My First Teamster!
The white-hot arc of my production career started during the Fall of 1984 with Suzy Miller at the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia. In December I reluctantly left that unpaid internship at KYW-TV to move back to New York City. My entreaties to find paid work in the City of Brotherly Love turned up absolutely nothing and my follow up to job postings on the NBC “Employment Opportunities!” site included more than one suggestion to “Perhaps look into the internship program at your local affiliate to gain some experience,” I returned to what is always touted as the world’s largest job market, The Big Apple.
I sent out 200 hard copy resumes. But since most of the people that received them didn’t get past the “G” in “George” at the top of my CV, I concentrated on getting the proposed recipients on the phone . . . yes, this was long before the millennial ideal of speaking with no one from the time you turned seven, through the moment of your untimely passing, invaded our work culture.
A typical conversation with a gatekeeper would go as follows:
Reception: “Good Morning. Big Enormous Productions.”
Me: “Hi. I’d like to speak with Joe Producer, please.”
Reception: “Who’s calling?”
Me: “Uh. Tell him it’s his mother.”
Reception: “You have a very deep voice for someone who’s been dead for six years.”
Me: “Uh, yes you’re right, and you might want to tell him it’s urgent.”
Reception: “This isn’t very funny.”
Me: “It’s not?”
Reception: “No. His mother isn’t dead, but you’ve tried this same routine three times now.”
Me: “I have? I must have lost track.”
Reception: “Oh, I believe Joe just got off the line. I’ll put you through.”
Reception (SHOUTING): “JOE! IT’S THAT WISEASS P.A. LOOKING FOR WORK!!”
Joe Producer: “Did he use that bit about my mother again?”
Joe Producer: “Let’s put him on the Maalox shoot, and tell the Teamster captain he called him a fairy.”
Reception: “Will do. (To me) Call time is 6am at Mothers Studios 2.”
This exchange has been embellished, and the end result is that I usually did not get hired, but once in a while someone would take pity on me and put me on a gig. Either that or they got sick of hearing from me every week or two.
At this point in the process, which was the first two months of 1985, I don’t know which I liked better, the pity hire or the annoyance hire. They both have certain characteristics.
The Pity Hire telegraphs to the producer and coordinator that you are a weak, sniveling wuss raised in a vacuum and owning a lot of bow ties. You will be humiliated publicly over this.
The Annoyance Hire connotes some strength, but at least one revenge job awaits you, and you will have to learn to throw a left jab, if you want to survive.
Bill Cote, owner of the cleverly named BC Studios on West 25thStreet in NYC gave me my very, very first P.A. job. He actually called me and offered lunch and no pay to work on a marketing video in his studio, which was a very nicely kept, smallish (1000 square feet?) photo stage.
Bill: “Crew call is at 8am.”
Me: “Would you like me to come in before them?”
Bill: “This really is your first job, isn’t it?”
Me: “North of Philadelphia, yes.”
Bill: “New York is also east of Philadelphia.”
Me: “I worked in Atlantic City once.”
Bill: “In production?”
Me: “7:30am okay?”
Bill: “Make it 7am. There might be some gear to unload.”
Me: “Gear? I—”
Bill hung up, after not assuaging my fears of actually working on a set in New York City, which I realized was about to happen for the first time in my career. I had been on a set, but as a craft-service (That term I did know) gorging dancer.
The next day, a very cold typical January day for New York City, I sprang out of bed and joined the subway commuters on the 6 train at 77th and Lexington Avenue. If any of you survived the adventures of the videogame also known as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the 80’s, you know how much fun commuting with a bunch of Wall Street Yuppies can be. Given that I was, more or less, sleeping with one of them, I was sorta thrilled to be crushed by humanity as the already packed train pulled into the station and every doofus with an Ivy League degree turned the platform into a rave.
Made a promise to myself after this first morning. If rush hour commuting ever made it back into a regimen for me I was heading to the middle of as many women as possible. Their clothes at the time weren’t any nicer than the suits the men wore, but at least they smelled better.
I survived the subway ride and showed up at 6:55am in front of a bell/buzzer that read “X$#&%,” but appeared to be in the approximate area of the main door to Bill Cote’s studio on West 25th Street. I rang, and straight from the scene from FX, a window opened and a set of keys that would have made the managing monk at a Benedictine monastery proud, plummeted from a window. The ring included a genuine skeleton key about the size of Johnny Depp. The key ring cracked the sidewalk. I noticed several other weekend golfer sized divots nearby.
“It’s the copper colored one.” Came a voice that had just finished gargling razor blades.
There were six copper colored ones, not counting the Johnny Depp sized skeleton key. I tried three before I got in.
I stared at a second door that could have helped Ripley hold back the creatures in Aliens. I took the bold move of throwing the security bar off the jamb and turning the latch.
It opened, and not a single retractable-jawed alien stood on the other side. Just a hardwood floor room with several flavors of wall surrounding it. One brick. One wood paneled. One with a piece (Later I would be told this was called seamless) of gray paper covering it. And one wallpapered relic from the 50’s that held a multipaned door.
In the far corner, directly away from the Alien barrier, sat a man with an Ozzy Osbourne hair style. At least a dozen empty wine bottles in front of him at a kitchen table. He folded the lead foil from their necks into neat little blocks.
Me: “You must be Bill Cote.”
Bill Cote: “Why?”
I took it as an auspicious way to start my film career.
Me: “No reason."
Just as this in-depth conversation about German Expressionism, or was it Minimalism, was about to continue, the Alien barricade door swung open once more and slammed into the brick façade wall of the studio. Shortly thereafter a parade of cholesterol-challenged leg-breakers waddled in.
My first Teamsters.
One at the lead, wore the haute couture of a black T-shirt that read, “Mama’s Pizzeria, because someone has to work in this family,” a pair of bluejeans once owned by Levi Strauss, and work boots with the bloodstains from the body of the previous owner. During the man’s hour long trek across the forty foot studio floor, a sandbag in his left hand exploded, its contents spilling onto the hardwood. He stopped, which had the same effect as the QE2 trying to back up. His colleagues also applied their brakes at the rate of local government, and the five of them gathered round the sand pile.
The killer of the sandbag, looked down, dropped its cloth corpse onto the sand, and turned his head in the direction of Bill Cote. It might have been the most exercise the man had in a month.
Sandbag Killer: “Pffffww.”
Bill Cote: “George will take care of it.”
Sandbag Killer: “Who F$&K is George?”
Bill pointed his non wine bottle arts and crafts finger at me.
Sandbag Killer: “Pffffww.”
He turned and looked at his colleagues. They erupted into laughter that sounded like a half dozen tugboats competing for space in the East River. The lot of them turned like a fleet of 747s on a tarmac and waddled back out again.
Me: "Where are they going?"
Bill Cote: "Hennessy's. A place around the corner. They'll be back at wrap."
Me: "What will they do all day?"
Bill finally stopped obsessively folding lead foil and stood. He put his hands on his hips and gave me a quick up and down.
Bill Cote: "Yep. Your first job. Let's get started. You'll figure it all out as we go."
And in hindsight, two firsts for that day. Teamsters and a very prescient statement about the production industry. You just sorta figure it all out as you go.
NEXT SUNDAY: A seemingly harmless TV spot for Frito-Lay lands an actor in the Loeb Boathouse Lake and sets a personal record for Yours truly for hours worked. See you then.