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 remorse.

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 Bums.

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 made it.

"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 attributes.

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 ribs.

"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!