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!