Frontlines

Happy to be just one of the crowd

December 10 1979
Frontlines

Happy to be just one of the crowd

December 10 1979

Happy to be just one of the crowd

Frontlines

Ever since the movies came to Toronto in a big way, thousands of ordinary people have found that they don’t have to be superstars to strut before the cameras. The opposite is more likely to be true: the more “ordinary” you look, the better your chances of working as an “extra” with the likes of Richard Burton or Ann-Margret. This month, the legendary John Huston has been shouting directions to “instant actors” of all shapes and ages who are playing hooky from office, factory or school to be on the set of Phobia.

“The person doesn’t exist who can’t be an extra in some movie,” declares Peter Lavender, king of the mobs, whose Film Extra Services has provided the human landscape for 32 feature films. With his wife, Eleanor, Lavender runs the largest of the city’s several

casting services, providing extras with “the Texas look” for Middle-Age Crazy or the right number of blacks or Orientals for movies set in American cities.

“But neither age nor looks will keep you off the screen,” insists Lavender, a former actor and agent. “This summer, I hired a 91-year-old man and his 87year-old wife for the scenes in Off Your Rocker, the Milton Berle comedy set in an old folks’ home. About 70 per cent of the time, though, the work is for men and women between 30 and 50—the people you’d pass in the street or see in offices and restaurants.”

For some extras the money is far more important than the “glamor” or even the chance of getting near the stars. “I’m not into acting much—I’m doing it mostly for the money,” admits 15-year-old David Houston, who cut school to play a restaurant scene with Tatum O’Neal. “It gets really boring unless you’re in a small group. That way you can get a chance to fool around with the star.” As a “general extra” in crowd scenes, David earns $3 to $5 an hour, though if the scene has fewer than 25 extras, the union minimum is $48.50 per day.

But more often than not, the money is irrelevant. Marguerite Gaynor, also of Toronto, has been in 20 films in two years and she turns out “even for something drastic, like the crowd scene in The Kidnapping of the President in city hall square. It doesn’t pay—I work as an office temporary so I can drop work when I’m needed—but I want to get into show business so I don’t care what the scene, or what the pay is.”

Henry Hockridge sacrifices his vacation time to work as an extra. “I use two weeks of my holidays each year for movies. In December, I can draw on next year’s vacation and this time, I’m going to be very serious.” He grins: “After all, I’ve been trying to become a star for 30 years.”

Even when stardom isn’t the ambition, an extra’s life can be seductive. “I started on a whim,” admits Fred Rahn, a 66-year-old retired businessman, “but now, though I’ve no acting background at all, I’m serious about it. I feel like an actor. My family supports me though I get kidded at the curling club: they ask for my autograph.”

But for Sylvia Holt, who works as a “special business extra,” which means more money and more time on the screen, being an extra is “a wonderful life for a woman who’s reached 60 and hasn’t long to go. I meet people like Orson Welles and John Huston: it’s not only a different world I’ve entered but a new career—at my age!” fp