Everyone Wants To Get In
The Act (St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Aug 07/1980/US) By Jeff Meyers
A few hundred of the most sinister-looking characters ever
allowed to set foot in the city of Clayton were milling about under the sizzling
sun on Forsyth Boulevard recently. It wasn't a rumble that brought them out in
the daylight. They were there to audition for parts as sinister-looking sleazy
greasers in a big-budget John Carpenter movie called Escape From New York,
which begins filming here tomorrow.
Inside the audition studio at the Barbizon School of Modeling, one of the
movie's assistant directors, Jeff Chernov, and casting director Pegi Brotman
were running the aspiring extras through 10 at a time. About 600 people
auditioned. Anyone looking homicidal, psychotic, manic or deranged got a part.
If you were rejected, you should probably feel good about yourself.
"Sorry, you look a little too sane," Brotman told a disappointed young man who
was doing impressions of Charles Manson.
"You're a little too sweet-looking for us," she told a woman who resembled a
substitute waitress at a truck stop.
"Thanks, but you're all too clean-cut," Chernov said to a group of 10 men who
looked as if they could pistol-whip little old ladies without feeling any
It should be obvious that Escape From New York isn't a romantic tale
about a pair of rich lovebirds who leave their Park Avenue townhouse for a
summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Carpenter, who directed Halloween
and The Fog, has written a thriller that takes place in 1992 when the
island of Manhattan is a walled prison and its inhabitants don't go to the
suburbs at night.
If you think Manhattan is a zoo now, imagine what it would be like if nobody
lived there but criminals. Carpenter's imagination ran wild with the idea and he
came up with five types of characters: Gypsies, the heavies who are your
hard-core bad guys; Crazies, nocturnal people who live in the sewers; Basic
prisoners, emaciated losers who drift through the streets and hide out, and
The audition was organized by Sharon Lee, who heads Talent Plus, the biggest
talent agency in town. "This is the first audition I've ever held where I was in
danger of being mugged by a reject," she said, half-joking. "I also think we've
got some rival motorcycle gangs trying out. That should be interesting."
Although some ex-cons did audition, not everybody was qualified to join a
terrorist organization. A lot of people dressed the part and put on an act - a
few clean-cut types even sized up the competition, went home, changed into their
grubbiest clothes and returned as bonafide hoods.
"Grow a beard and let your hair grow," Chernov said to a large black man who
"I'm about to cry," the man said, flushed with happiness.
When his initial rush is over, however, he may realize what he is really getting
into. As an extra, he will be paid $25
a day, not bad if he's able to work all three weeks of shooting. It's more
likely, however, that he'll be on call only three or four days. Filming takes
place at night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and most of his time will be spent
waiting around for the action to begin.
"They all know what the pay and the hours are," said Lee, "but that hasn't
discouraged anybody. I guess they all want to be in show biz."
To get the word out about the auditions, Lee contacted unemployment offices,
figuring that a lot of characters hang out there. The strategy paid off - more
than 30 extras were chosen from the ranks of the unemployed (one guy even handed
in his unemployment slip after being selected). But while the prospects of being
in show biz may have appealed to most people, a laid-off construction worker
auditioned for only one reason.
"It's a job," said Gary Hayes, who wound up getting hired as a Crazy - his
disreputable appearance (long unruly hair and a week's stubble on his face) and
the large tattoo of a panther on his arm no doubt gave him the necessary
Out of the 10 people who were herded into the audition room, Chernov and Brotman
usually selected two or three as extras. The rest were told a polite "thank you"
and motioned to the door. The process took no longer than a minute. Most rejects
stood there stunned for a brief second, unable to understand that they weren't
wanted. Then they slowly walked out, making way for a new group.
"I'm shattered," a man said. "I would have done anything to get into the movie,
even work 24 hours a day."
Another person who would do anything was affable, bearded Al Coleman. As soon as
Chernov and Brotman saw him, they knew they had their double for Isaac Hayes,
who plays the Gypsy leader. Coleman, however, would have to shave his head.
Would he do it?
"With tweezers if I had to," he said. "You can't believe how excited I am to get
involved in this movie."
About 150 extras were chosen, but only 13 were women. One of the women, dressed
as a Gypsy, got the part by showing her temper. After she had been rejected, she
flung off her scarf in disgust, apparently impressing Chernov with her flair for
drama. He told her to stay and cast her as a Prisoner. She promptly changed
character, going from Gypsy to Prisoner, and hiked up her blouse to show her
"Look how skinny I am," she said. "I'll be perfect."
When the auditions were over and the last reject was sent away, Chernov and
Brotman sorted out the audition slips and found that they had hit their quotas
almost exactly. They picked 30 Gypsies, 28 Broadways and 55 Prisoners, some of
whom will double as Bums. Major film makers usually get their extras from
Hollywood casting companies, but St. Louis can be proud that it was capable of
providing as many weirdos as the movie needed.
"I'm really pleased," Brotman said. "Al (Coleman) is fabulous - we really got
lucky with him. We got the people we were looking for, that's for sure. There
are some guys we picked that you'd certainly want on your side."
As a footnote to this story, it should be pointed out that Chernov and Brotman
found a surprise weirdo. As the auditions were winding down, I jokingly did my
Ax Murderer imitation for Chernov and he immediately cast me as a Crazy.
Hey, I know the pay and the hours are lousy, and I'll be standing around doing
nothing most of the time, but, wow, I'm in show biz!