This story came back to me when I was writing about how I once stood in line to see the filming of a pilot made by my co-workers when I was expected instead as an apparent VIP to simply walk into the studio. (Oh, how “Everyman” am I!)
I no longer remember the name of the pilot, but I know that it was never picked up for series. I also recall that it starred veteran character actor Jack Gilford – he played “Hysterium” in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum – a man who was then in his late sixties. (That last part I looked up.)
The show centered on the Jack Gilford character who, similar to “Broadway Danny Rose”, played a small time agent for fringe – meaning barely working and far from topping the bill – show biz entertainers. (The failed pilot, shot in 1977, predated the Woody Allen movie by seven years. I looked that up too. Thank God Google doesn’t charge anything. And thank God they don’t read this or I might have given them an idea.)
In the pilot episode, Jack Gilford represents an itinerant “Knife Thrower” – you cannot get much more “fringe show biz entertainer” than that – and a crisis arises when the knife thrower’s assistant is suddenly unavailable and the reluctant Jack Gilford character is pressed into service to fill in.
At the climactic point in the story, Gilford is about to be fastened to a large wheel, which will then be spun very quickly while the knife thrower flings his “Implements of Death” around the perimeter of his quivering body.
Offering rapid-fire alternatives to his torturous destiny, at the last moment during his desperate pleading for a reprieve Jack Gilford suddenly “goes up” on his lines. Meaning he forgets what comes next.
The director yells “Cut!”
The actor apologizes for “drying” – which means the same thing as “going up” – and, after the Script Supervisor steps up and reminds him of the line, they go for “Take Two” from the spot where they left off.
Gilford goes into his speech while being secured tightly to the wheel. But when they are about to give it a vigorous spin… wouldn’t you know it…?
Gilford “goes up” in his again. At exactly the same spot.
Well… it happens. And the live audience loves it. This is the exciting part of coming to a filming. You get to witness the mistakes. Then later when they are watching, they can tell their viewing companions “He kept ‘fluffing’ that line” with a big smile on their face because they were there in the audience when he “fluffed” it.
Now, after the producers have kibitzed playfully with the actor to calm him down, we proceed to “Take Three.”
And he does it again.
Swearing after the director yells, “Cut!”
“And then he swore!” crows the aficionado of the actual experience.
It is now officially embarrassing. The actor is detectably upset, snapping angrily at the Script Supervisor as she approaches…
“I don’t need that. I know the line!”
Causing her to slink humiliated into the shadows, her reaction, a mixture of sympathy for the actor’s situation, and wondering if she should call up her union and register a “Grievance.”
It’s an unrealistic reaction, but at moments like these, you cannot help feeling, “I’m going to die before they finish this scene.”
They try a couple of more times.
The actor is beside himself, the director, superficially at least, patient, the studio audience uncomfortable, confused by this thespicanical “meltdown.”
“One line. Why is it so hard?”
Finally, after six blown “takes”, they move on regardless, deciding to shoot the abandoned scene later in “pick-ups” (parts of filming they “pick up” after the audience has been released.
Finally, the Assistant Director yells, “That’s a wrap!” and the audience files out.
I myself remain behind.
I want to watch them shoot the “Knife Throwing” scene in “pick-ups.”
And hang around for the party.
Once again, they set up for the scene they’d skipped over, the scene the actor’s ineptitude had made impossible to complete.
And then it hit me. The reason for that ineptitude.
Jack Gilford did not forget the line because he was approaching seventy and his mind was going. He forgot the line because he knew that after he delivered that line…
They would be spinning him on a wheel!
His unconscious strategy, therefore:
“When I say the line, they are spinning me on that wheel.”
“I don’t want them to spin me on that wheel.”
“I am not saying the line.”
And he didn’t.
Six times in a row.
(Note: The knives are not a problem. Timed to the throwing motion, they are rigged to spring out from the inside of the wheel.)
Now, however, minus the added pressure of the audience, Jack Gilford made it mercifully through the speech and the “Knife Throwing” scene was finally “in the can.” (They got it.)
No valuable lesson ingrained in my “Memory Bank”. No “Witness to History.” It’s not like “I was at Ford’s Theater the night they shot President Lincoln.”
Why has this story stayed with me for nigh on to forty years?
It just killed me to watch the man spin.