in.

The cinema hosting the screening was several blocks further east than the Marvel offices on Park Ave. South. Anyone familiar with braving such an event knows the promoters give out far more passes than there are seats in the theater to ensure a full room. Entry is determined on a first come, first serve basis, so one has to get to the theater at least an hour beforehand, depending on the movie. Films with more buzz will draw an earlier and far greater crowd, but even the most obscure pictures usually have a mob waiting to get in… usually!

The Marvel group convened outside the theater at 6 PM for the 7 PM screening, and there wasn’t another sole in sight. In fact, the usher didn’t even bother to look at the passes, never mind take them as we entered. The disinterest in a free movie in a city of ten million people did not bode well for the quality of the pic. The internet was still a few years off, but the film’s reputation was such that, even in an age of relatively primitive word-spreading, its awfulness carried like wildfire, and this was without online trailers, Ain’t It Cool and its ilk, social media of any kind, email or texting; literally word-of-mouth. Considering The Babe hadn’t opened yet, I can only assume Siskel and Ebert gave it an enthusiastic “thumbs down” on At the Movies earlier in the week, and their opinions were gospel.

“We'd walk out on this movie in an airplane.”

The cinema was empty. Our party traipsed in and centered ourselves, leaning back and draping our legs over the seats before us, like we owned the place. Only two other people arrived: a pair of teenage girls who plopped their asses in the row in front of ours. Fortunately, they were short enough and the seats reclined enough that their obstruction was minimal. But the fact, they would choose the seats that they did should have alerted us to the type of people they were.

As is the wont of comic geeks whenever there is so much as two seconds to rub together, we began talking about our obsession. We weren’t especially loud, but the movie hadn’t started yet, so we weren’t exactly whispering either.

“Y’all talking about funny books?” asked one of the teens, spinning around to face us. It was only then we noticed the Southern drawl, because unlike her, we were not eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. Her question was full of the kind of disgust four-color aficionados used to endure when exposed by the hoi polloi. I’m not sure if she was actually curious or was just trying to shut us up in a backhanded way. Her BFF may not have had the audacity to comment, but her complicity in her friend’s behavior was clearly evident in her unabashed giggling.

In the late 90s, I worked as the Marketing Manager for the second coming of Valiant, purchased by Acclaim Entertainment soon before. Just prior to the home office closing the comics division only a few years later, editorial planned on releasing “Varmints,” written by Dan Slott with art by Mike Kazalah, as part of a children’s digest-size anthology series.

Bless his naïve little heart, Slott perceived only interest where there was vitriol, and boy, do nerds love to share their passion. No less Slott, who proceeded to introduce himself as though he were filling out an application for eHarmony.

“I’m Dan and I’m an assistant editor at Marvel Comics,” he replied cheerily.

“Yeah, what does that do?” Again with the attitude, this time mixed with a generous helping of skepticism, the grammatical cluster-fuck of the sentence not withstanding.

Slott was undeterred, like a Mormon undertaking his assigned mission in a particularly adverse region of the world. “I basically help the editor in getting the books out on time; assist in gathering the artwork, send it to the inker, then to the letterer; I read fan mail for the books I work on, then pull the best ones and piece them together for the monthly letters page; I field calls from prospective talent…” The diminutive Slott seemed determined to kill this harpy and her mute mate with kindness.

“My butt!” the girl snarked.

Perhaps it was that playful twinkle in Slott’s eyes; the oh-so-pinchable cheeks; the ever-present friendly demeanor, more pronounced in the face of such hostility; that inspired his office mates, but regardless, without prompting, the next Marvelite in the row piped in, taking up the baton Slott so ably handed them.

“I’m Pat Garrahy. I’m also an assistant editor, as well as a colorist…”

“Yeah, what does that do?” Apparently, we’d covered the breadth of the girl’s vocabulary, if not her ill-manner.

But again, my colleagues were exemplary. Pat proudly discussed his duties without the faintest nuance of annoyance.

And again, “My butt!” was the answer to his generous efforts.

This continued down the line. One after another—Renée Witterstatter, Tim Tuohy, Mark Bernardo—my comic compadres persevered, introducing themselves and sharing their respective tasks and the comics on which they worked, to the ungrateful whelps before them. Each name and job title elicited a dubious “Yeah, what does that do?” and each description prompted a venomous “My butt!”

As fate would have it, I was seated at the endcap of the row and closest to these hillbillies. I didn’t share in the enthusiasm of my friends toward them, who increasingly showed that their worth added up to little more than a central position in the “Evolution of Man” charts one sees on classroom walls and in natural history books.

My mood grew darker as the dog and pony show progressed, seeming to accelerate as it drew closer. The tap of the t from the penultimate “butt” still hung in the air when, with palpable inevitability, the demon seed twins turned their vindictive gaze toward me.

“I’m Spider-Man and I web little shits like you to the ceiling…”

In stunned silence, the harridans slowly turned back in their seats. They didn’t move, nor peep, for the entirety of the film, and scurried out of the theater as the final frame before the credits flashed upon the screen.

In costume, hero I may be, but Vroom! suffers fools lightly!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Poster Boy

Chucky’s cheesecake

Despite my own room and a great deal of privacy—one might argue neglect—growing up, the posters that festooned my walls were not what one would call traditional for your average tween/teen. Absent were the pop idols of the era—no Steve Austins, Morks or Sweathogs; any interest in automotive-alia was confined to the hundreds of Matchbox and Hot Wheels vehicles in the half dozen dedicated cases under my bed; my appreciation of all sports Boston remained on the small screen; and though I certainly enjoyed (read: salivated over) Farrah, Kate and Jaclyn, the thought of putting any or all of the Angels of Charlie on my walls mortified me.

Not that I had a choice in my early childhood. My parents installed new wallpaper when I was about five, ultimately selecting an olive-green nautical print over my choices, which all contained some variation of anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Only the wall against which the bed was placed would feature the seafaring design; the remaining three were covered with a rudimentary pattern of an accompanying color. It sounds more ghastly than it was, but the scads of stuffed toys which occupied every inch of dresser, bookcase, bureau, chair, side table and desk supplied more than enough color to overcome the ennui of the walls. My bedroom looked like the storage warehouse, which serviced the entire Toys ‘R’ Us chain.

I loved these reproduction circus posters!

Hanging, taping or tacking anything on the new wallpaper was strictly verboten until one day my mom gave me a set of three vintage Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus poster reproductions, which she allowed me to thumbtack to one of the bare walls of my room. The “menagerie” one with the various animals was my favorite, though I loved ’em all, even the scary-clown one. But it wasn’t just the subject matter. I was taken with the classic design, muted colors and sepia tone, which hearkened to a more romantic, bygone era. Cripes, I was old school before the term even existed!

Once my bedroom’s pin-up cherry was popped, other items made their way to my walls, though still only that which my mom gave her blessing. I was an avid jigsaw puzzler, and could put together one of more than 500 pieces in a single sitting. Two of my faves—one of a gumball machine bursting with a kaleidoscope of chewy chicles within its glass globe and surrounding its base and the other of a bald eagle’s head—my mom glued together with a large sheet of construction paper attached to their reverse sides, creating cool wall hangers. The pressed incision lines of the individual pieces made for a nifty overlay, transcending the images from the merely cool to provocative.

Springbok led a resurgence of puzzle mania in the 70s with sets that combined brilliant graphics and sharply cut, interlocking pieces

By the time I’d reached my teens, my mom ceded her control of my bedroom décor. My funny book fanaticism was in its infancy—I was late bloomer when it came to the pleasures of the 4-color world—but no less insane than that of a seasoned geek. Fortunately, my parents didn’t impede its progress. They’d been separated for several years by then, and cared only for my grades, which remained good. Not that they understood my love of “funny books,” the only term they used when referring to my passion. My father would always accompany his mention with the type of look usually reserved for smelling bad mayonnaise. There was no disgust from my mom, and though she never bothered to learn the names of any particular titles which I collected, she would occasionally bring me home comics she’d picked up the store, but only if they were on special—God, that woman loved a sale!

A surprise from Mom one day, this issue began my love for Ghost Rider, a love which Nicholas Cage will not diminish no matter how hard the actor tries!

It was she who gave me The Mighty World of Marvel Pin-Up Book for Christmas in 1977. I was fourteen, and would spend every waking moment not spent at school or doing homework perusing, reading and re-reading my modest comics collection, which amounted to a few two-foot stacks piled in a side dresser. At 17" by 11", with each page bursting with a huge action shot of a single superhero or group on über-colorful, high-glossy poster paper, I’d be able to sneak a peek at my hobby regardless how short the visit to my bedroom. The editors wisely left the backsides of each image with nothing more than a pithy write-up of the hero on its opposite, so one didn’t have to choose a side to display… They were all presentable! I wasted no time peeling all 21 images off the binding and putting them up. And that’s where they stayed until my mother moved during my senior year of college.

Ghost Rider by the under-rated Ernie Chan, a melange of Avengers by John Buscema, Dr. Doom by Jack Kirby, and Doc Strange by Frank Brunner were but a smattering of the twenty-one-derful pin-ups featured in the book.

I certainly never considered myself a Betty Grable, and I’m sure Farrah’s red bathing suit would not have fit me as well, though at the time it premiered, my man-boobs probably bested her female ones—I was a hefty prepubescent! But an adolescent growth spurt and combination of cutting out the Yodels and Devil Dogs for lunch and becoming more active helped trim the fat. Still, no one could have guessed I’d emerge as a pin-up idol.

Your Rambling Raconteur circa 1976

My debut as everyone’s favorite wall-hanger occurred at the mock Spider-Man wedding ceremony at Shea Stadium in the summer of 1987 as part of a gift bag given to all attendees. That historic happening was recounted in my past postings, “Wedding Photo”—about the actual photo shoot for the poster—and the epic trilogy “To Thee I Web”—relating the tantalizing tale of the nuptials itself. I was a relative super-newbie at the time and shared the spreadsheet spotlight with some of my 4-color friends, as well as a quartet of Mets. As a local amenity available only to those at the event, the pin-up’s notoriety was finite. It wouldn’t be sharing the black light section of your local Spencer Gifts any time soon.

The true test of my pin-up pulchritude came about a year later. In 1987, spear-headed by then Editor-in-Chief Tom Defalco, Marvel released a high-quality line of books, which reproduced the original issues, in order, of some of its most iconic characters. Marvel Masterworks debuted with three volumes, presenting “remastered” (if you will) collections of the first ten issues of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men. Some—the bean counters and business experts—considered it folly. Comic collections to this point were packaged cheaply—paperbacks of crappy paper with no extras—and regurgitated the same dozen or so “Best of” stories in every volume. It was the equivalent of an oldies radio station playlist. These haters had no understanding of what the comic book marketplace had become and didn’t think anyone would pony up the dosh for the type of book DeFalco envisioned.

Marvel-ites have Tom DeFalco to thank for Marvel Masterworks. Despite internal opposition, he pushed for and oversaw their genesis.

There were no electronic files of these vintage tales and somehow finding the original artwork, if all the pages existed, was impractical if not impossible. Thus, scans of the original comic books were made and then the dot-matrix color pattern, which created the hues, was washed out. The resulting art had to be repaired—since the color was saturated into the lines, the integrity of them was greatly diminished when the color was excised—and then the story was recolored. Everything was collated and printed on high-end white paper with all the touches one would expect from a coffee-table book, i.e. dust jacket, end papers, title page, table of contents, introduction, etc. At $40, the volumes were more than four times what a standard trade paperback was at the time.

DeFalco got the last laugh. The first flight took off and Marvel Masterworks has continued to expand ever since. There are hundreds of volumes with most, if not all, still in print and new ones arriving every year. Thank you, Tom!

Through the years since their debut, the Masterworks line has expanded to include classic tales from the company’s Golden Age and Atlas Eras, and B-list characters, such as Iron Fist.

But at the time, there were more than a few Marvel Nabobs biting their nails and watching the sales reports during the initial release. The books out-performed even their wildest expectations, which lets face it, given their grim forecast, wasn’t all that wild. A second flight, expanded to four books was announced. But the Suits’ pleasure was never more evinced than when they actually decided to put a few shekels toward marketing the unexpected second stage of the line. By the standards of any other industry, the promotional efforts for the second coming, so to speak, were small, but they were something at least. And I was to be a fortuitous benefactor, so I wasn’t complaining!

A high-quality sales poster, which would be distributed among comic book retailers across the country, was commissioned. Now Marvel has ever produced retailer ephemera—signs, sell-sheets, shelf talkers, among others—for decades. 99% of them feature clip-art of their signature heroes—if it were a generic “Buy Marvel Comics!” type item—or feature new art from an upcoming debut of a title or character. Yet, even in the latter scenario, the art was “clipped” from the forthcoming ballyhooed product or merely displayed its cover art, thus reducing the cost to just design, production and distribution. Rarely was any “new” money invested in custom art for such sales materials. The second-wave Masterworks signage would surpass even the rare extra expenditure of original illustration, catapulting into the realm of live-photography, which meant the aforementioned costs plus studio fees—lights, sets, props, scenery, and shutterbug, of course—and model.

That’s where I came in…

Personal Appearance Department Manager Babs just gave me fresh Spidey threads and the basic 411 on the gig, which directed me to a loft studio in the Chelsea area of Manhattan early one weekday morning. One of the things I love about New York City is how elevators can take you up a hundred stories and open out onto a wondrous new world. Anyone only familiar with free-standing bowling alleys the size of supermarkets with ample parking, for example, should visit Bowlmor Lanes in The Village section of Manhattan. At street level, you enter into nothing but a lobby the size of a closet with an elevator. Step in, and after a few moments and several floors, the doors open and you’re in a bowling alley. It’s like the moment when Dorothy enters the colorful world of Munchkinland from her crashed home after the tornado.

I was experiencing a similar moment as I entered the photography studio directly from the freight elevator, which, from the sidewalk below, looked fairly skeevy. The one indication that it was functioning was the vertical row of gold business nameplates affixed to the chipped painted brick wall beside it.

The only New York loft I’d seen to that point was the one Tom Hanks buys in Big and this one may not have been as up-to-date, but it was certainly as tall. The ceilings had to be at least twenty feet high. A balcony office was built at the back, opposite the awesome floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the street side, which provided plenty of natural light. The studio had a fly system, like a theatre, fer cryin’ out loud! Scaffolding concealed by heavy navy-blue curtains framed what looked to be the area in which the shoot would take place, and an unrolled white screen draped down and along the floor with spots shining their beams toward the set-up’s center.

I dropped my bag and army jacket, and made a beeline to the bathroom to change into my Spider-Man togs. Upon my egress, three young women in little black dresses had joined the small party of Babs, the photographer, his assistant and me. Their similar wardrobe suggested they would be part of the shoot, and my suspicions were confirmed moments later when they joined my in the shooting zone. But what the concept behind the picture was, I couldn’t fathom. I was instructed to strike the usual Web-Slinger fan poses, albeit professionally staged and lighted. Plus, the caliber of the “models” was far from what one would expect from a fashion shoot; less runway, more Amway. I guess, the generosity of the Marvel Mucky-Mucks only went so far.

Robert Palmer... Eat your heart out!

Test Polaroids were taken in order to get a proper feed on how the scene would appear in print before switching to film. You don’t want to discover the lighting was wrong after shooting three rolls! And no, my young readers, Polaroids is not a problem, which Inuits contract from long hours of sitting on a frozen block while ice fishing (rim shot… so to speak!). Polaroid cameras allow instant photos to be created from the device itself using a picture cartridge. For all I know, studios may still employ them, though I would bet many simply photograph into a computer via cable and print the shots immediately thereafter.

The camera used was more advanced than those generally employed at the time. The photo didn’t roll out immediately upon clicking the picture. Rather, it was pulled free of the camera and its development timed before the chemically-treated contact paper was peeled back—old school, but still effective in producing crisp, vibrant photos, far sharper than those that pop out of its cheaper brethren. And, no, you new-schoolers, viewing the prospective pix onscreen will not provide an accurate rendering of their print appearance, since computer images are backlit; paper products are not.

Surprisingly, the session took less than thirty minutes. Huh? I was told to keep the whole day open. Then, the trio of ladies thanked the photographer—some giving him a friendly kiss on the cheek—and walked out. I soon learned they were from another business in the building and the last half hour was merely a favor to them. Ooh, let’s get a professional photo with Spider-Man. I know, we’ll wear matching outfits and pose like we’re models! Either the shutterbug was double-dipping—making a little extra dosh on Marvel’s dime—or he was trying to impress one of the gals. Regardless, I felt like a prop in a department store photo area.

The stage for “Three Women and a Spidey” was struck and a new was constructed, one that made better sense. The scaffolding was maneuvered more closely together and a thick plank—what appeared to be a door, except there was no hole where a knob would have gone—was placed between. The deep grain and dark veneer suggested a desktop. Secured to its underside were a lamp, of the ubiquitous sort found in the reading rooms of libraries and law offices, and selection of Masterworks volumes, stacked flat with four notable exceptions, which were standing. The covers displayed what I presumed to be the forthcoming books in the series, collecting the second ten issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and the inaugural ten of the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, and the legendary 1975 revival of the X-Men by writer Chris Claremont/artist Dave Cockrum.

I nearly fainted; Avengers was my favorite comic series, issue #148 of which indoctrinated me into the 4-color wonders of superheroes, when I was eleven. My comics reading to that point was reserved for the more appropriately delineated “funny books” variety of the genre, published by the likes of Gold Key, Charlton and Harvey. Hot Stuff, Spooky, Little Monsters, Sarge Snorkel and Pink Panther were among my faves.

The inaugural issue of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” had been reprinted ad nauseam in various arenas. I think I may have first read it in one of the great Fireside Publishing collections of the 70s or Dynamite magazine, the early volumes of which featured classic Marvel and DC superhero origins, taken directly from the source material among its monthly slate of pop culture articles and games. Ditto with issue #4, which introduced Captain America, the star-spangled hero of comics Golden Age, to the Silver Age. The other eight stories were hard to find outside the actual issues, which for an eleven-year-old of very modest means were too expensive even in poor condition.

There’s nothing I could put here that wouldn’t get the site shut down by the FCC

The books in the set dressing were bolted to the faux desktop; L-brackets utilized for the four free standing ones. It pained me to see the collections maligned so, especially those, which weren’t even available yet. The backdrop of white was replaced with one depicting a home library, the sort one might envision in a Victorian novel. The idea of the poster was simple: Spider-Man hangs from the ceiling of an athenaeum, enjoying the latest Masterworks volume, the stories therein worthy to stand alongside other literary classics.

I was impressed with the ingenuity of the prop people. Their slight touches helped strengthen the sense that Spider-Man was truly suspended, such as gluing a wire behind the lamp’s on/off chain, so it appeared to hang naturally. A closer examination reveals its angle being slightly askew, but an observer would have to be looking for errors. The fact that it is lighted with its bulb plainly visible furthered the illusion. The wire snaked down the scaffolding into the wall plug with the aid of an extension cord. The first question any one of my friends and family members asked upon seeing the completed poster was, “How long did you have to hang like that?” I can’t think of a finer compliment to the scenery designers.

The whole thing was leveled about ten feet above my six-foot figure. I was given an undamaged copy of what appeared to be one of the new Fantastic Four Masterworks, with which to appear reading, to complete the tableau. I ravenously opened it, excited to be one of the first to savor the stories therein. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered, it was nothing more than a mock-up. The dust jacket was in truth taken from one of the first flight’s books, a high-quality graphic of one of the new wave covers carefully glued over the gilt-framed image.

In fact, none of the erect volumes were real, merely props cobbled together for the shoot. Look closely at the desktop titles in the test shots I’ve provided. The cover reproductions of the legendary Marvel issues sit atop the aforementioned gold framing, the sculpted figured of which extend over the image edges of the actual Masterworks.

Comics cognoscenti will also notice a discrepancy with the depicted second wave books. The Hulk collection shown on the left wasn’t released until the third flight, volume #8 of the entire series. The X-Men Masterworks on the far right is also incorrect on several levels. Not only doesn’t it feature the original team’s second ten issues—a volume which was indeed a part of the follow-up line-up as volume #7—it displays issue #94, one of the issues of what would become Masterworks #11, the aforementioned resurrection of the title, which combined a couple of original members with new ones, such as Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler. But when released in what would become the third stage of Masterworks, Giant-Size X-Men #1 would be on the cover of this mondo volume in which the origin of this fresh batch of genetically advanced super-teens is revealed. It hit the stands in May 1975, three months prior to #94 in August. And if you understand anything of that, you get a gold star. I wrote it and I’m confused!

I don’t believe all these to be mistakes on the part of the marketing or editorial departments, but rather forward-thinking decisions. Given the tremendous response of the initial wave, they were confident that the program would continue past its second, thus catered the staging of the poster, so it would have legs beyond those releases. Ever frugal even in the face of success! The X-Men cover mix-up? No X-cuse for that, I’m afraid.

Notice, too, that the credits, which normally appear under the cover graphics in the actual editions, have been airbrushed out of the final poster image. As mock-ups, they don’t correspond to the cover displays, and although you can’t make out these incorrect credits on screen, they are legible on the approximately 27" x 20" retailer hanger.

Masterworks photo shoot: Take 563

It seemed to take forever before the tableau was prepared and ready for its featured star. After every few test shots, production stopped while the photographer conferred with his assistant. Lighting adjustments were made, scenery minutely shifted, and then I was directed back to the hot zone for more preliminaries. I didn’t even bother with the top half of the costume. These pix were all about fine-tuning until the correct levels were achieved.

Just as the photographer seemed to have everything to his expert liking, his helper noticed what would have been a major faux pas in the scenery. The library background was hanging right side up, where it should have been upside down like every other element on the set… except me, of course. I can’t imagine what would have happened had no one realized the error before the photos were taken and sent to the Grand Poo-Bahs at Marvel for approval. And what if they hadn’t noticed and the ad went into production?!! It could’ve been a disaster of the same magnitude as Battlefield Earth.

Instead, it added several more hours to the shoot, a minor inconvenience when considered against the aforementioned what ifs. Of course, I would’ve been a lot less inconvenienced had I been getting paid by the hour like a real supermodel! At least, I was getting a free lunch, which had just arrived. Though, as starved as I was, I couldn’t dig-in like I wanted too. I was half naked in a skintight spandex bodysuit, and about to have my picture taken for a retail poster and comic-book ad, which millions of people would see. I stuck to the fresh fruit and a small salad. Still, with every swallow, I felt my hips widen and my stomach distend. Ladies, I feel your pain!

It was back to square one upon completion of our midday meal. With the library scrim correctly hung, more test photos were taken. I’d begun to get stir crazy, standing in one place for so long without anything to show for it, which explains my irreverent poses in some of these shots. Even the props were getting restless, it seemed, the flower and vase preferring suicide to enduring another minute of inertia. It simply dropped to the floor at my feet amidst the set-up pix. “Just leave it,” was the photog’s reaction. Thank goodness. Securing it back onto the doppelganger desk probably would’ve added another hour to the session, and with every moment, the sunlight shifted in the loft, which meant an accompanying tweak to the Kliegs.

This gig is driving me up the walls! Aaaahhhhh!!!

When the shutterbug was ready for my close-up, I was ready to go home. Fortunately, with his pronouncement of readiness came a renewed vigor—there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Plus my intimacy with the powers of the costume gave me the advantage. After patiently suffering the mundane suggestions of his and the assistant’s (see the test shot of me reading with my free hand in Web-Shooter mode—yawn…), I countered with a bevy of exaggerated Spidey poses that would’ve made Webhead progenitor extraordinaire Steve Ditko blush. Granted, I would only be seen from the midriff up, but it seemed an utter waste to the awesomeness which the suit brings, to have me simply standing there, like a commuter on a bus with the latest bestseller (or Kindle, if you prefer). And the unusual torso twist is evident enough in the resultant poster to magnify the ad’s impact.

One of the exciting shots composed by the photographer

“That’s a wrap!” Three of the most wonderful words I’d ever heard. It was approaching six in the evening and the shadows had given the loft a film noir appearance. I’d no idea how many rolls were shot, nor which of the myriad poses were favorites. But as I grabbed a banana for the road, I noticed a few test photos strewn about the festering buffet area and asked if I could keep them. I felt like Dorothy asking the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle guards for the half-burnt broom—how could they refuse after all I’d done? The photographer’s answer wasn’t inane like the guard’s—“Please. And take it with you.” (No, I thought I’d leave it here and pick it up later!)—but the result was the same. I grabbed them and scurried home.

“As a token of our appreciation for releasing us from the Wicked Witch’s servitude and saving Oz, here’s a broom...”

A couple of months later, I saw the handiwork of my modeling session. I’d since forgotten about the episode and was quite surprised when I saw the full-page ad in a comic whilst flying to a gig. My initial reaction was to share my moment with everyone around me, but in a plane surrounded by strangers, that type of public exaltation may’ve gotten me restrained. Besides, I couldn’t rightly reveal that it was I in the Spider-Man togs—secret identity and all. So my celebration was reduced to merely beaming in my seat, 30,000 feet in the air.

Soon thereafter, I espied the actual poster in a comics shop. True to form, I zeroed in on an egregious blemish in the composition, a pit stain beneath the outstretched arm holding the Masterworks. Sheesh, they took the time and effort to excise the creator credits beneath the mock-up books, but couldn’t remove the sweat under my arm?!! Still, I had to admit, the overall result was excellent. Okay, so I wasn’t going to unseat the popularity of Farrah and her one-piece anytime soon. But at least I wouldn’t become the object of every prepubescent’s fantasy either!

Does this suit make me look fat?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Charles Durning and Me

I was saddened by the news of actor Charles Durning’s passing last Christmas Eve. More than just a performer whose work I admired, he and I co-starred (Read: Durning starred and I made a cameo) in the 2003 straight-to-video smash-hit Dead Canaries.

During my four years as Promotions Manager at the New York Post, one of my duties was serving as the paper’s television and movie studio liaison. Founded more than two hundred years ago by Alexander Hamilton, The Post is recognized all over the world. Though more notorious than noteworthy, the infamous New York daily’s snarky reporting style—no more clearly exemplified than through its provocative, often controversial, yet always clever, headlines—in-your-face trade dress and scandalous gossip pages—Page Six, Cindy Adams, Liz Smith—have made it the newspaper every New Yorker loves to hate. It’s the newsprint equivalent of a Kardashian, derided as often as it’s embraced, building a reputation more on spectacle than substance. And like those aforementioned celebrity bottom-feeders, the infamous New York daily is laughing all the way to the bank, at least in so much as a newspaper can sustain itself in a world of dwindling print.

And yes, the New York Post is a tabloid as is the New York Daily News, Boston Herald, Chicago Sun and many other newspapers throughout the world. Tabloid is a format and has nothing to do with content. The New York Times by contrast is a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, such questionable newspapers as Weekly World News, whence such laughable stories as “Bat Child Found in Cave,” and “I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave,” have made tabloid a derogatory term. Whether The Post’s classification extends beyond the technical definition into the perceived realm of sensationalistic hoo-ha is up for debate.

The television and movie studios certainly didn’t seem to mind—which may go toward supporting the latter argument—as the provocative paper was often the go-to periodical whenever a TV show or film taking place in the Big Apple wanted a representative daily for set dressing or beyond. The New York Times may be more prestigious or arguably more widely known, but The Post has the attitude. No other paper screams New York City as heartily. Plus, with its trademark marquis—instantly recognizable from afar—The Post surpassed its highfalutin brethren in the recognizable-at-a-glance category. A mere hint of the front page—an observer need only a flash of the iconic red-striped banner—and New York City was in the house! So whenever a studio, production company or some other was jonesing for a Gotham smack upside the head for their vehicle, they called The Post seeking permission for the tantalizing tabloid’s use. And all such inquiries were routed through Yours Truly.

Studios seemed surprised when The Post, not only condoned its use, but also agreed to foot the expense for several copies of the daily to be delivered as long as the show needed them. The Sopranos, for example, which filmed at Silver Cup Studios in Queens, had a standing order. At the beginning of each season, someone from set decorating called to ensure the paper’s delivery and gratefully acknowledged my services, i.e. guaranteeing The Post appeared every day for filming.

Hell, it was a no brainer. Even if an episode does nothing more than pan a room in which an issue of the periodical lay on a coffee table during a scene, that instant equals thousands of dollars of branding airtime, more so with such popular shows as The Sopranos. As long as the storyline didn’t feature The Post being used to toilet train a dog or in some other disparaging way, Rupert Murdoch’s North American media darling was cool with its use.

Sometimes I’d be surprised with a token of appreciation by the studio personnel. The people at HBO, for example, sent me a personalized autographed photo of series star James Gandolfini, and I received a fleece jacket from the short-lived TV show, Queens Supreme—Oliver Platt, Robert Loggia and Annabella Sciorra as judges in a courthouse of the eponymous NYC borough—which I often wear around The Closet on chilly winter days.

Occasionally a movie or television program wanted to employ the tabloid in a scene, complete with a custom-designed front page, as was the case in the 1994 Nicholas Cage/Bridget Fonda romantic comedy, It Could Happen to You. In the film The Post is featured bearing the headline “Cop Weds Waitress,” which is later referred to at the end of the movie when the happy couple begins their honeymoon, taking off from Central Park in a hot-air balloon, on the side of which is emblazoned the headline. The studio—TriStar Pictures in this instance—had to submit an outline of the paper’s use in the movie, the parts of the script in which The Post is mentioned, and the creative vision of their planned custom edition, complete with proposed artwork/photo, headline and any ancillary copy.

Most often than not, however, the periodical’s part is a cameo, a flash of the front page, customized to comment on a plot point. A cut to a bundle of papers thrown from a moving delivery truck outside a newsstand with a momentary glimpse of New York’s naughty news rag; a montage of Gothamites perusing the morning’s tabloid; perhaps a character disgustedly plopping The Post before a surprised colleague with a “Have you seen the morning’s paper?”

Again, unless the plotline put the periodical in a bad light, as determined by The Post’s legal department, permission was granted with the stipulation that the custom cover be designed and created in house, using the iconic logos and correct typography, thus ensuring the paper’s (ahem) integrity. This might include suggestions of alternative headlines, if The Post deemed those provided by the studio inconsistent with the brand. More often than not, the proposed copy was on target. After all, if a production chooses The Post, there’s a reason. They understand the Gotham gazette’s rep and snarky style—it’s exactly why they pursued its use—so they cater their copy accordingly. Others may not have had quite the knack, but were grateful when presented with a more appropriate alternative.

Then there were those rare instances when some ambitious director wanted to actually film on site to get that authentic newsroom vibe. Such was the case in the 1994 Ron Howard–directed Michael Keaton/Glenn Close caper, The Paper, which I was informed was filmed at the venerable tabloid’s old headquarters on Water Street in the Financial District of Manhattan shortly before the offices were moved to the Fox Broadcasting building on the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown, where it continues to reside. The new digs did have the crew of the short-lived Oliver Platt television series Deadline pay a visit to take pictures and make notes in their pursuit of realism. A fictional great metropolitan paper, called the New York Ledger, was created to fill in for The Post, but the series was less than shy about its inspiration, as evinced by the show’s title card, which mimics the paper’s branding.

Short-lived TV series Deadline’s title and episode cards used a design inspired by The Post

In 2003, independent writer/director Robert Santoli had this crazy idea to film part of a movie in the newsroom of the tabloid. Arguably nuttier still was his intent to film the whole thing in hi-definition video, an unheard of maneuver twenty years ago, though de rigueur today. The movie, Dead Canaries, was a whodunit surrounding a series of killings of former police informants placed in the Witness Protection Program. In gumshoe parlance a canary, like a rat, is an informer, someone who “sings” to the police about the dirty doings of dirty-deed-doers. Some are placed in the program, when the information they delivered placed their lives in jeopardy of retaliation from those miscreants they fingered.

Durning as Jimmy Kerrigan in Dead Canaries

The movie’s main character Jimmy Kerrigan, played by Charles Durning, was a gritty, old-school reporter in the newspaper’s crime division, who hounds the investigation to uncover the truth. With more than two hundred roles, Durning’s career spanned stage, screen and television. He won two Tony’s, a Golden Globe, and received nine Emmy and two Oscar nominations. In 2008, he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actor’s Guild and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hell, he even appeared in a Shania Twain video and voiced a recurring character in Family Guy.

Jon Favreau co-created and hosted IFC’s Dinner for Five

But unbeknownst to most of his fans is Durning’s impressive service record. I first heard about it on an episode of Dinner for Five, an original Independent Film Channel (IFC) weekly program, which featured and was co-produced by Jon Favreau—Iron Man, Elf, Rudy, The Replacements—from 2001–2005. Every week, movie Renaissance Man Favreau hosted a dinner for four colleagues—actors, directors, comedians—during which they spoke about the business. The episode in question featured Durning, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and Charles Nelson Reilly. Burt Reynolds, who starred with the late actor in the ’90–’94 TV series Evening Shade, talked openly of Durning’s military exploits, of which the late actor was reticent throughout his life.

Drafted in 1944 at the tender age of 21, Durning was among the first soldiers to land in France during the D-Day invasion. His group actually overshot their landing zone, and he had to fight back to the beach alone. In the ensuing months, he suffered severe injuries to both thighs, right hand and head, but returned to fighting in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in December of that year. He was also rumored to have been the lone survivor of the Malmedy Massacre. After being wounded again in the chest, he was discharged with the rank of Private First Class in January of 1946. He was one of the most-decorated soldiers ever, awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, Bronze Star and WWII Victory Medal. In 2008, he received National Order of the Legion on Honor from the French consul. The actor was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Burt Reynolds talks of Durning’s military exploits on
Dinner for Five

Dinner for Five was always entertaining regardless of who was supping with Favreau, and unique in that it was an interview show without an agenda. Though naturally centered on their craft, the celebrities talked about anything and everything, whilst sharing a good meal and a drink or two. All the episodes are available on YouTube and well worth watching.

As for Dead Canaries, it was Santoli’s intention to film part of the movie in The Post’s newsroom at the height of an evening’s deadline crunch. The director was granted only a single day to shoot, and he planned to continue shooting well after, into the wee hours of the next morning. It was an insane request, especially since Santoli’s only other movie was an obscure, badly reviewed 2000 film, entitled Growing Down in Brooklyn, which starred such potential Dancing with the Stars contestants as Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore and Tina “Ginger” Louise.

Surprisingly, his request was granted.

I met Santoli and his assistant when they visited to scout the offices. I set their appointment for the early afternoon, as it would be quiet on the floor. Most of the editorial staff arrived around 3 PM to put the next morning’s earliest edition together for the 7 PM deadline and stayed late into the evening to get the latest edition of the following day, the Late City Final, prepared. Santoli was down-to-earth with a calm demeanor. I couldn’t picture him doing a lot of hand wringing regardless of the circumstances. He seemed like the type that would just go with the flow.

Replace the typewriters—the boxy mechanical devices, behind which the reporters are seated—and the Lou Grant newsroom looked much like The Post’s. EIC Col Allan’s office would be the glassed-in one at the back with the editorial offices running the breadth of room on the right.

Much like the one in the Lou Grant TV series of the late 70’s/early 80’s, The Post’s newsroom was approximately a half-block, wide-open area of desks. Located at the floor’s central core, along one side were individual, floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted editorial offices, with Editor-in-Chief (EIC) Col Allan’s at the far end. His über-office, however, was opposite the others, at the outside corner of the building, providing the ornery EIC with an amazing view of the city.

Santoli decided that he’d run the rails for the steady-cam down the aisles along the offices; not that he had any choice. The fact that he wouldn’t have the luxury of relaying the track elsewhere during the shoot due to time constraints, so he was forced to choose a vantage point, which would afford the greatest view of the newsroom, had nothing to do with it. The corridor was the only continuous swath on the floor.

I couldn’t stress enough to the director the amount of hysteria which consumed the newsroom as the daily dreaded deadline doom approached. He promised to stay out of the way and work around the frenzy. My perplexity over Col Allan’s acceding to have a film crew in his newsroom at any time, never mind the craziest part of the day deepened as I listened to Santoli and his assistant plot their shots. The EIC was known as a cantankerous, misogynistic Aussie personally plucked from the same position at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph by NewsCorp’s Overlord Rupert Murdoch. The previous EIC, Xana Antunes—the first female EIC in the two-hundred-year-old paper’s existence—was unceremoniously fired after holding the job for less than a year, despite the tabloid’s circulation figures steadily climbing during her short tenure.

Allan’s reputation preceded him, especially one Sydney story wherein during a particularly long meeting he allegedly urinated in a sink at the wet bar of a conference room in front of everyone, male and female. Soon after his arrival at the tabloid, he fired two beloved and respected editors for disagreeing with him. He oversaw the newsroom like the Commandant of a concentration camp. People walked about on eggshells, never knowing what might set him off. The promotions department often had to bring ads to Allan for approval. The first time I did so, I was terrified and wondered if I should’ve updated my resumé beforehand. I presented myself in abject fealty—slow approach, slightly bowed, eyes downcast—which seemed to be enough to appease his ego. It was an act I repeated throughout my Post career.

I just couldn’t fathom how Santoli was able to convince the EIC to play in his sandbox. Were there compromising photos I was unaware of? Did Allan owe Santoli money? Was Santoli secretly Allan’s bastard son from an Aussie affair? The traditional extortion techniques seemed to fall far short of anything, which might influence the paper’s ill-tempered EIC. Far from curbing his bellicose behavior, Allan’s notoriety served merely to fuel further offenses.

Mere days before the scheduled filming, Allan showed his hand.

It was a brilliantly evil maneuver. He nonchalantly revoked his blessing and told my boss, the VP of Marketing, he no longer wanted anyone shooting a movie in his newsroom. A flat-out refusal from the start would’ve been a mere inconvenience, whereas aborting at the last moment royally screwed Santoli and his crew who’d spent weeks storyboarding and planning around a location to which they no longer had access. To his credit, the unflappable Santoli accepted the pronouncement with understandable disappointment, but not defeat. Showing the resilience and ingenuity all struggling indie auteurs must display to survive, he asked about filming at The Post’s printing facility instead.

The New York Post printing facility in The Bronx

Only two years prior to the indie director’s request, the New York Post opened a state-of-the-art printing facility in the South Bronx. The new presses brought color to the paper, which previously had been black-and-white, save for its iconic red banner. The tabloid’s lurid headlines never looked so good. Other than four presses, a reception area and a small section of offices and a meeting room, there was little else in the facility, certainly nothing of the palpable newsroom aura of the headquarters. What Santoli lost in that regard, he hoped to more than make up for with the sounds and spectacle of running presses replacing the keyboard-clacking and human hullabaloo on the editorial floor.

Before the egg on his face could dry, my boss agreed to the movie’s change in venue. It was out of Allan’s jurisdiction, so to speak, and the Marketing VP was tight with his executive colleague in circulation who was in charge of the facility. Santoli was alerted that he wouldn’t actually be allowed to film on the floor of the presses. Only union workers and official personnel were granted access while they were rolling for obvious safety reasons. But catwalks looming over the machines provided excellent shooting opportunities and arguably more interesting shots than those taken from a ground perspective. Santoli had done his homework well and prepared for the more-than-likely malevolent machinations of The Post’s EIC. Well played, my friend…

As liaison, I was given nanny duty during the filming, which meant working my usual 9 AM to whenever—any time from 5:30 PM to just prior to the 7 PM deadline—schedule at the main office; then taking a car service to the printing facility, where I would babysit the production until the next morning at shoot’s end. Fortunately, I was given the following day off. Far from minding, I was excited. Dead Canaries would be popping my movie-shoot cherry... and I’d meet Charles Durning!

Durning played a Colonel Sanders–inspired fast-food chain owner who sold frogs legs in The Muppet Movie

I arrived just before seven, and the Dead Canaries’s crew was already in full-swing setting up for the first shot in the reception area. The track was laid for the steady-cam and the finishing touches were being applied to the lighting. All they needed was their star. As if on cue a dark mid-size sedan pulls up and out pops Charles Durning. It was his wife driving him. She’d earlier cooked dinner for the venerable actor, which they enjoyed before she drove him to the set.

Durning had turned 80 a few months earlier and it showed. The rotund thespian moved slowly, though without aid, and emitted an air of warmth and congeniality, which made you want to give him a big hug. I was in awe just the same. And yet, I doubted whether the octogenarian had any chops left as I watched him shuffle about as if he carried the weight of eight decades on his back.

Little did I suspect that the seasoned movie veteran was merely pacing himself. The moment the slate cracked and Santoli yelled “Action!” the Durning that painstakingly ambled out of the sedan moments earlier was replaced by the vibrant character actor I knew from the screen. It was a revelation. If I hadn’t borne witness to the transformation, I would’ve testified that he’d been replaced with a younger double in exceptional makeup. This was not the metamorphosis of Lon Chaney becoming a werewolf in The Wolfman. Durning’s was an on/off switch, which put the second it took The Robot in Lost in Space to come back to life after replacing his power pack seem like waiting for a new bottle of Heinz ketchup to pour. Then “Cut!” Just as instantly, the actor returned to grandpa mode.

I never realized how much waiting was involved on a movie set. Between every take, the crew had to reset everything to the exact conditions as when the scene began: cameras repositioned, props put back in order, lighting recalibrated, actors returned to their opening marks. Nothing was taken for chance. A set photographer carefully took shots of every scene beforehand, so the crew could reference them for each take. It was a good fifteen minutes before the next “Roll ’em!” and the scene was nothing more than Durning speaking with another character, both merely standing and facing each other. The ratio of action to stoppage in a football game is greater. I couldn’t see how Santoli expected to get anything filmed during what now appeared to be too little time.

Durning and Mel Brooks in To Be or Not To Be

Any notes Santoli had were directed to the crew. There may have been a few to the talent, were they less seasoned, but Durning needed no pointers. He was mesmerizing. Each take, I noticed the subtlest changes. A nuanced smirk in a spot where once before was a slight grimace; a narrowing of the eyes taking the place of an understanding look; varying pauses and phrasing of lines; all legitimate and true to his role as Jimmy Kerrigan.

Each time, the director abruptly broke the magic. Wha—? No! I’d silently shout. Keep the cameras rolling. He’s perfect! It was like falling victim to someone with ADD controlling the remote as you’re trying to watch television. Finally, the directorial blue-balling was too much for me to handle and I retreated to the conference area to read. But before I did, Santoli asked me if I’d like a photo with Durning. The magnanimous auteur understood I was volunteered to serve as movie caretaker, extending my workday by twelve hours, and wanted to thank me in some regard.

“Yeah, if it’s okay with Mr. Durning,” I replied.

“Sure, kid. C’mover here,” the legendary thespian said, waving me to one of the plush seats in the lobby. He probably welcomed the opportunity to sit for a spell as I crouched next to him and put my arm around his shoulders. To complete the tableau, Durning held up the custom edition of The Post, created for Dead Canaries, the design of which I oversaw in the promotions department. I couldn’t speak through the shit-eating grin on my face as the set photographer took the shot. It took all of two minutes, but it’s a moment I still treasure.

Santoli supplied the staged photo for the custom New York Post cover, the creation of which I oversaw, featured in
Dead Canaries

Midway through the evening, we broke for, uh… dinner, I guess you’d label it, if your usual routine calls for working from approximately 5PM to 5AM. A chafing dish of lasagna was put out with paper dishware and plastic utensils, and a plate of cookies alongside a selection of sodas, water, coffee and tea. I’m sure the fare on the set of big studio movies is geometrically better, but it was more than I expected for such a small, low-budget picture—I’m sure union rules dictated a certain level of quality when it came to the food provided on set. The lasagna was delicious and the treats were of the Pepperidge Farm variety, as opposed to some generic box-store cookie brand. I was more tired than hungry, but hoped eating would help keep me awake. I’d been up 18 hours and overcome with fatigue.

During the break, Durning sat at the conference table with everyone else and chatted. There wasn’t an iota of vanity, pretension or aloofness in his manner. The young women of the cast and crew flocked to him like seagulls to a garbage scow. The smile and twinkle in the legend’s eyes clearly showed his fondness for talking to the ladies, but there wasn’t any lascivity behind it on either side. He exuded charm and was loveable in the way of a beloved uncle.

Durning with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie

The second half of the filming would take place on the catwalk overlooking the printing presses, which were in full swing. This meant moving the equipment and relaying the steady-cam track. As Durning waited, to the ladies as they walked by he sung romantic ditties of a bygone era, which featured their names in the lyrics. I just marveled and thought, How could anyone not fall in love with this man?

Shooting started anew. I’d gained a couple of hours wakefulness with the food I’d eaten, especially the cookies and coffee one-two combo, but I was suddenly crashing. I was dead on my feet. How much longer? I felt like George Clooney at the end of From Dusk Till Dawn, down to just he, Juliette Lewis and three silver bullets against a dozen or so remaining vamps with sunrise the only hope of escape. Even the rumble from the presses couldn’t penetrate the exhaustion. The actors were unintelligible over the din. I nearly mentioned the problem to Santoli. Then I realized the script would be dubbed in later. Besides the effort to intercede during a lull in the action seemed too much. Suddenly, the director turned in my direction.

“Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to try to get you into the next scene.”

WHAT?!! Suddenly I was as alert as a prairie dog. Sure, I’d spoken to Santoli of my acting education when I gave him the tour of The Post headquarters, and perhaps subconsciously I’d hoped he might give me a walk-on. But no mention of his doing so ever entered our conversations, and what with the shoot wrapping up soon, I’d forgotten all about it. I must have looked a sight; I felt like a wet rag. I tucked on my shirt and straightened my tie to look as presentable as possible, and wondered about makeup.

I needn’t have worried. My walk-on was simply that. During a conversation betwixt Durning’s Kerrigan and another character, me and one of the crew, also making a cameo, greeted our workmates as we strolled past and continued down the catwalk. A quick appearance of my side and slightly longer view of my back was all the audience would see. Still, Santoli took take after take. Apparently, the hours had finally caught up to Durning. But the veteran thespian eventually came through on the sixth take, and my moment of celluloid, uh, videotape was in the can.

Soon thereafter, Santoli yelled, “It’s a wrap,” and my virginal movie shoot had come to an end. My nanny duties, however, were not yet complete, not until director and crew packed their equipment and drove off into the dawn. Durning had no such stipulations. The sedan reappeared as if by magic, and the venerable actor and his devoted wife left the scenes of the crime drama. Blessedly, the Dead Canaries contingent’s striking the set didn’t last nearly as long as the set-up between takes. And soon, like the cheese, I stood alone, waiting for the scheduled car service to take me home.

A few weeks later, Santoli invited me to the Wrap Party at a neighborhood bar in Manhattan. It was terribly kind of him to do so, and he graciously allowed the Wondrous Audrey to accompany me. There, he presented me with the photo of me and Charles Durning who was sadly not in attendance.

Your Nattering Narrative with Charles Durning on the set of
Dead Canaries

An advanced screening videotape of Dead Canaries arrived at The Post a week later, but I never got a chance to see it. The VP of Marketing had first dibs, followed by the Promotions Director. I was then on vacation for two weeks, and a few days after my return, I was laid off. I never got the opportunity to see my screen debut or a single frame of the movie for that matter. But at least I had the picture of me and Charles Durning, a true hero among heroes... in my closet!