Tuesday, January 06, 2015

My day as Robert Osborne

Yesterday, I talked about getting the amazing opportunity to host this month’s Friday Night Spotlight series on Neil Simon for TCM. Today I'll talk about the hard part – having to actually do it.

The plan was to fly into Atlanta on a Tuesday, tape the wraparounds for all seventeen movies on Wednesday, and then fly home on Thursday.  I was given a per diem, but in Confederate dollars. 

Since the Simon tribute is over five Friday nights I had to bring wardrobe changes. I didn’t want to be like Lori Greiner on SHARK TANK who, for all her millions, seems to have only two dresses. I assembled a suit, several sports jackets, lots of slacks, seven shirts, and eight ties. I boarded the plane with a giant garment bag and asked the flight attendant to please hang it for me. She said, “Are you going away for two weeks?” I said, “No, two days. I have trouble making decisions.”

Got to Atlanta and it was 20 degrees. Hot-lanta my ass.

The next day was driven out to the studio somewhere in the suburbs. I kept looking for Tara. Never found it. The first thing I noticed was that the craft-services table was way better stocked than most sitcoms.  Southern hospitality exists!

I took great pains to pack so there’d be a minimum of wrinkles. But much to my delight, they had a wardrobe person who had an iron and a steamer. This was way more first class than I’m used to. A makeup person was also provided, which was helpful because I’m terrible at applying my own makeup.

Was led out to the set, which was just a cool blue backdrop. There were two cameras and a crew of about twenty. I have no idea what ten of them were doing. But they all looked busy.

I had done on-camera work on baseball games, but I had never used a teleprompter. This is an acquired skill. The words scroll down and you have to read them but not look like you’re reading them. You have to seem conversational. And your eyes can’t dart back and forth.

I’ll never say anything bad about Ryan Seacrest again.

But my feeling was that as long as I could see it I was essentially just reading radio copy, and I’ve done that for years. The teleprompter is attached to the front of the camera so when you’re reading it you’re staring right into the lens and making direct eye contact with the viewer. Offstage, an operator adjusts the speed with which the text scrolls. Your first impulse is to speed up for fear that the sentence will be gone before you get to read it. But with a good operator (and this woman was fabulous), they adjust to your speed. So if you slow up, they slow up. It took me a few intros to really get comfortable with this process.   Still, I couldn't dawdle.   I had a ton of info packed into each intro and outro and a limited amount of time to deliver it. 
The director explained the plan. Camera one would start wide and slowly push in. At one point in the middle of my intro I was to shift my feet and turn to camera two, who would also start fairly wide. Okey dokey. Camera one was told to get into its first position. It backed way up. But remember, the teleprompter is on the front of the camera. Once it reached its starting position the teleprompter became the size of a postage stamp.

HOLY SHIT!

Thank goodness I had written the script. I was able to make out enough of the words to figure out what I was trying to say. But it was tricky. Especially at first. It’s not good form to be squinting. As the day went on I got better.

I was also very aware that all eyes were on me. Like I said, there were twenty crew members, and I know the drill. The more I screw up; the longer everyone has to stay. Fortunately, everybody was incredibly nice, supportive, and fun to be with. If I ever get another sitcom I want to steal half of them (even though I don’t know what some of them do).

Now everybody screws up. Actors go up on lines all the time. The director yells cut, they have to reset, re-slate, and do another take. Still, it’s a little embarrassing to screw up your own name in front of an entire crew.

But things ran pretty smoothly, thanks in large part to the crew. Every few wraparounds I would change outfits. (It doesn’t take that long, Lori. You really should do it.). And in about five hours we were done.

All in all, it was a spectacular experience. My sincere thanks to Anne Wilson and everyone at TCM for giving me this extraordinary opportunity. And best of all, I love that I can share these Neil Simon movies with everybody. His work has inspired and guided me throughout my career. I often re-read Neil Simon plays just to be reminded of how to do it right and what to strive for. That I’m the one who gets to introduce these movies to an audience of longtime fans who relish them, and hopefully a large number of younger viewers who are being exposed to his brilliance for the first time is a true blessing. I hope you’ll join me this Friday and every Friday this month. And again, I can say that because I didn’t look fat.

22 comments:

DW said...

Fired up the DVR of last week's ODD COUPLE and there was Ken Levine! TCM did a fine job with the intros, and of course the movie selection is fantastic! Congrats!

MikeK.Pa. said...

I vaguely remember in the late 1960s satirist Mort Sahl was one of the "squares" on HOLLYWOOD SQUARES. They taped five episodes - a week's worth -in one day, allowing time for wardrobe changes and meals. Mort wore his typical attire, a sweater and slacks. By the 4th or 5th show he was making cracks about how much his clothes stunk. Funny and so in character for him.

Dan Ball said...

I remember the days of running a teleprompter. Operating one of those is every bit as much of an acquired skill as reading from one. Where I worked, we had an anchor who would just outright look down at her scripts if the teleprompter operator wasn't scrolling along at her pace consistently. Even if she was on camera, she'd just stare down at her scripts the whole time! Drove the directors CRAZY. Of course, they'd yell at me, the floor director, to get her to look up, but how do you do that when she's not looking at you and you can't yell at her because her mic's open? Those were the days! :)

Tom Scarlett said...

Thank you for requesting the original HEARTBREAK KID. It's an absolutely hilarious film that is not as well known as it should be.(I don't think it's even available on DVD.) "We came all the way from New York for the pecan pie!"

Dan Sachs said...

Never occurred to me that your last name is pronounced with a long "I".

john brown said...

I am really enjoying watching these movies with your intros. I was expecting you to be in a comfortable chair but the standing works.

RockGofl said...

Off topic, but there's a wonderful Frasier quiz on Sporcle that ken's blog readers will enjoy. It's a "pick the next line" quiz when the set-up of the joke is given, and you have to select the correct punchline from a fairly long list.

I've put the link in as the URL for my name. (I've written hundreds of quizzes for the site, but this is not one of mine.)

RyderDA said...

"I’ll never say anything bad about Ryan Seacrest again."

Now THERE'S a New Years Resolution that's soon to be broken.

Jason said...

So happy about this! The one blogger I read regularly is doing intros and outros of Neil Simon. Great start to 2015! I'm personally looking forward to Biloxi Blues--an overlooked movie--and a favorite growing up, Seems Like Old Times.

vicernie said...

I hope you will blog the scripts for those of us who don't get TCM.

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: When writing scripts how do you avoid the use of...well, let's say "localized" dialect [unless the character calls for it]. For the first 13 years of my life I lived in the South and when I moved North some of the language [words] were pronounced different or even had different meanings. Example: "Creek", always pronounced it as it sounds but when I moved North, always heard people pronounce it "crick"...to me a crick is what you get in your back or neck. There are [were?] other words used in the North that I had never heard but when explained to me I said "Oh, well in the South we called it....". [By the way, always got told in school that I sounded "funny" cause of my Southern accent; to me it was everyone else that sounded funny. Three years later most of my southern accent was gone and broadcasting school got rid of the rest of it...but there are still words that come out of me where the accent still pops up.]

Brian said...

I just watched the into to the Odd Couple here: http://www.tcm.com/watchtcm/movies/4740/Odd-Couple-The/

Bob Claster said...

Ken,
I'm a teleprompter operator. I currently work on Jimmy Kimmel Live, but have over 20 years of experience at it. (See IMDB.) This prompter operator was not as great as you think she was. First of all, if the camera moved to a position that caused the letters to be too small for you to read it, she should have known about that camera move and increased the font proportionally so that you would still be able to read it. Secondly, in that photo, I can see that she split up the phrase "TV WRITER." You wouldn't say it:
"I'm a TV... writer." She should have kept the words "TV WRITER" together on one line. There are lots of things we do to help the reader, most of which they never realize. (There are also ways we have of making the assholes look bad, but that's another topic.)

But someone should have sat you down, as I've often done with first-timers, and shown you how it works. Absolutely, you set the speed and the prompter operator just follows it. You need to understand that we'll wait for you, and never take anything off the screen before you say it.

thirteen said...

About 30 years ago I was working for the CBS Morning News with Faith Daniels. One day she plunged headlong into one of her many, many on-set snits because someone had left a line of her script off the teleprompter. The line was "This is the CBS Morning News. I'm Faith Daniels."

Peter Odencrans said...

I was pleasantly surprised to see you hosting the Neil Simon series last Friday, Ken, and look forward to future ones. You've been quite a talent for many years--certainly ever since the early 70s when we were members of the Army's 222nd Public Information Detachment ("The fighting 222nd PIDs!"). Every now and then I'll see or hear something on a MASH rerun that reminds me of some boneheaded thing we did or said. Thanks, and greet Dave Isaacs for me.

DBA said...

Come on, Ken. I don't really want to defend Lori Grenier, but a TV vet such as yourself has got to know they don't shoot those Shark Tank segments inthe context of actual episodes. They do a marathon three week shoot of lots of pitches and everyone wears the same outfit so different things can be edited together later as desired.

Gary Theroux said...

I, too, was surprised by your last name being pronounced by the TCM announcer as "Le-vyne" instead of "Le-veen." Even you said it as "Le-vyne." Have you really changed the pronunciation?

Casey C said...

Great post (loved all the detail)! No better person for the job! Damn good lookin’ and a gracious host! Laughing and learning a lot (⌒‿⌒)

Pat Reeder said...

Great job on the intros, and I'm enjoying seeing those movies again. Neil Simon has fallen out of favor in recent years, and it's good that younger audiences are getting a reminder that he's more than just a theater in New York.

BTW, the next time you do something like this, you should use the wardrobe changes to insert a private joke. For instance, when George Gimarc and I shot a bunch of "Hollywood Hi-Fi" videos back-to-back in one night, I changed my shirt between every one, and he didn't. It made it look as if he owns one outfit, like Little Orphan Annie. That was several years ago, and to this day, only one person has mentioned to me that he noticed it. But that one observant fan thought it was hilarious, and it made him feel really smart, too.

Barry Traylor said...

As I have been watching TCM darn near from the beginning this behind the scenes look was fascinating. Thanks ever so much for sharing your experience there with us.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, it is great that you shared this with us. You may think it's obligatory, but we (well, at least I'm) very appreciative of you keeping us in the loop. Makes us (again, maybe it's just me) feel like we are apart of something, especially when we are watching you and the movies. We are definitely (hmmm, I hope it's not just me :) ) that is pulling for you.

My favorite moment has been when you let on who is the real James Bond. It was a nice aside.

THe DVR is already set for the rest of the intro/outros.

Rus Wornom said...

Hi Ken,

I just watched "Murder By Death" and, once again, loved almost every minute of it. But something has bothered me about the movie since I saw it first in '76...the ending. My wife, who also loves the movie and is a huge mystery fan, is like me in this regard: we have no idea what the final, big reveal means. I remember at the time that my friends, who saw the movie with me (repeatedly, in some cases) told me they had no idea who the killer really was...the daughter, sans hereditary fingers? Twain in disguise in disguise? I'm just hoping you can shed some light on this and finally explain whodunnit.