Thursday, June 21, 2012

All you ever wanted to know about Extras (people not the show)

Here’s an EXTRA Friday Question:

It’s from RichD.

So the recent mention of WINGS here inspired me to revisit the series on Netflix. While making my way through the first seasons I again noticed the older red-haired woman who worked at Roy's counter, which got me to wonder about the background performers who are the extra-equivalent of series regulars on various shows.

I would assume that these are pretty sweet gigs. When they are first cast is it with the intention that they will be recurring?

Are they hired episode-by-episode or offered a season long contract? While I'm assuming that they aren't there for table reads, how much different is their schedule from the speaking cast?

Usually the extras (or “background” as they are also called) who are essentially regulars are also stand-ins for the main cast. They’re the same height and size of the stars. During the days when directors are blocking the show with the camera crew these extras stand-in during the long somewhat arduous process of assigning individual shots. Here’s a fun fact: Do you know who Bill Cosby’s stand-in was on THE COSBY SHOW? None other than Samuel L. Jackson. This was before he became an Avenger.

Certain extras do become de facto regulars. On MASH we used the same nurses. I don’t know if I ever knew all their last names but they were Sherry, Gwen, Kellye. And over time a few extras were given lines. Kellye for one, and Jeff Maxwell as Igor. And of course, the extra’s extra – Roy Goldman (pictured: right).

Roy used to show up in every 20th Century Fox show. He’s on juries, he’s at picnics, he’s the back of Hitler’s head in Mel Brooks’ TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Roy was the Where’s Waldo of 20th. Or at least Zelig.

Don’t know your definition of “sweet gig”. Extras don’t get paid that handsomely and frankly, it’s pretty boring. They spend an inordinate amount of time just waiting or standing, or waiting and standing.

On the other hand, they’re IN the business. They go to work at Hollywood studios. They’re on the stage, they get fed, and in many cases they form friendships with the cast and crew. So on the list of jobs that suck – hanging out with George Clooney all day would not be one of them.

I’m sure some extra assignments are worse than others. I wouldn’t want to be a knight on GAME OF THRONES, standing around in heavy armor all day. And a friend of mine got a gig on a movie and was told to report to Six Flags Magic Mountain at 5:00 AM. Fun, she thought. For three days she rode a roller-coaster for twelve hours a day. Can you imagine? Over and over and over again. She almost died.

On single-camera shows extras are just hired for the days they’re needed. Could be one, could be five days a week.

On multiple-camera shows they’re hired for two days – camera blocking and shooting day.

Now everyone has cellphones, but I remember on CHEERS we’d take a break before the afternoon runthrough and all the extras would form a long line at the phone booth outside the stage to call their answering machines to see if they had a gig lined up for the next day.

Pay scale: Extras make much less than speaking actors. And by speaking I mean even one line. This is why for the most part extras just react but don’t speak. I believe they can speak as a group (like cheering for someone), but no individual lines without being bumped up to actor status for that episode.

A famous example is Al Rosen, the old guy at the bar on CHEERS. (Sorry for the fuzzy foto.)  He had been an extra for a couple of years and then one episode we gave him a line. I forget the set-up but his answer was “Sinatra.” From then on whenever we gave him a line he was listed in the cast as “Man Who Said Sinatra.”

Not sure the conditions of their hiring – I assume most are on a day-by-day basis, although stand-ins and recurring extras might be hired on a more long term arrangement. And I assume there’s no exclusivity. If an extra gets a higher-paying speaking part elsewhere, I’m sure they’re free to take it.

Whenever I directed a show and we had extras in various scenes I always instructed the Second Assistant Director (whose job it was to organize the background) to try to stage the scenes in such a way that all of the extras get at least a little on-camera time. I always feel bad for the extras who stand around for three days and then are never seen.

On the other hand, extras can sometimes kill you. One idiot will be looking into the camera or not reacting and it distracts from the scene. So if you ever get to be an extra someday DON’T DO THAT. You’ll find your career is a very very short one.  Someone else will be hanging out with George Clooney instead of you, and if that isn't a deterrent I don't know what one is.  

55 comments:

Ben Bragg said...

With the 40th anniversary of MASH this year, someone should look those women up.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm an extra in the upcoming movie, "Pusher". I've no idea if I'll be seen or not, but I got picked for the nightclub scene and had to dance my ass off.

I've never danced like that in my life, and never have since, but I have to admit: It was fun!

I had a friend who worked on Keanu's next flick, 47 Ronin. 12 hours standing still in uncomfortable armour... He could only work every other day for the sake of his sanity.

Twelve hours on a rollercoaster sounds like Amnesty International should get involved. Yikes!

willieb said...

The movie "Lucky Numbers" with John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow was shooting in my town, and I got hired as an extra. Spent three days in an empty office room waiting to be called for a scene. (But I did get paid -- not a lot -- and fed every day, and they paid me extra to park my '87 Volvo in the "company parking lot.") FInally, the big day! Lisa Kudrow has driven her car into the side of the building, and we're supposed to rush outside and show concern. After two run-throughs, the director decides the group is too big, and me and one other girl at the end of the group were held back. We weren't used for any other scenes, so after three days I had a paycheck, my car had a paycheck, I knew the inside of that office REALLY well, and not a scrap of film with me on it.

Blaze said...

We've been enjoying a marathon of "Kojak". They did a fine job of continuity with the "background cops" in the squad room. The names are consistent and the same actors nod or put on their coats when Kojak bellows "Sapperstein! Risso! Tracey!". Season after season, these same actors are there, filling the police station with business. I confess to having cheered when Sapperstein finally got to speak a line for the first time.

(on a side note, the legendary Kojak lollipop gimmick is quite overblown. If it happens every other episode, I'd be exaggerating. I can only surmise that, at the time, a tough TV cop played by tough guy Telly Savalas doing it even once would cause commotion.)

Anonymous said...

Glenn Beck was an extra on an episode of Cheers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUn-bixAI6w

Rich D said...

Ken, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question. And by "Sweet gig," I meant just having the security of knowing that they at least had a guaranteed day or two of work a week for the shooting season of a show.

Tom Quigley said...

Actually, a friend of mine DID get to hang out with George Clooney. He was Clooney's stand-in on ER, and also appeared in several episodes himself as an orderly.

A couple of other people from when I was handling the audience on MAD ABOUT YOU who were stand-ins also managed to get screen time. Kenda Nichols, who was Helen Hunt's stand-in usually got several appearances each season, and the stand-in for Richard Kind (and later Louis Zorich after Richard left the show), a fellow named Roy (whose last name I can't recall at the moment) got into a few scenes each season. Roy later apparently got work on FRASIER as I see him quite often as a customer in the scenes at Cafe Nervosa.

Had my own few shots at fame as an extra, including small parts in THE PRETENDER, THE SINGLE GUY, HIGH INCIDENT, MAD ABOUT YOU (where they pulled me in for a sceen where they needed someone to walk past Paul and Jamie -- I wasn't even there to work that day), and a made for TV holiday movie, THE CHRISTMAS WISH, the experience of which I wrote about on my own blog.

They pay was (and I imagine still is) minimal, but being involved in all that goes on in the filming process is fun, and for anyone seriously pursuing a TV or film career, it does help to pay the bills and network a little.

Rich D said...

willieb - I, too, worked on LUCKY NUMBERS. Be thankful you were inside. (I'm guessing that was one of the scenes they shot at WGAL?) The day and a half that I was working as a stand in for Chris Kattan, we were shooting outside at Penn National Racetrack, and there was a fierce wind that was blowing that made everything bitter cold! It was interesting to watch the director and the DP work on figuring out how to shoot the scene, but unfortunately, it wound up being cut. On the upside, the AD released me after lunch on the second day so I got two full days pay for a day and half of work. Also, I spent a lot of time chatting with Travolta's long-time stand-in Tony, which is where I first got an inkling that then upcoming BATTLEFIELD EARTH was probably going to be a huge stinker.

Unknown said...

Ken - Former sitcom room attendee and fan here, I have a friend who is taking his wife and teenage kids to L.A. in August and wonder if you have any "insider" suggestions for studio tours and the like. I think they're planning to go to the big studios, but do you have suggestions for days of the week, if they want to get the most out of it? Or other suggestions? Is it too late to try to get tickets to a filming of show? Or are these something they'll have the opportunity to get same day (assuming they pick the right day)?

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Al Rosen got one of the most significant lines anybody on Cheers said.

It was the episode when Woody's parents want him to return to home in Indiana. They don't approve of Boston and its seedy low life.

The Cheers cast makes a home movie of Cheers and Boston, designed to show Woody has friends and a safe home. They mail the VHS tape to Woody's parents, but it doesn't work. His dad tossed it into the thresher.

On the day Woody is going to leave, everybody says their goodbyes. Then, a surprise phone call from Indiana. Woody's Dad says he can stay in Boston. He was persuaded by an anonymous card somebody sent. The note read, "Let you son choose his path and it will always lead back to you."

Nobody will take ownership of the note that changed Woody's life, and all Woody wants to do is thank the fellow.

Finally, Al Rosen heads for the door to leave and says casually to Woody, "Don't mention it, kid."

Dan J said...

Hey Ken, you just might get to see that ending after all...
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/new-line-remake-last-sheila-murder-mystery-338801?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+thr%2Ffilm+%28The+Hollywood+Reporter+-+Movies%29

bettyd said...

There was a good story on the always interesting CBS Sunday Morning Show in Feb. or so. I can't get the video anymore, but the story was on Central Casting. There really is a business called Central Casting, I was surpised to find out. Many of the people who work there are cards that have their "type" - motorcycle gang, prisoner, roadie, etc. Here is the link to the transcript, and it has a funny youtube link to an extra's fan video of many of his works. The kid is heavyset with distinctive red hair, so I guess someone noticed him.
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-57386064/extra-the-unheralded-stars-of-movies/?tag=contentMain;contentBody

RCP said...

In some cases, it's a dubious honor for an extra to be given a credit - one in particular I remember was "Fat girl in crowd"

That Neil Guy said...

Tara Dublin (@taradublinrocks on Twitter) got a write up on her gig as a regular extra on NBC's Grimm: http://www.orartswatch.org/tara-dublin-earns-her-detective-badge-on-grimm/

HourOfLead said...

This guy at Entertainment Weekly published a good article about being an extra on Walking Dead.
http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20534461,00.html

Dave G said...

I'm interested in the differences between "speakers" and "non-speakers". Many times I've watched TV shows - Castle is a good example of this - where a complete nobody, a prison guard maybe, has a line of dialogue, and you just know they wouldn't have paid him the extra money unless he had a significant role later in the story.
Same goes for famous guest stars. Castle (just an example, they all do it) lines up a series of suspects in the first 20 minutes, and one of them is a recognisable face while the rest may have been dragged in off the street. You just know that the famous face "did it", and it kinda spoils it.

The Mutt said...

I was an extra when they shot that Elvis TV series in Memphis. The budget for extras must have been small, because for one street scene, I would walk past in one direction, then when I cleared camera, remove my jacket and hat and stuff them under my shirt, put on glasses, then walk by in the other direction. Hat back on, other direction. Jacket, no hat, other direction. Glasses, no tie, other direction. Fortunately, this was set in the 50s when most men wore white shirts and ties all of the time, so it wasn't very noticeable.

Deb Montoya said...

Hey, was your friend's Six Flags gig the 1977 movie "Rollercoaster" starring George Segal? If so - I was there! My friend and I ditched high school to be extras on that film. I remember that at first we were bummed not to have been chosen to be on the coaster. Then, ten hours later while sitting under a tree waiting for the last shot to be set up we looked up to see those extras practically melting up there and we said, "Poor bastards"!

Cap'n Bob said...

SCTV did a great sendup of extras. Worth finding if it's available.

Cap'n Bob said...

Also, the woman who's the front runner in the opening credits got a writeup in a forgotten (by me) publication many years ago. She claimed she was op front because she was always a fast runner.

Cap'n Bob said...

Typo: up front, not op front.

RCP said...

Cap'n Bob:

Was that the SCTV sendup with Andrea Martin as a 60ish extra dressed in a gorilla costume? She was being interviewed (while holding the gorilla head in one hand) and talked of "honing my craft as an artist."

D. McEwan said...

A former friend of mine was a regular extra/stand-in on Murphy Brown for five years. Eventually he got a line and a character name. He had to stick his head into Murphy's office and tell her Bill Clinton was on the phone, and she said: "Thanks, Tony." So from then on, he was "Tony."

He stood in for Garry Marshall, though MUCH smaller than Marshall. I came to a taping once, and afterwards, he gave me his script for that week, which is why I have A Murphy Brown script with all of Garry Marshall's blocking hand-written in it, but not in Marshall's handwriting. (Marshall ONLY showed up on tape days. He never even attended the table reads, so my ex-friend did the table reads for him as well as the blocking.)

Zappa the Unholy said...

So Al's first line was the "Sinatra" episode. That was the one with the fortune telling scale. Somebody (Cliff I think)got one about consulting with 'big wigs', and Carla (trying to make the fortune seem true.. said "Who is a big wig?" "Sinatra", No.. who's the biggest wig of them all?" "SINATRA". Glad to refresh your memory pally :)

D. McEwan said...

Back in my KGIL radio days, the station once did a 24-hour tribute to Frank Sinatra ("The World's Greatest Entertainer". News to Jolson), when they played nothing but Sinatra for an entire day. (Chuck Southcott liked Sinatra a hell of a lot more than I did.)

So a month later, on the Sweet Dick Whittington morning show on that station I wrote and produced a "24-minute Tribute to Harold J. Berquist, The World's Greatest Extra." The highlight of Harold's career was when he played "the title role" in A Face in the Crowd, playing the third face from the left in the fourth row from the top.

Incidentally, I did extra work in Rocky II. Watch for my little face in the big climactic fight scene. I played "Guy Watching the Fight". My motivation was that I wanted Rocky to win. I can be hard to find, since I'm in a different spot in every shot. The extras were moved around to be behind the stars which ever direction we were shooting. (Shot in the LA Sports Arena.) When the camera was handheld and moving around inside the ring, all we extras were gathered around the ring and the lights on the background were shut off.

At the end, when Rocky has won, and he's hanging in Burgess Meredith's arms, and Burgess is saying "Ya won, kid, ya won" (Or something like that. I was way too far back to hear, and I've never watched the hideous movie. Boxing! Ugh!), and I'm the size of a single pixle way in the background, cheering, our chemistry together just lit up the screen.

Anonymous said...

"Dance, mailman."

D. McEwan said...

I forgot to add, re: my ex-friend on Murphy Brown, since his job was to walk around the FYI office set pretending to work, I once asked him if they caught him actually doing real work, would he have been accused of "goofing off"? After all, his job was to pretend to work, not actually to work.

DBenson said...

Ages ago, MAD Magazine had an article about semi-glamourous jobs in Hollywood. Among them were people who can answer questions and give directions without actually talking (so they cost less), and people who could sort of ignore big stars (illustrated by a guy calmly reading a magazine next to Jayne Mansfield, while his legs are having some kind of spasm).

Wonder if the latter is ever an issue with new or starstruck extras?

Tom Quigley said...

DBenson said...

"Wonder if the latter is ever an issue with new or starstruck extras?"

One of the jobs of the AD who's managing the extras is to recognize someone who's starstruck, or is somehow otherwise distracted or not following directions, and pull that person out of the scene as quickly as possible (and usually send them home). With the meter running as far as filming costs go, a production can ill afford to have an extra screw up, pester or annoy one of the regular cast members, or not be able to do what they're told to be doing in the scene.

Tom Rizzo said...

Friday Question:

What exactly does a show runner do? I've never seen this title listed in an credits, and I'm wondering if it's the same as a producer?

Tom in Vegas

edprof said...

my frat was used for the MASH football team. they were zanier in real life.

Anonymous said...

I'm noy sure if this is already common knowledge, but Bruce Willis was an extra in "The Verdict." You can see him sitting in the courtroom throughout the movie, and especially during Paul Newman's big summation speech.

Bradley said...

Great post. Extra work is great in that you get paid to see how things work on a set. I actually think it's a better gig for aspiring directors, writers and producers than it is for actors. They're too busy trying to get noticed that they don't notice what's going on around them. I learned a lot from the experience.

Plus a Friday question: Do you know what became of Jackie Swanson after Cheers? She was terrific as Kelly and I assume the writing staff agreed given all the excellent material she was given.

GRayR said...

Ken,
It's nice to see all the comments, and they are a great read for us minions, (not onions like in the funny papers).

I once had a car that was almost an extra. I lived for a time in Hawaii, and this movie was in made there in the 80's. A really corny surfer/detective/blue lagoon type.

The car was a rare 1956 Packard that I talked my sweety in buying for "only $4000.00." Red and white and was gorgeous. Must have had a full 2000 pounds of chrome. They wanted it for a "cool hot rodish" scene. Damn thing got less than 9 mpg and had a small gas tank. We had to drive it across Oahu and almost ran out of gas just getting to the North Shore for filming. And then it overheated while we had to wait to film. So close to fame.

Close as I have come to the biz.

Blaze Morgan said...

My was Art Department Coordinator on several TV shows. This got me a substantial splash in the Business one episode. The plot was set in a Sci-Fi (etc.) Convention. A turn of the story featured a load of gamers sitting around a table rolling dice and...gaming. Everything the Art Dept. knew about this grand nerd activity came from my sister and all she knew came from me. They rented my display table that I take to conventions to sell quirky arts & crafts. The hired me as an extra to man my table, as I do at conventions. Finally, I was a consultant for many facets of the convention atmosphere. Most especially for that gaming table scene. I explained the reality of the set-up to the Director, the Props Master and the Head of Set Dec. Set Dec later thanked me profusely. The Director had been very nervous before and my expertise had obviously relaxed things.

The fleeting nature of fame- there certainly was not "afterglow. If it wasn't for my sister being a coworker, I doubt they would have remembered my name the next day.

Mike Barer said...

Excellent post, but it just covers TV, I'm sure full length movies is a whole 'nother animal.

Jim said...

The best old Extra appearance was int the 1949 film Criss Cross. Burt Lancaster goes to a night-club in order to see his ex-wife Yvonne de Carlo. When he arrive she is dancing wildly with what was meant to be some random gigolo. Only trouble is that to play said Random Gigolo they picked Tony Curtis who appears pretty clearly in a few shots. Watch it if you like.

DwWashburn said...

Friday question (kind of a follow up to this post).

In the pre VCR/DVR days of television it was not uncommon for a semi recurring character to be played by more than one actor. For example, Rob Petrie's father was played by at least two actors. Nowadays it seems like if a character is going to reappear, even if just for one or two episodes a season, the production company retains the same actor.

My question is does the actor (or their agent) call up the program and say "I'm available from to and then the writers get to work on a script featuring the semi-regular? Or is a script written first, and then an effort made to find the actor and check his schedule? I can't believe that Laurie Metcalf or Christine Baranski, for example, just "hang around" waiting for the Big Bang Theory to call them.

And a quick aside, I just bought the podcast of Stu's Show with you as the guest and am enjoying it greatly.

DwWashburn said...

For some reason it didn't copy over. The first line in the second paragraph should read

My question is does the actor (or their agent) call up the program and say "I'm available from insert first day to insert last day and then the writers get to work on a script featuring the semi-regular?

Daddy Background said...

Can I plug my own blog? It's about being an extra, very part time, doesn't happen a lot. So, if you want to subscribe (ha!) the posts sure won't come daily like this here Other Ken's. http://www.bp47.blogspot.com

Jim said...

A career as an extra? That would be British actor Harry Fielder who has his own website detailing all (that he could remember) of his film roles, including arresting Carrie Fisher in Star Wars, and making an attack on himself in Carry On Up The Khyber (assualt and defence being shot on different days).

r-gordon-7 said...

I'm surprised there's been no mention of the Billy Crystal / Alan King film, "Memories of Me" - great film and literally an ode to extras...

Johnny Walker said...

D.McEwan: I also have a friend who worked for several years on Murphy Brown, eventually getting a speaking part. I though it might be the same person until you said their character name. His was Patrick.

Anonymous said...

dont know if anyone's posted this yet, but here's the Al Rosen scene Ken's referring to:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2B0lRTSLM4

cadavra said...

A personal favorite is in the opening of DePalma's THE FURY. Jim Belushi is very noticeably walking behind Nancy Allen and her friend, maneuvering in such a way as to always remain in camera range. It was blatantly obvious even in 1978, when he was still unknown,

Dana Gabbard said...

And sometimes being an extra does lead to something. best example I know of is James Michael Tyler. In an early episode of Friends they needed someone to operate the coffee machine. Tyler was the only one of the extras who knew how to do it (he had worked at a coffee place between acting gigs). After a season as a background character he acquired a name, occasional lines and even a major moment in the finale.

Todd Ayres said...

I've been an extra exactly three times and three times only. Once for Wall Street 2, once for The Good Wife, and once for New Year's Eve. Each had a level of suckitude that will make me never do it again. On Wall Street 2 we were there all night walking down a street on a freezing night in September wearing shorts because it was supposed to be summer. For 14 HOURS. I got home at 9AM. On New Year's Eve, I walked out the door when Abigail Breslin meets her friends. At least I can be seen and I met nice people.

The Good Wife was fine except on TV shows, the extras really act a lot different. They all know each other and also consider themselves actors. I personally thought most all of them were just hams and could tell why they weren't establishing careers. Some would do the most deliberate, unnatural things to get screen time. Ugh... insufferable.

When one extra asked what other things I've worked on, I told him "Wall Street 2" and he looked at me like I was crazy. I shrugged and told him "I just do this for fun." He then gave me a fair warning that I shouldn't say that too loudly or people would get mad at me.

But if you're in the union and you get steady work, you make good money. Or above average at least. If not, you're doing it to see yourself on screen. Which in my case happened 66.67% of the time.

D. McEwan said...

"cadavra said...
A personal favorite is in the opening of DePalma's THE FURY. Jim Belushi is very noticeably walking behind Nancy Allen and her friend, maneuvering in such a way as to always remain in camera range. It was blatantly obvious even in 1978, when he was still unknown,"


I saw Jim Belushi on some talk show once, maybe it was Letterman, where he ran that clip and pointed out how he kept, illogically, re-entering the shot, and not just strolling, strutting. It is funny, but it's also exactly the sort of hambone extra behavior that can get you sent home.

Of course, I love the little kid in Hitchcock's great North by Northwest who is clearly seen plugging his ears with his fingers seconds before Eva Marie Saint pulls out a gun and shoots Cary Grant, having psychically detected that there is about to be a very loud noise near his ears.

darmund said...

Bill Lawrence, co-creator of Scrubs, Spin City and Cougar Town talks on several commentary tracks on Scrubs about some of the extras who were more or less regulars on the show, "Black-haired Doctor/Colonel Doctor/Dr. Beardface" who Bill kept putting in the show because he liked the way they looked. They eventually all get some lines and even a storyline or two

Cap'n Bob said...

A prolific actor of this ilk was Frank Adamo. He showed up in scores of TV series in the '60s and '70s.

crackblind said...

My father-in-law is a writer and when the made his novel into a movie (20+ years after the first "Soon to be a Motion Picture" ad was placed), we all got walk on parts (unpaid). My wife was walking in the park when the main character bikes past her and ad-libs a hello. She naturally responded. It wasn't caught until the rushes and all of a sudden they had to have her sign a bunch of papers and pay her because she suddenly had a line in the movie (which ended up being cut anyway).

The funny part is my father-in-law actually had a speaking part but because he isn't union, they over dubbed over him so they didn't have to pay him for it. My wife ended up making more off the shoot than her father (after all, he was only the writer).

Ben said...

One thing I've noticed when watching SNL (and I point it out in my reviews on my blog) is that a lot of the extras, especially in earlier seasons, were the show's writers and other production staff. Pretty much the whole writing staff from 1975-80 has been on camera at one time: even a very young Tom Gammill makes fart noises with his armpits in the Substitute Judge sketch.

It kind of lends to the whole "all hands on deck" atmosphere of the earlier seasons.

Knuckles said...

Ken, I *love* the "Sinatra" episode. I still use that line to this very day. Of course, nobody knows what I'm talking about, but it's especially funny when you use it in relation to the Mariners...

Shrilurk said...

The Front Runner on the MASH credits is Gwen Farrell (no relation to Mike Farrell)