Burton on the Bay:
In the Movies -
Burton Said Yes; Tangier No
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
-Shakespeare's As You Like It
Well, they didn't like it down Tangier Island way, and the players didn't make their entrance. It was exit before the first curtain call.
The island folks wanted no part of hosting the filming of the PG-13 movie, Message in a Bottle. Too much sin - sex, alcohol and profanity - ruled the Town Council of the Chesapeake Bay community of 685 residents whose income is low but moral standards high.
Morals prevailed over the lure $5,000 cash, nearly $25,000 for needed town boat dock repairs, and a chance for many residents to pick up spending money. The tiny island won't see the likes of Kevin Costner, Paul Newman, Robin Wright and the rest of the Warner Bros. gang.
From his grave, critic and humorist Sidney Joseph Perelman must be smiling. In 1964 he wrote in the Paris Review: "The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it's unspeakable."
Though some islanders more interested in tourism and greenbacks disagreed, the town fathers voted thumbs down after checking out the script. Baltimore can have Homicide, but any Message in a Bottle for islanders will have to be one drifting ashore from the Chesapeake.
A Day in the Movies
So what are they missing? Not much other than money. They couldn't figure on Costner, Newman and Co. mingling with the citizens - or praying with them at the Methodist Church, the steeple of which is the island's landmark.
In the late '70s a couple of movies were filmed in Annapolis and Baltimore, and I signed on for bit parts - tiny bits, a face in the crowd.
The House of Delegates in Annapolis was among the spots taken over by Alan Alda, Meryl Streep, Carrie Nye, Melvin Douglas, Rip Torn and so forth in a movie first to be named The Senator, then A Public Affair, and finally, I believe, The Seduction of Joe Tynan.
I can't say for sure because I never did see the movie; I'm not much for flicks - even a story about a U.S. senator who falls for his secretary, which is tame stuff when compared with a president falling for a White House intern.
When the opportunity first knocked, I declined, having scheduled a fishing trip that day, but Taylor-Royal Casting Co. called home to give me a second chance, wife Lois answered, and the decision was no longer mine. One of the bodies needed to play a senator was me, which meant I needed a conservative business suit - and Lois, though not into movies, wasn't about to pass up a chance to get me into a new suit.
What a frenzied evening. I had to get a suit for morning casting call, and in a mall I finally found one that fit, a dark blue job of wool with pinstripes for $173.95. I still have it, vest and all, but it hasn't been worn much.
It served a couple of days for Sen. Vicari, my role, which had only one line - only one word, in fact. I voted aye during the senate roll call in the House of Delegates, which for the movie was the U.S. Senate chamber.
Bill Burton, at right, playing U.S. Sen. Vicari, in The Seduction of Jow Tynan.
Sen. Joe Tynan, Alan Alda, wasn't seated far from me, but he only stayed around for the vote. It's the extras who are always on the scene, you know the old hurry up and wait routine. But the food was good, the pay even better - and there were a few laughs, like when legendary Baltimore City Comptroller Hyman Pressman was told his scene would end up on the cutting room floor or when the late Anne Arundel County Republican stalwart Sen. John Cade of Severna Park was cast as a Democrat.
Then there was the battle between the late influential Democrat Sen. Harry McGuirk, who later ran for governor against William Donald Schaefer, and the casting crew that wanted to turn him into a Republican. He wouldn't budge; it was Democrat or nothing, time was running out, and after some salty bickering he stayed a Democrat, movie script or not.
Disappointed at missing the cut for some close-ups - and a chance to better show off that new suit - I was headed for the exit when a director stopped me. Rip Torn wanted to see me in his dressing room.
Someone did notice my acting talent.
But I wasn't Hollywood bound. Torn, a fisherman, heard I was a TV angler and wanted to know where we could get in a few hours fishing for bass and bluegills. So much for stardom.
The next casting call was 3pm the following Thursday at the home of the Johns Hopkins University president on the Homewood campus. The scene called for a rowdy bunch of senators and guests smashing a grand piano through the front door, so carpenters were busy taking out the original doorway woodwork and replacing it with a flimsy facade.
The extras earned money while the paint dried, and Torn took me to his rented car to show me the cooler of bluegills he caught at Loch Raven. He didn't have to arrive early like us extras.
I drank cocktails (ginger ale) once the director called for action, but I wasn't among those who got "combat" pay for rolling the piano through the door. The director wasn't satisfied, and it had to be done again - after a new doorway was constructed and its paint dried.
It was 5am when the second try - with another piano - was approved, and I headed home as carpenters began the task of putting the original pieces back at the entrance of the big stately brick domicile.
Double Pay on Sunday
So much for that new suit, I thought - $173.95 for a few seconds on film. But it got another chance for exposure the following winter when Al Pacino filmed And Justice for All in Baltimore. It was a Sunday, so I had no conflicts with hunting; instead I ended up leaving a downtown church as Pacino jogged by before the cameras, which got me a few seconds of exposure.
On Sunday we got double pay for eight hours of waiting, a few seconds of "acting," and enough suit-wearing to justify writing the pinstripe off on my income taxes. I did get to see the Pacino movie, as did many thousands of others - it was a hit - but after 19 years I've yet to have anyone mention noticing me.
The two movies enriched me by a couple thousand dollars, certainly much better than the $5 I got as one of the background Navy crowd when Song of the Seabees was filmed in California. Now that's a movie that would have lived up to the moral standards of the Tangier Islanders - but they don't make movies like that anymore. Enough said
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VolumeVI Number 11
March 19-25, 1998
New Bay Times
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