Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"An Unexpected Act Of Kindness"

I don’t know how I got my acting role in The Merry Wives of Tobias Rooke, the Canadian movie that lost its funding, was never edited, and wound up in the trunk of the director’s car.  I guess it was just a lucky break.

Maybe they heard how sensational I had been in Cannibal Girls and they snapped me up, before my asking price went through the roof, or I got signed up to a hefty studio contract.  Stranger things have happened. 

And this would have to be really strange, because, by that time, the studios didn’t sign people to contracts anymore.  They’d have had to negotiate my deal under the “Earl Pomerantz Exception.”  Of course, when they really want you…

Anyway, there I was, the “comic relief”, or, since the movie itself was a comedy, the “comic relief insurance”, playing a bumpkin of arboreal intelligence – barefoot, wearing ratty old jeans, a moth-eaten pair of Long John’s and no shirt, the upper portion of the Long John’s serving as a top. 

This was before I got contact lenses, and they didn’t want me to wear glasses in the movie.  Which was a problem because, without them, there was a strong possibility I would wind up accidentally walking into the nearby lake.

Get this!  They wanted me to do a nude scene.  Yeah, I know – “You?” – but it was the early seventies, which, in Canada, was still the sixties, because Canada got the sixties late.  Nude scenes were obligatory in the sixties.  Otherwise, it looked like the fifties.

Despite relentless pressure from the director, I adamantly refused to do the nude scene, reminding him of our contract – of the verbal variety – stipulating that I would not be required to do any.  (I have only two demands when I take an acting role – no nude scenes, and no being locked in the trunk of a car.  Call me “difficult”, but that’s just the way it is.) 

The director was not happy.  He never gave up trying to induce me to lose the Long John’s.  He told me that if I got nude, he’d get nude.  It found this to be a strange and entirely unpersuasive incentive.

I was standing rib-deep in a murky, algae-infested pond, dressed only in my tightly clinging, and getting more waterlogged by the minute Long John’s.  To me, this was a funny look.  Much funnier than nude.

The director’s pressure to bend me to  his will continued.  Under the pretext of “camera problems” that needed attention, he required me to remain on my “mark”, in the middle of the pond.  As evening loomed, and the water getting incrementally chillier, a substantial squadron of minnows – it was apparently their dinnertime – started nipping at the delicate nether parts of my body, helplessly submerged beneath the surface.

They left me in that rapidly chilling pond and its nibbling inhabitants for almost an hour.  I recognized this as a transparent strategy of coercion, because every few minutes, the director would ask me if I had changed my mind about the nude scene. 

The longer I continued to stand my ground – if you can “stand your ground” in a pool full of swamp water – the more that darned camera continued to misbehave.  In the end, I won out, maintaining my dignity, as they shot me in my underwear.

During production on Tobias Rooke, I experienced a moment of unexpected kindness, in tribute to which I hereby dedicate today’s post. 

A running gag in this unfinished comedy classic was the repetitive dunking of people’s heads in a barrel of rainwater.  Other characters received dunkings as well.  But I, as the designated buffoon, had the privileged distinction of being dunked twice. 

This was not punishment for my refusal to do the nude scene; it was written in the script.  Apparently, it was believed, if holding a person’s head under water for an interminable period of time was funny once, it would be screamingly funny a second time.

The problem was, in my case, it was not funny once.  It looked like I was struggling for my life.  Another actor’s earlier dunking, on the other hand, met with hilarious laughter.  The director had to reprimand the crew.  Their uncontrollable cackling had messed up the “take.”

During my turn, however, no reprimands were necessary.  Which perplexed me.  I felt frustrated being unable to elicit laughter as my head was repeatedly immersed in the rain barrel.

There was this girl there.  She held my glasses during the dunkings.  I’m sure that wasn’t her only job on the movie – we did not have that kind of budget. 

I do not recall what else she did, or even what she looked like.  Being an actor, you understand, I was focused entirely on my performance.  I do seem to recall a lack of pretention about her, and an indefinable sweetness.

After my first dunking, I returned to the young woman – she was mid-twenties, as I was – to retrieve my glasses.  As a professional, I was confused about not getting a laugh.  As a person, I was hurt.

I remember asking her, though I was probably asking both of us,

“Why didn’t they laugh?”

To which she calmly replied,

“They know you don’t like it.”

A person says the right thing, the right way, and you remember that gesture of uncommon kindness for the rest of your life.  At least, I do.

I know I didn’t thank her.  I do not recall even talking to her again.  There was something visceral in her gentle tone and genuine concern. 

And I think it scared me.

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