A jobbing actor recalls shooting a scene for an indie film, waiting for a friend to show up for his cameo; by Alan John Gerstle.
Out of nowhere, a couple - they must have been no more than three feet from me - caught my attention. The girl said something, but since they had startled me, I only made out her last few words.
"You were great. We saw it two weeks ago." She was short, thin, and blonde. Her wedding band glistened in the sunlight.
"Really great," her husband added.
"Thanks. Glad you liked it," I said, still not understanding what they were talking about. I vaguely nodded my appreciation, smiled, and continued on my way. When I reached the end of the block, and waited for the light to turn green on Sixth Avenue, I remembered that until the previous Sunday, I had been performing in a play downtown on Carmine Street in the Village. The production had closed, and I was out of work, and thus on my way to an audition. It usually doesn't take me that long to put things together, but some nagging thought must have disoriented me.
It was almost eight o'clock when I descended the steps of the underground PATH station on 33rd Street to take the train home to New Jersey. Once aboard, I sat and watched the fleeting underground girders fly by through the window opposite, and I regarded my tired reflection. It was then I realized it was the first day of summer. Then for some reason, I began to think of Frankie Greene.
When I reached my stop, I hurried off, wanting to get in an hour at the gym before it closed. I climbed the steps to my attic apartment, opened the door, and threw my satchel on the sofa. I grabbed my gym bag, and started to go back out. But something lured me to the other side of my loft, towards the small square window from which I can see the Statue of Liberty. The diversion caused me to lose my momentum. I sat back down, and that's when I thought of Frankie Greene again. His image seemed more focused, almost palpable, as though he or maybe his spirit was in the room with me. Then I made the connection: That night it was also Friday and it was late June. It was hot that night as well.
Brooklyn was warm and muggy, but it was even hotter inside the bagel shop where we were filming. The cast and crew were getting edgy because it was two o'clock in the morning. There were two huge spotlights that the tech people kept adjusting. A fan was rotating from a rod attached to the tin ceiling. It was a high ceiling with an egg and dart design bordering the perimeter. But the blades of the fan moved much too slowly to create a significant breeze.
I was acting in an independent feature film about a Brooklyn family that owned and operated a bakery that made and sold bagels. The plot centered on the conflict between the son and the father, and the future of the family business. We were shooting sequences out of order as was usual, and we were preparing for the final scene of the production. The situation was that the son and father are working together by the ovens, when the son tells the dad he's decided to abandon the business. I was playing the role of the son's best friend. My main purpose in the scene is to thwart a stick-up guy who enters with a ski mask and a gun, just as the father and son are arguing. But the real life complication was more desperate than the one in the film. Frankie Greene was playing the assailant, and he hadn't shown up yet. It was his only scene in the movie, and he just needed to say a few lines of dialogue.
We were shooting in a real bagel store. Ralph Bouton, the director, had been able to locate a bagel business in Brooklyn whose owner allowed us to use his store as a set, provided we limited filming to the hours when the shop was closed - midnight to six. Ralph sealed the deal by guaranteeing that the name of the bagel shop would be displayed prominently in the credits.
Ralph had remarked that the reality of a real bagel shop would be an asset to the project. He claimed that working in the middle of the night would heighten the oppressiveness of the atmosphere, and thereby increase the tension between the actors. It was also a way to save money on production. It was a low budget film, and we were working for minimum SAG wages. The carrot that enticed all of us was that Ralph knew lots of film people, so if the film was even modestly successful, we'd have a chance to meet some directors and casting people. We had been shooting for three weeks, and the main thought on our minds was that we were finally wrapping things up. But where was Frankie?
The world of independent film actors in New York is small. And I had worked with several members of the cast and crew before, including the actor who was playing the father. He worked in security at a club in SoHo, where his nickname was Bernie the Bouncer. In a mafia movie, he could have been typecast as a Jewish hit man. I knew Ralph from school, as well as Michael Bresbaum, the screenwriter. Michael had attended the filming, but he hadn't shown up either.
"Hey Ralph," Bernie said. "This Greene fellow doesn't show in 10 minutes, I'm playing the hold-up guy."
Ralph was talking to the cameraman. He looked at Bernie and shrugged. But that didn't stop Bernie.
"What do you say?" Bernie hollered. "Give me a ski mask and you can crosscut between me playing the father and me playing the bad guy."
Ralph ignored the remark, and returned to confer with the cameraman and the woman who was managing the script - Ralph's girlfriend.
"Hey," Bernie said, refusing to let it alone. "Nobody will notice. I swear." Bernie yawned, and then looked at me.
"Hey, Louie, where'd you find that Greene guy anyway?"
"Old friend," I said. "And it's Louis."
"Some friend, Loo-us," he said.
I recommended that Ralph audition Frankie. Six months before, I had run into Frankie on the subway on my way to visit my mother in Woodside. I was riding on the Number 7 subway line, traveling from Manhattan to Queens. I was standing, and reading the entertainment section of The Times. After five minutes or so, the train arose from the tunnel and entered daylight, pulling into the Queens Plaza station, where it stopped and emitted a harsh sound, like a sea mammal rising from the ocean. The doors opened, a few passengers got on, and from the corner of my eye, I could see someone walking towards me. It was Frankie, waving his arms and shouting as he approached.
"Louis! Hey Louis. Louis. Hey." I looked up, shaking the newsprint from my eyes.
"It's me. Frankie Greene." Frankie put out his hand and we shook.
"How's the acting going?" he asked. He looked me up and down, as though he were trying to detect some physical or mental transformation in me, now that I was acting regularly. His had an anticipatory, admiring look. But in his voice carried a tone of disappointment.
"It's work, Frankie. You know. Just like everything else."
"Bull-shit," Frankie said. "Work? I'm working in a copy shop for minimum wage. That's work. Wish I could make something of myself." He paused as though thinking of what the something was he could be making.
"Should have gone to college," Frankie said, and ran his hand through his thick, wiry hair. I was always amazed he could actually get his fingers through without getting them entangled.
"What are you interested in?" I said.
Frankie averted his eyes and stared at the floor. He was thinner than when I had last seen him, scrawny in fact. I imagined if a strong wind came by, it could just whisk him away.
"What about acting?" he said, suddenly animated.
"What about it?" I said.
"I'm interested in acting. Honest to god. You probably think I'm saying that because that's what you're doing. But I'm not. You must think that's dumb," he said.
"It's not dumb if you're serious. Take an acting class."
"You mean it? Me?"
"Why not you?" I said.
"Oh wow, oh wow. An acting class. Maybe I'll get famous."
"First take the class," I said.
"Yeah," Frankie said. "I guess I'm jumping the gun."
Then Frankie became sullen, and began staring out the window. He was studying his reflection, and didn't realize I was watching him. I tore off a piece of newspaper, took out a pen, and wrote down a phone number.
"Watcha doing?" Frankie asked.
"Here. The phone number of an acting school. Cheap classes. In the Village. Call them up," I said.
"Yeah?" Frankie said.
"You want to try acting? Call. Call and go down there."
"Thanks, Louis. Wow. Acting school," Frankie said.
"Just sign up. It's easy," I said.
"Wow," Frankie said. "Thanks." He stared at my scrawls of blue ink as though they were strands of smoke from a magic lantern forming a secret message.
"Gotta get off next stop," I said. "My mother's station."
The doors opened and I stepped onto the platform.
"Wow, Louis. You're an actor. A real actor," he said.
"It's work, Frankie. It's just work."
I don't know if Frankie heard me. The doors had shut, and the train was starting to move. Frankie was standing on the platform, smiling and waving. He held the piece of newspaper between his thumb and forefinger and pointed at it with his other hand. He had a big grin.
It turned out he took the acting course after all. A couple of months later I got a postcard, announcing a series of scenes being put on by acting students. Frankie's name was among the list of actors. Unfortunately, it was an evening I had to work.
"Where the hell is this guy?" the cameraman said, the words exploding from his mouth. He wiped his forehead with a rag, and took a swig of Gatorade.
"Yeah, Louis," Ralph Bouton said, looking accusingly in my direction.
"What are you looking at me for?" I said. "It was you and Michael that gave him the part." I sighed and picked up a trade paper someone had left by the counter. I'd be unemployed starting the next day. If Frankie ever showed.
Finally, the front door opened, and we all looked up. The first thing I noticed was the beard, and the intensity around the eyes, so I knew it wasn't Frankie. It was Michael, the screenwriter. Michael had first alerted me to the plans about producing the film. He said he could set up an audition for me because Ralph "owed him one." I auditioned and was offered a part. Then I mentioned Frankie, and asked Michael if he'd audition him, since Michael owed me one.
Michael met Frankie at Frankie's audition, and took a liking to him. He wanted Frankie in the movie, claiming he'd be perfect for the bit part, even though Michael had never participated in an audition in his life. Michael and Frankie ended up going to a bar together a few times.
"Frankie Greene show up?" Michael asked. His question was met with a chorus of nos.
"Didn't think so," he said. "Fucking guy. I dropped out of graduate school for this film. Be right back." Michael pulled out his cell phone and went out into the street.
Michael had been pursuing a doctorate in Environmental Science. He had enrolled in the program because his girlfriend was in it, and he wanted to be close to her, but then they had broken up. Apparently, this gave him the motivation to pursue his true calling.
"With our luck, he quit on us," said the lead, the actor who was playing the part of the son. I didn't know him personally, but he was a good casting choice. He seemed to display a perpetual expression of uncertainty, a lost soul pretending to be found. He took a few steps towards me.
"Man, this is beat," he said. Then he turned, looked around the bagel place, and displayed a sardonic smile.
"How did I end up with this gig?" Then he paused a moment. "I should have gone to medical school," he said.
Apparently, Bernie overheard him. "You in medical school? What? As a cadaver?"
Then Bernie glanced around the set, and displayed an exaggerated, slow-motion shake of the head.
Who could blame him? The fluorescent lights cast a sickening green shadow on everything, as though sadistically lauding their triumph over the movie lights, which had been turned off while we waited. I looked at the white-faced wall clock over the bagel oven. It had black minute and hour hands. The timepiece reminded me of the ones that held sway over elementary-school classrooms. I noticed Bernie was also eyeing the clock.
"What? Midnight? No way," Bernie said, pointing at the clock face.
"It's been midnight since we started filming," the son said. "It's broke."
I looked out into the street, magically anticipating that Frankie would walk through the door at any moment. Instead, I saw a patrol car pass, and then a street cleaning truck with huge circular brushes that made me think of walrus whiskers.
"Welcome to Hollywood," Bernie said to his "son." Then he took out a pack of cigarettes.
"Mind if I smoke?" he announced to no one in particular. "I didn't think so," he said, not waiting for a response.
He pulled a wrinkled pack from his apron, opened it, displayed an expression of disgust, and threw it on the floor.
"Figures I'd be out," he said.
"That stuff will kill you," the son said.
"I'm shaking. I'm really shaking," Bernie said.
Then I noticed Michael on the other side of the door, finishing up a phone conversation. He pushed the door open and reentered: this time with a disquieted look. He held onto the door handle a beat too long, then slowly let the door go. It seemed to float shut like a handkerchief falling to the floor. Michael took a few more steps, and then stopped. He turned his head slowly and deliberately, pausing briefly to study the demeanor of each of the actors. When he got to me, he paused. An inquisitive expression crossed his face.
Knowing Michael, I didn't see this as something odd. He had a habit of staring when he spoke, but now the intensity in his expression seemed concentrated. The effect was enhanced by his wire-rimmed glasses that magnified the size of his eyes. I recalled that several years before, when I first met Michael, I thought he looked like a reincarnation of the young Sigmund Freud. I also knew he was something of a gun nut. I looked to see if any object was protruding from under his shirt or from the bottom of his trouser leg.
"I just spoke with Frankie's brother," Michael said. "Frankie killed himself."
There were glances and gasps, and a few sighs, then disbelieving shakes of the head. I began to feel faint.
"Now I really need a fucking smoke," Bernie said. An electrician threw him a pack. Bernie caught it, took out a cigarette, and lit it with a lighter he retrieved from his apron pocket.
"When did this happen?" Ralph asked. I couldn't tell if he was more concerned about Frankie or finishing the film.
"Fuck when," Michael said. "Two hours ago." Michael picked up a bagel from a bin and stared at it
"Fuck this shit," Michael shouted, and hurled the bagel towards the back of the shop, where it bounced against the wall.
"Frankie jumped off a roof." Then Michael glanced at each of us, as though looking for someone to cast blame on.
"Hand me a bottle of water, would you please?" Ralph asked his girlfriend.
"Don't worry. We'll finish the fucking movie," Michael said.
"I'm not thinking about the movie," Ralph said. He pulled the cap off the bottle, took a long, deep swallow, and then sat back down in his chair. His girlfriend started massaging his neck.
"This is beat," said the actor playing the son.
"You sure got a way with words," Bernie said. The son gave Bernie the finger.
Michael and Ralph ignored the interchange. They were looking at one another, waiting to see who would speak first. Michael broke the spell.
"Look, everybody wants to finish this thing and get out of here, right?" Michael said, trying to hide any evidence that he might feel despairing. The response was a few weary "yeas" and shakes of the head.
"I'll play the hold-up guy. It's just one line, right?" Michael said.
"You wrote it," Ralph said.
"Who was this Frankie Greene guy?" the son said.
"That's who he was. A guy," Michael said. "Like the rest of us."
"Speak for yourself," Bernie said, exhaling a stream of cigarette smoke. "Better yet, just shut the fuck up."
Michael adjusted his jacket. "You want to shut me up?" he said.
Bernie drew deeply on the cigarette, flicked it on the floor, and stamped it out.
"Bresbaum here is going to make us stars. Right Bresbaum? Harvey Keitel is going to promote the film, right Mike, baby?" Bernie said.
Michael just stared at him. Bernie looked around the store, as though getting ready to deliver a prepared speech.
"I don't know about the rest of you, but that's exactly what Michael told me after my audition. 'We'll definitely make it to Sundance, and from there, our careers are going to take off.'" Bernie raised his arm in an arc, imitating a rocket being launched.
"First we need a film to promote," Ralph said. "Let's just set up like we did in rehearsal, and Michael will deliver Frankie Greene's line.
"Okay with me," the "son" said. "Anything to get out of here."
Michael nodded, and began walking towards the costume rack in back, repeating his line aloud.
"Open the fucking register. You don't, the bagels won't be the only things with holes. Open the fucking register. You don't..."
"You nailed it," Ralph shouted out to him. Ralph got up, and conferred with the cameraman.
"OK, let's get ready," Ralph said. "Places everybody."
We found our marks, while Michael reappeared from the rear of the store, pulling the ski mask over his head.
"Michael, you want to do a run through first?" Ralph said.
"No need," Michael said.
"Sure?" Ralph said.
"It's just one fucking line," Michael said, handing Ralph his glasses.
"OK. Michael, stand outside the door, and look for my cue. I'll point to you when you should enter."
"With your middle finger I hope," Bernie said. But Michael was already pulling the front door open.
So we took our places, the father and son by the oven, and me by the counter. Then the lights came up. It took about ninety minutes and five takes to complete the one minute scene.
"That is a wrap," Ralph said. "Thank you for your hard work. I'll be in touch."
"Five minutes to six," Bernie said, looking at his phone. He texted somebody, then slipped the phone into his back pocket.
Outside, the dim blue light of morning began to appear. The shop owner would be showing up any minute. Then, not more than ten minutes after the crew began striking the equipment, a taxi pulled up to the curb.
"My ride," Bernie said. He stretched his arms, threw off his apron, and, still in make-up, started walking towards the door. He seemed to have the hint of a limp.
"See you at Sundance everyone," he said. Then he gave Michael an army salute and was out the door.
"After that, Cannes," Michael shouted. But Bernie was gone.
"And I'm going for coffee," one of the lighting guys said as he approached the front door. "Anyone want some?" His inquiry elicited a chorus of "yeahs."
"The subway for me," I said as I put the last of my gear into my knapsack.
"To New Jersey?" Michael said. "I'll drive you. You don't want to go home alone."
"Hey guys," Ralph said. He was sitting at the counter with a calculator and a notebook.
"Let me know when the thing for Frankie is scheduled."
"The thing?" Michael said.
"There's going to be a funeral, isn't there? A memorial of some kind?" Ralph said.
Michael and I both shrugged. The thought of attending a funeral was too much for us to consider.
"Be in touch," Michael said, and we left the shop together just as the Italian owner was walking in.
"Last day, right fellows? How'd it go?" he said enthusiastically. But no one responded.
A few days later, I received a phone call from Frankie's brother, informing me about an upcoming memorial. I never made it, though. Three days after the film wrapped, I got invited to Santa Fe for a theater festival. It included first-class airfare, lodgings, the whole bit. I learned Michael didn't go either. He mentioned some important meeting with his professors.
"So tonight I think of you, Frankie Greene," I said aloud, sitting alone on my sofa. I got up and walked to my little square window, and watched the blinking lights in the harbor. I looked at the giant Statue and its multi-colored array.
"Frankie," I said. "You can't fool me. I know you're out there. You just haven't reached earth yet. No different than the rest of us. By the way, making copies isn't so bad, my friend. Yeah, I know the pay should be better. But we all need copies. More than we need another indie film floating around the universe. When people ask me if you were having any troubles, or question me about what happened that night, I tell them you quit acting and became an astronaut. You'd be amazed how impressed people get. Now and then someone gives me a weird look, but fuck 'em. You know what I'm talking about."
It was getting late, or maybe I just felt it was getting late. I took a last glimpse out the window. It was an unusually clear night. I noticed a light in the night sky that didn't look like the others. It could have been a star. Maybe it was a satellite. I'm no astronomer. What made it different, though, was that it seemed to be winking at me, in fact, more like it was waving.
I knew I wouldn't have trouble falling asleep.