A Matter Of Survival (St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Jul 08/1981/US) By Jeff Meyers



About a year ago, Kurt Russell, Ernie Borgnine and Isaac Hayes made a movie with me called Escape From New York. Although my part wasn't big enough to bring me to the attention of William Morris, or even Rona Barrett, it challenged my acting ability nevertheless, calling on me to display fear, anger, cunning and desperation, all at the same time.

In a stunning scene dripping with suspense and pathos, I played a mud-caked "Crazy" who had to crawl out of a sewer and dash across a street. To Riverfront for weeks interviewing bums and winos and studying the effects the environment had on rats. I wanted the role to be real, to evoke the feeling of someone deranged enough to make his home in a sewer.

Unlike a lot of Hollywood types, I wasn't that egocentric to start fantasizing during the shooting about big breaks, fat contracts and bevies of starlets pounding on my dressing room door. But I did feel I had stolen the show and possibly saved the movie. As Kurt said to me after the scene, "You did a remarkable job. I wouldn't have gone down in that disgusting sewer for a million bucks plus points."

Some actors work for love, others sell out and take roles strictly for the cash involved. Where do I stand? The compensation was
$25, plus a free meal. So I wasn't going to go out and buy a villa at Cannes with my share of the profits, but at least I had the satisfaction of appearing in a big-budget Hollywood movie. It would look great on my resume.

A lot of other St. Louis actors and actresses felt the same way. Many of the action sequences were filmed downtown, and the production company cast about 150 local people as extras, all of whom would have worked for nothing but love. Competition was stiff. To get the part of a "Crazy," I had to beat out, among others, a sado-masochist and a paranoid schizophrenic. Finally, it was between me and a convicted ax murderer, and the assistant director picked me. He said he liked the glint in my eyes.

My glint wasn't all I had going for me. According to those who were on the set, I brought to the role a certain elan and meaning and gave the character unimagined depth. Ernie told me after the wrap, "You looked like you lived in a sewer all your life." I only wish Brando could have been there.

Understandably, I waited anxiously for the movie to come out this summer. Not only did I want to see myself preserved forever on celluloid, but I wanted to put down the skeptics who suggested I was going to wind up on the cutting room floor. Cut my scene! Impossible. The movie simply wouldn't hold together without it.

A lot of skeptics also assumed that anything involving St. Louis couldn't have anything to do with the authentic professional extravaganzas produced in Hollywood. It was their feeling that John Carpenter, the director, was spending $7 million on a trashy B-movie that was going to die in the states and maybe wind up doing big box office in Tokyo and Mexico City.

I was lucky enough to attend the St. Louis premiere at the Des Peres Cine. Although I was hoping to get there and see giant beacons lighting up the night, I had to settle for a couple of parking attendants directing traffic with flashlights. There weren't any screaming fans, either, or Hollywood stars in shining limousines, although Isaac Hayes did drive up in the derelict ghetto cruiser he used in the film.

Before the movie began, I ran into Debra Hill, the producer. During filming, she gave the impression that extras were only slightly more socially acceptable than lepers. Now, in the lobby, with the film in the can and pressures off, she seemed cheerful and definitely approachable. An attractive, 31-year-old blonde, she was wearing tight designer jeans and a satin turquoise cowboy shirt.

Even though I was not in costume, she surely couldn't have forgotten who I was. "Hi, remember me?" I said with a smile.

She looked at me blankly. "No," she said. "Should I?"

My anxiety increased. Was my scene cut? Was celluloid immortality not in my future? I overheard a few people talking in the lobby. They said Carpenter had decided not to use anything filmed on location in Atlanta. My God, I thought in horror, Carpenter had cut an entire city!

The movie was about to begin. The theater became dark. Appearing on the screen were the words, "Welcome to a preview of an important motion picture." I was impressed. Then the movie began, and I was confused. Directors always make the audience see only what they want to see, but I was focusing in on the background, trying to recognize extras and looking for my scene. There were a lot of other extras in the audience, and apparently they were doing the same thing.

"Hey, there's Mike standing behind Kurt," I heard someone say.

I also couldn't make the necessary suspension of belief. When the helicopters left Liberty Island in New York and landed seconds later on Locust and 17th streets in St. Louis, I wasn't taken in by Hollywood's magic. I was too much an insider to watch the film without breaking it down into its component parts instead of seeing it as a whole, and as a result I couldn't concentrate on the story.

My focus was wandering around the silver screen when something clicked in my mind. Kurt was walking down a deserted street when a manhole cover began to move. I knew the sewer scene was coming up. I tensed in my seat. If I was in the movie, I'd be the closest "Crazy" to the camera when I emerged from the sewer. I leaned forward and watched.

Suddenly, the scene shifted to another group of manholes and I could tell by the set and camera angle that was it. Then a manhole cover began to rise slowly and a shadowy figure crept stealthily up from the depths of the sewer. It was me, making my screen debut, although even my mother wouldn't have been able to recognize me.

The scene was over in about two seconds, and I slumped into my seat, the sheer drama of my performance leaving me breathless. I had made the final cut.