On Set. A Day In The Life Of A Background Actor In The 1950s

Ever wonder how an extra spends the day on the set. This is a quick look at the 1950s extra routine.

BOOKING 

This is the most laborious part of the extra’s life. To get booked you had to ‘call in’ to all of the 4 casting agencies that handled all the extra casting calls in the 1950s. The big dog, Central Casting, provided 80% of the extra work. They controlled the extra casting for all major studios. The other 20% were divided up between Allied Casting, Independent Casting and, Hollywood Casting. The 1950’s newcomer, “TV Series“, were thought to be a fluke and consequently ignored by the major studios and Central Casting during the early TV series years. The three independent casting agencies found a very lucrative income by becoming the casting offices of choice by these upstart TV companies. And very good for me too. It was when I was booked by one of the other three agencies for a day on the new series, The Black Saddle, that I was able to secure my stand-in position for Russell Johnson and a great 2 years working all the shows at Four Star Productions.

Remember those weird phones of the 1950s with that funny looking dial. Yep that’s how we connected with Central Casting. Dialing, endlessly. 7 numbers to be dialed over and over from 3PM to 7Pm in hopes of getting thru the infuriating busy signal, finally getting a ring and hoping to hear the female voice say “Central Casting”, then hoping she would not say “Try Later”. What a sensation when she says “Hold The Line”. Shortly, one of the 3 Central Casting directors rattles off a booking for you in machine gun rapid fire sequence. Better remember it fast. There is no second chance. He hangs up and you are booked. Yippee.

There are other ways to get booked. After a few years when you have learned the ropes of the business, you sneak on the lot and hit all the stages that have productions shooting. Find the AD (Assistant Director) and ask him to book you. Believe it or not, I got many bookings that way.

Another way, become a stand-in as I did towards the end of my extra career. You work steady and don’t have to call in for another job. You get your next day’s booking at the end of the day directly from the AD. Strangely in the 1950s standing in was considered the lowest grubbiest job, the very bottom of the entertainment industry food chain. Whereas today, stand-ins are treated like British royalty. So when I volunteered to stand-in for Russell Johnson, I was instantly made a part of the Black Saddle crew.

ARRIVAL

All the major studios operated much the same in the 1950s. So let’s use MGM. I arrive in Culver City 1 hour before my call time. I don’t know how long it will take me to find a parking space. Hopefully close to the studio. The reality – far away with many blocks to walk to MGM.

There was a special entrance for extras at the eastern end of MGM on Washington Blvd. (It is now Sony Studios). I stand in line at the barred window where I am to check in. I’ve been here many times so the checker knows me by sight. He gives me my voucher and buzzes open the security door next to the window allowing me access. The voucher is actually a mini contract for one day of work. About 6 by 10 inches. It has your name and the show you will work on and your starting time preprinted. On the back is tiny unreadable legal double talk which releases any pictures or filming of your person to the producers for ever more. There are many small boxes in which the AD will enter any adjustment you may earn during the day such as full body makup, rain, smoke etc. See my SEG blog for more on these adjustments. 

I go to my assigned stage.

There is always some initial confusion. The stage is huge and noisy. All around carpenters are hammering, painters are painting every inch of space holding a partially finished set and I have no idea where or who I am reporting too. Often you will see several extras walking aimlessly about the stage in the same quandary as myself. After a picturesque tour of the stage I see a number of other extras gathered and I join them.

Soon a 2nd or 3rd AD greets us and directs us to the extra’s holding area. This is an area where we are to remain and the AD can easily find us when we are to work in a scene. We can be on the same stage – or another stage nearby if the call is too big to comfortably hold all the extras.

Shortly after meeting with the AD he will escort us to wardrobe to be checked for the correct clothes or to change into our costume for this scene. From there the AD will take us to make-up. We will again be checked for the proper make-up on our faces and hands. In the 1950s we men always had to arrive at the studio with the correct make-up, I owned my own make up kit with many Max Factor selections. This was due to the sensitivity of the new medium “Technicolor”. If we did not have makeup on our faces we looked like ghosts. If it is a period set, make-up will paste itchy beards to our cheeks and add falls to the back of our heads.

WHILE WAITING

We are settled in our holding area, make up and wardrobe done. We will usually have a big pot of coffee and donuts for our comfort.

We pair off in groups. The poker players, the blackjack players, the chess players, the girls knitting circle, the talkers circle and, the Pitch players circle if there are cowboys on the call. (Pitch is the favorite pastime of cowboys. Whenever I worked on Bonanza, Hoss, aka Dan Blocker, loved to play Pitch. And I truly enjoyed playing with him for the few moments before I went broke 🙂 He was so much fun I could not resist getting in the game with him.)

I start with the poker group but don’t last long. Then amble over to the chess group my favorite pastime in the 1950s. Periodically an AD walks around selecting the people to use in the next scene. Our circles get smaller. Some 5 1/2 hours later we get a one hour lunch break. If we are on location we will be supplied with lunch. At the studio we are on our own.

Several of us younger guys get some fast food at the commissary and rush out to visit all the other stages that have a production shooting. We are going to beat the bushes to try to line up some more bookings. We search for the ADs on the various stages, make some polite small talk and attempt to casually inform them we are available.

After a few years working around the studios in Hollywood, we get to know many ADs and they are vaguely familiar with us in turn. They remember how reliable we are and how well we respond to their requests or to put it another way they know the agitators who always disrupt the sets with meaningless demands. For the good extras (like myself) that translates to bookings from beating the bushes…. possibly 10% of my work.

At 3 pm if we know we are not going to be called back to the same set for the next day, we try to get to a payphone to call Central Casting. There were many pay phones scattered throughout the lot. One extra will write down the names of all the people wanting to call Central Casting. Central Casting allows a single person calling in all the names of his fellows on the call since they understand how difficult it is to make a phone call while you are working (remember no cell phones in those days).

If you are expecting a booking on a different show you are allowed to call a special number at Central Casting called Station M. For instance you may have had a fitting for a call that will work the next day. You must call station M to accept that call. If you don’t call by 6 PM it will be given to another extra.

IN THE SET

At any moment an AD will stop in our area, look around, and point to some of us. We are going in the set. If it is a restaurant or theater audience set we will all be called into the set. Most of the best directors will take a few minutes to explain to us what the scene will be about and what the director wants us to react to or with. That helps a lot and you can see the effect in most Academy Award movies in how well the extras perform their parts.

I’ll use the beer garden scene in The Student Prince for an example. The first day for this scene we are all called into the set. We are carefully selected by the AD and director for each position we are to occupy.

All these kinds of scenes begin with a KEY shot. This will be a shot in which the camera is placed in such a way that it can record the entire set at once. During the key shot, all the actors go through the entire scene and so do all of us extras. It will be rehearsed as often as necessary and recorded over and over until the director is satisfied.

During the rehearsal, adjustments are made, extras are re-positioned for better balance. There are endless interruptions by the lighting grips to get the most perfect color possible. If the director does not like a door or table or tree, the carpenters and painters will instantly build a new one. Little by little the confusion dies down and the director calls for the first live camera shot.

On a major movie like this the key shot could take all day as it must be perfect. On Rebel Without A Cause we had one key shot recorded 36 times before Kazan was satisfied. If an actor has trouble with some lines, they will be skipped during the key shot if the director had already decided to do that in a later close-up.

When the director says “CUT PRINT”, that is the signal he is satisfied and this shot will be used in the editing room. However, the director may want several prints perhaps with the actors moving a different way or even in different costumes. So we may continue making key shots for quite some time. Once the key shot is approved by the director, there can be no further changes in positions of the actors and extras during the ensuing close-ups. Usually every line and action is performed again and again during individual closeups, two shots, three shots, group shots. aerial shots etc.

Because Ann Blyth moves around the various tables in the Beer Garden set, it took us over three weeks to get all the closeups and groups shots necessary to get a good mix of shots available for the editing of the movie. And another two weeks to get the arrival of the prince at the station and the march to the beer garden. Great time and compensation for us extras.

These sets for a major movie would take very long days. 12 hour days are common. It takes a long time to set up a single closeup or group shot because the lighting has to be perfect to get the colors and the ambiance desired by the director. While we sit at our positions so the lighting could be set, the head camera man works closely with the director. The camera man often adjusts the directors initial setup to enhance the lighting and camera angles. Almost each time the camera man changes a camera angle, the lighting must be changed also. It can take over an hour to set up a single closeup. On the Ten Commandments in the Golden Calf set, it took more than a day to set up a single camera shot.

Except when a director tries to be artistic, most major scenes begin with a key shot when they are projected in a theater. That is especially true in epics such as The Ten Commandments. When the scene is a battle set, notice how the director may film from a hill overlooking both combatants before closing in on individual hand to hand encounters.

RUSHES

Every morning on 99% of the productions in the 1950s the directors go thru an important procedure known as checking the rushes. At the moment a scene was recorded on film there was no way to know how well it recorded. Could be bad film, or color was off in part of the set, or the brightness was too dim or too well lighted etc.

Consequently the company that processed the raw film made short developed extracts of about 10 to 20 frames from various portions of the different sets filmed the prior day. A courier brought the film strips to the director in a thick sheaf of these strips clipped together at the top. The director and cameraman minutely inspected the “rushes” with a magnifying glass for any inadvertent discrepancy.
No set was allowed to be dismantled until the rushes were approved. If there was a problem, the first thing for that day would be a retake of any such problematic scenes. We extras also stood by during the rushes exam for possible retakes. If the director is satisfied, the color processing company gets the go ahead to make the final film development. That is the film that goes to the editing rooms. Of course often there are discrepancies discovered during the editing phase such as bad facial expressions or botched lines that are not apparent during the rushes. That too will cause a retake at some time in the future. Quite often I was rebooked for retakes due to those kinds of problems (with of course another day’s pay 🙂 ).

DAY IS DONE

On a job such as The Student Prince because we are part of an ensemble cast with the stars we all finish at the same time. The director or AD will shout “That’s A Wrap”. By then we are so tired that those words are the sound we have been eagerly anticipating. 🙂

Since we are all in costume, we too rush to the extra’s dressing room which is more like a gym locker room.

( Some dressing rooms are not so luxurious especially on location. When I worked in the New York street scene in Catch Me If You Can, which was filmed in downtown Los Angeles, our dressing room was a huge tent over a grassy lot. Inside it was separated by a canvas wall one side for the gals and the other for the guys. No chairs, no lockers, just lots of hangers which held our street clothes hanging from the poles holding up the tent.)

It’s a race to be first to finish changing our clothes. We still have to bring our costumes to wardrobe where they are sent out each night to a cleaner.

Then we have to stand in line to turn in our vouchers to the AD. The AD will check our vouchers for accuracy and add any special compensation we may have earned such as special business. If you see my Student Prince blog Beer Garden scene, notice one extra who stands up and bows to Ann Blyth. That will be a silent bit adjustment for that extra. If we are slow to change our wardrobe we may have to wait 30+ minutes to turn in our vouchers. Of course our end time is adjusted to reflect the time spent in these activities. From the moment the director wraps us, depending on the size of the call, 40 or more minutes are added to our end time to allow for post wrap duties.

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2 thoughts on “On Set. A Day In The Life Of A Background Actor In The 1950s

  1. Fascinating. I really enjoyed reading your story about life as an extra. It sounds very tough to get work but it sounds as if you enjoyed it and, presumably, it paid a good enough living?

    Where did the ‘vouchers’ go after the AD has signed them? It sounds quite ad hoc to who knows whether you should have work or not and whether you should be paid or not. It almost sounds as if you could managed to sneak on a set then you could claim that you were told to report for work when you had not? 🙂

    • The vouchers go to a payroll service who legally are your employer for that day. All BG casting offices have a payroll service of their choice that they work with. Of course your voucher must be signed by a known AD for that day before the payroll service will send you a check.

      After you are booked by the CD (casting director) your name is printed on a supporting sheet which is transmitted to the location at which you will work. Your name has to be on the sheet in order for you to work that day.

      However when times are tough many extras will go to a location they have found out through their friends that is scheduled to work a substantial number of people that day. You find the person who is handing out the vouchers, an AD or a casting office rep, and add your name to a SPEC list. So you are speculating on getting booked. If any extras do not show up you will be hired to replace that person If you fit the requirements in the order in which your name was added to the list. On large calls (known affectionately as ‘cattle calls’ ) your chances of replacing someone are excellent if you got your name on the spec list early enough. On average you will find bookings this way about 10 % of the time. If you plan to spec it’s best to be at the location at least 1 hour before the call time to get as close to the top of the spec list as you can.

      Some people make a fairly good living especially if they have relatives in high places. The average extra is always struggling and bounces back and forth between work and unemployment insurance. I made very good money during the years I stood in for Russell Johnson and Robert Taylor as you work nearly every day. But you are always at the mercy of the changing scenario with your connections. When Dick Powell died, hundreds lost their jobs to replacements by the new studio mogul. When a series ends, your stand in job is gone.

      After 10 years I reluctantly left the extra world to work a steady job, got into the new computer category (1963) and worked in that business for the next 30 years.

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