On the Road, the Movie


My life-long friend, my comrade-in-arms, my partner, my spouse, is a frustrated talent scout/manager. This has been okay because we have had enough talent around to manage. 

Admittedly the talent (our children) have been mostly reluctant, there have been some very close calls in landing a major media event. Several kids have been in public service announcements, some in out of focus backgrounds as extras, and a few in director auditions for a major film. 

I guess there are several interesting aspects that are attractive. The first is simply the hunt. Looking at all the announcements, matching the audition call to the specific talents. “You can do this, you have to speak Croatian, but you have at least a week to memorize the phrase!”

I have stayed aloof from the activity, supportive but aloof. I will act as chauffeur, I will wait backstage, I will be available for the possible call-backs. But I will not be part of the “talent.”

Except for one time- I was tricked. I was supportive in driving my wife and child to an audition for a national toothpaste commercial. At least I think it was toothpaste. Anyway, while I was waiting for them to get their photos taken, I was told it was for a family, and I had to have my photo taken as well. Against my better thoughts I allowed myself to be put into the agencies system. 

We didn’t get the commercial so I thought nothing about it for months. Maybe a year had gone by when I received a call at work. Someone asked me if I still had my beard. There had been some introduction information but I had immediately forgotten most of it, but now the question of “did I still have my beard?” had my complete attention.
Why would anyone ask that? Wait, who is this? And what do you want?

The answer was that she was a casting director, she had seen my photo, and she thought I would be perfect for an important part in a major motion picture. But I had to come to San Francisco tonight to go to wardrobe and then go to the shoot tomorrow. 

I suppose that 90% of the time, the response to her calls are so wildly exciting that she was not prepared for my confused reply. I said that there was some mistake and that she had the wrong number. She then gave my name and said that she was looking at my photo, and did I still have a beard?

I replied that I vaguely recalled a photo being taken, but it was the rest of my family that did this stuff, and sad to say, I was not interested. Normally that should have been the end, but she started to plead with some desperation that I was “perfect for the part and this was a major film, and that I really should change my mind. It was a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” And it’s been shooting for four years and famous people are in it.”

Well, that was interesting! “On the Road” was one of my favorite books, and somewhat responsible fro at least three years of my hitch-hiking life. But, I still said, very politely, that I was not interested, so I hung up.
“Wow, that was sure interesting, I have to call Sherry and let her know what just happened.” That was a naive thought, she knew exactly what happened. They had called her in the first place, she said yes then gave them my work number. I never even questioned how they found me.

I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but it basically ended with my assertion that I was too tired to drive to SF. That was the weakest excuse, solved by her willingness to drive me. Okay, maybe I was a little afraid of going there by myself. This was not my thing and I wanted company. 

So I called the casting director back and said that I would do the gig. I think she actually cried, then gave me directions. 

An hour later and I was in a Holiday Inn banquet room in downtown San Francisco, with racks upon racks of vintage clothes, dating to around 1949, the year of my birth. Cool!

Several costume people were busy picking out shoes, pants, shirts and sweaters for me to try. Finally a decision was made and I was told to drive to the location tomorrow and go to the wardrobe truck to get ready for my scene. They gave me a map.

It just so happens that the location was not in San Francisco, it was about a two hour drive up the Delta towards Sacramento, in the small town of Locke. I knew Locke very well, I had been going there for years because it was so interesting. It was built in the early 1900s out of scrap lumber and hadn’t changed in ninety years. Very cool shops and one of the classic bar/restaurants in the entire Delta- “Al, the Wops”. Weird name, great place. 

I was to be on location at 4:30 pm and the shoot might last several hours. The movie people had rented the entire town for the several scenes that they needed. They were looking for a place that would look like a St. Louis black community circa 1949. In his book, Jack Kerouac had stopped to listen to some late night jazz in a beat up neighborhood in St. Louis. Locke was the perfect choice. 

So there I was, standing on a porch in the evening, looking exactly like my father, dressed as I was, surrounded by about fifty black extras that were paid to stroll in the streets of a mid-west town that was actually in the California Delta. 

I was a little confused because I was told that I was playing a drunk poet in some bar in NYC. Okay, so I guess any bar will do, so long as it looked like it was from 1940s. And then I remembered “Al, the Wops”, it was perfect, it hadn’t changed in sixty years. Sure enough, I finally got the call to go to the bar.

I forgot to mention, when I was in the wardrobe truck, I had actually bumped into one of the stars, Kirsten something from the vampire movies. She looked pretty good in stockings with a seam in the back. Not very friendly to extras. I noticed that before I got to wardrobe that I was treated very well. I might have been an investor, or a friend of someone important. As soon as I was in costume I was nobody, random actor meat.
So now I was in place at the bar. It was supposed to be empty except for me, the bartender, and Jack Kerourac, who was sitting at a table behind me. I never saw him because I wasn’t supposed to turn around. 
My fifteen seconds of fame consisted of looking at my empty shot glass, motioning the bartender with my finger, taking the shot completely with my head back, then placing the empty glass back on the bar. 
I did exactly that, and then I heard the word “Cut”, and then “That’s a wrap”. 

One take, I did it in one take, one lonely bedraggled, drunk, beat poet in an empty bar in NYC.
Except it wasn’t in NYC city, and it wasn’t empty. It looked empty from the camera’s view but there were dozens of people just out of range. I had several people under my barstool, at least six crouched under the bar in front of me, and maybe fifty people behind the camera, moving with it as it panned.

Wait, he said “That’s a wrap”, it turns out that this was the last scene in the entire movie. Four years of filming in five countries and it all ended in “Al the Wops” bar. 

I couldn’t leave if I wanted, it seemed like hundreds of people jammed in the bar, all shouting congrats, and swigging down a long neck bottle of beer. I found myself cheering for Charles who did such an amazing job in Toronto, and Jorge down in Brazil. I didn’t know who these people were but they deserved applause and I was trapped and couldn’t leave anyway. 

Walter Salles, the director, came over and thanked me for my time and contribution. Class act for fifteen seconds of movie making. I was really impressed and I really hoped that the movie was going to be good. 
Finally I pried myself out of the bar and I put off my father’s clothes, and now dressed as myself, I headed to the car for a thoughtful ride home. 

Thank you, my wife, for a wonderful experience, a perfect example of a great outcome, regardless of my grumpiest attitude. 

Post Script.

I thought I was safe from the cutting room floor. It was the last scene in the movie, and Jack was thinking about his friend Dean and his entire experience of being on the road with a wild man “seeking the meaning of America”. Surely I would end the movie as a background character, slightly out of focus in the lens and in the spirit. 
I was wrong, I was replaced by a typewriter, with a sound track of Jack voicing the same thoughts. “Al, the Wops” never showed up in the movie, neither did I.

Well, too bad, that’s the movie business. I did get a check for $350.

And also, the movie kinda flopped.