Milt Abel is a stand-up comedian traveling the world, and places closer.

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Peas and Carrots or Basil Rathbone

By Milt Abel | July 20, 2011

| July 20, 2011

Peas and Carrots or Basil Rathbone

In late May I was an extra for a public service announcement commercial for Wal Mart. While we were shooting at an actual Wal Mart in Forrest Grove, Oregon they kept the store open and you can imagine how much fun it is to walk around a Wal Mart, dressed as a manager, name-tag and all, and have no obligation to behave  in a manner that would allow you to keep your job. I didn’t misbehave, but I wore a mischievous grin through most of the morning as I walked throughout the store between takes, occasionally telling legitimate employees who were standing around chatting to “find something to clean.”

I say an ‘extra’ but there were only five of us on-camera. An extra at a shoot is usually in a crowd, maybe on a sidewalk walking past the leads, or sitting at nearby tables in a restaurant scene. I’ve done this kind of work a few times early in my entertainment career and you’re asked to murmur to add audio ambiance in the background, in fact that’s the cue word from the assistant director. “Background!” they’ll yell, and you’re supposed to start walking, applauding, or murmuring. I was told my someone in those early days that repeating ‘peas and carrots’ makes for a full-textured murmur, but the artist in me couldn’t stick to just that, and I came up with ‘Basil Rathbone’ the name of a wonderful Hollywood actor from the ’30’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s. Bringing up old movies to your fellow extras is a sure-fire way to fill the idle time you are instructed to keep sitting at your table for undisclosed lengths. Extras are not included in any meetings or discussions about the day’s plans. We are talked to, because unlike the furniture, we might wander off. Esteem-building it is not to be called ‘Background.’

In the early 1980’s when I was just starting out in San Francisco, I did some extra work. I’m in ‘The Right Stuff’ and if you have a DVD player with a good freeze-frame you can spot me. During the shoot I had a scene were I looked right into the camera, just me and a couple other news reporters, and when I went opening day I saw they had edited it to show Sam Shepard concurrently listening to the press conference I was featured in;   he smirked across the screen and I ended up on the cutting room floor. I vividly remembering walking home from that matinee feeling very disappointed, hurt, and sorry for myself. If I could have kicked a can as I walked, shoulders hunched and hands buried on my pockets, I would have. But it was San Francisco and it’s very hilly, you kick a can once and it’ll roll for blocks.

Another job of extra work back then, was a day spent on the set of ‘Partners in Crime’, a very short-lived television show that starred Lynda Carter and Loni Anderson as crime-stopping private-eyes. The show failed, barely lasting one full season, but it wasn’t because of lack of cleavage.
The production had a large warehouse with a few standing sets; Loni and Lynda’s office, their apartment, with lots more room to build others for each episode’s needs . I wasn’t used right away so I wandered around by myself looking at all the ‘movie magic.’
I was impressed by one huge moving truck-sized reproduction of San Francisco’s nighttime skyline; very detailed and spanning the length of four of my studio apartments.
I turned when I heard the shout of ‘camera rehearsal’ (a dry run-through of what was supposed to happen on-camera, where they can see that everything stays in focus and actors hit their marks).  A set not far from me was fully lit but I could only see a small portion of the action because it was on the other side of a prop-built wall, my only view through a window. Even that was obscured because someone was at the window, shifting about. I began to walk slightly forward, leaning to the side to peek over the shoulder of the guy at the window to see onto the set; when I got a view of the other side of the wall I saw the camera and it was pointed right at me. I heard a voice boom “Who is that back there!?”
They were shooting this guy, a burglar, breaking into their high-rise office and I appeared over his shoulder, floating against the San Francisco nighttime skyline.
I wasn’t used at all that day. As an extra you have to wait around all day; my punishment was that I had to wait around all day for nothing. At lunchtime they fed me, but I sat by myself and didn’t even murmur.

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