Hollywood’s Biggest Prima Donna

I have worked in Show Biz in the Sound Department, on set, for a very long time. How long? Well, let’s see, oh, carry the seven, multiply by 5 . . . over 320 years. In that time I’ve worked with some pretty big names, and some of those big shots had impressive demands.

I remember working with Elizabeth Taylor as a boom operator on a perfume ad many years ago. Before she arrived on set, everything had to be completely set-up and perfectly lit or she wouldn’t step out of her dressing room. All the cables had to be “dressed,” which meant that every cable was run together in straight lines and right angles, and taped over to prevent the possibility that she could trip. There were to be no errant, rogue cables anywhere. And if you’ve ever been on a set, you know what a herculean feat that is.

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That is actually me on the boom

 

Her dressing room had to be very close to set, and was to be filled, and I mean filled, with fresh flowers every morning, and she had to be given a wrapped gift for every day that she was shooting. A gift. For Elizabeth Taylor. What the hell do you buy Elizabeth Taylor?

But when she stepped on her mark, she was hypnotizingly beautiful.  Those eyes…

Mickey Rooney was very entertaining to work with (yes, that Mickey Rooney, but he was really old – I didn’t work with him on National Velvet fer cryin’ out loud).  We were working on a small project at the Queen Mary, in the cool deco bar, and we invited Mr. Rooney to the set for a final tweak and lighting adjustment.

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He walked in, dropped his coat, stepped on his mark, waited 15 seconds, and then got furious with us. “You do not call me to the set until you are ready to roll. Not five minutes before, not five seconds before. Do not call me until you are ready to turn on the camera. And when I walk out here and stand on my mark, you will turn on the camera.” Then he stormed off.

There was a moment of silence while we all looked at each other, then the Assistant Director said, “You heard the man, let’s do this,” and we made sure everything was ready before we called him in again. There were lots of “are you sure’s?” being thrown around before we invited him.

This time he came in, hit his mark, the A.D. called “Roll sound, roll camera, and action!” and Mickey delivered his entire set of lines to camera, perfectly. The director said, “Cut! That’s great Mr. Rooney!  Let’s do another one!”

Mr. Rooney shot daggers out of his eyes at the director. He asked the Assistant Camera, “Was it in focus?” “Yes sir.” He pointed at the Gaffer, “Were the lights good?” “Yes sir.” He looked at me, “Was the sound good?” “Yes sir.”

Mr. Rooney then turned to the director and said, “Well, we know I was good, so you don’t need another one.” And with that, he walked off the set, down the gangplank, climbed into his limo, and disappeared into the sunset, leaving the director gasping for another take, his mouth opening and closing like a grouper out of water.

Later that same day, we had the pleasure of working with the Ann Miller, who said to the entire crew, “I hear you worked with Mickey earlier today.  He’s f**king nuts!”

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A few years back I was working on a sound stage on the historic Warner Brothers Studios lot in lovely Burbank. At lunch, my boom op and I took a walk down the rows of historic stages, where the likes of Bette Davis, James Cagney, and James Dean once perfected their art and built our Hollywood history, and we saw far off in the distance a giant, gleaming silver object. Besides the stages, there was nothing on the lot as big. It drew us to it, like moths to a flame.

As we got closer, we wondered if it was a gigantic TV production truck, but it was much too big – nearly as tall as the sound stage behind it. It was so long that we couldn’t see the front or back since they were obscured by sound stages on either side of the road. Was it a building? What could this structure possibly be? It had an array of satellite dishes so surely it must house some huge amount of equipment or technology for whatever was shooting in the stage it obstructed.

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Finally we stood before the behemoth whose girth blocked more than a dozen valuable parking spaces and realized that it was indeed a giant trailer whose side telescoped out into the traffic lane, and its roof extended up towards the sky revealing darkened windows that ran the length of the vehicle like a giant Space Needle observation deck. It’s generators growled loudly and rumbled ominously, almost as if issuing a warning not to approach any further.

We asked one of the several Teamsters on hand what it was for, and they said, “Oh, that’s Ashton Kutcher’s motor home.”

But the biggest prima donna I ever worked for?  The Gateway Computer cow.  You heard me.

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That cow required a special walkway that led from her holding pen in the parking lot all the way to the stage. But not just any walkway, a special green artificial grass made of 60% polyurethane and 40% Indian nylon with the hue not to exceed 62% saturation. Or she might get confused and walk to a different stage.

There had to be a protective berm of sand on either side of the carpet, in case she veered off course. But not just any sand. It was very special sand, specifically for this purpose. We were pretty sure the cow’s agent said Holy Sand from the deserts just outside of Bahrain.

There were restrictions on how loud the set could be, how many people could be working near the cow, what specific food the cow had to have and how often, how long her breaks were, no one was to make jokes about her four chambered stomach.

This cow was so special that her personality required her to have an entire other cow be present on the set for “motivation.” I’m not kidding – we had two giant cows on set. What motivation does a flippin’ cow need?  Oh, and she had to have a wrangler that just happened to be built like a bull, if you get my drift.

The really freaky part?  All true.

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