May 17, 2023–(Note: Last week I wrote about my stint as an extra in the movie Barbarosa, filmed around Fredericksburg in 1980 and starring Willie Nelson and Gary Busey. On what was to be my last day on the set, the film crew hired me as a stand-in for actor Danny De La Paz. Now, the rest of the story…)
I soon learned what a movie stand-in did. For the next three weeks, I simply “stood” in the spot where the actor would perform his scene.
The crew would nail down a small rubber “T” to show me where to place my feet. I wore the exact same outfit as the actor. The crew held a tape measure from my nose to the lens, then stuck a light meter in front of my face. They even held up that “clapper” thing. It was just like a scene from those corny skits where they pretend to make a movie.
When every detail was set, the director (Fred Schepisi, who also directed Six Degrees of Separation) politely said, “Thank you, Phil,” which was my cue to take a seat while the real actor acted.
Of course my big moment was crouching in the tree and “shooting” Willie Nelson as he emerged from the bushes. The director – thinking of protecting De La Paz from injury -considered filming me jumping from the tree and running away. That would have raised me to “stunt man” pay grade, but De La Paz insisted he could handle the action.
Lasting impressions from my stint on the Hollywood merry-go-round? Making movies is boring. Most of my 10-hour day was sitting in a director’s chair while technicians set camera angles and focus, cleared brush, and scooped away horse manure. They even wrangled flies – can’t have insects buzzing around movie stars and microphones.
They shot each scene over and over and over, from different angles and with different action and with different inflections. They were thrilled to get three minutes of useable footage a day.
My performance was hardly Oscar worthy. In fact, after a month on the set as an extra and a stand-in, my screen time was exactly zero minutes.
My friends were less than impressed. At the movie’s premier, they quickly tired of hearing me say, “And in that scene I was sitting just off camera over there.”
In the end I got no credits, no screen time. But I did have one especially memorable moment.
It was the final day of shooting, and we were at the base of Enchanted Rock. My actor had no scene on this day, but the director called me over. “Phil, would you mind lying down over here?”
I eased back on the hard granite, squirming to get comfortable. The director tucked several small blankets under my back, and kept asking if I was comfortable. When I finally said I was, a figure hovered over me and blocked out the Texas sun. A gloved hand appeared above me, which I clasped as I was pulled to my feet. I moved to the side, squinting to see who had helped me up.
It was Willie Nelson. “Thanks, Phil,” he said, as he lay down in the spot I had prepared for him. Thank goodness he held no grudge from me trying to pop him off earlier in the week.
That was back in the days when Texas held the promise of being the next Hollywood, with its favorable tax and work laws, and a range of scenery from the coast to the piney woods to the llano estacado. But those dreams turned to tumbleweeds, as filmmakers fled to foreign lands like Louisiana and Michigan.
But I had my shot at a movie career. The studio held Barbarosa to a limited release, so it never played to a wide audience. After Barbarosa, my acting talents lay fallow for 30 years, until I was tapped as “man in bar” for a Fredericksburg Theater Company production.
There I was one of many, yet I knew that in that vast cast, I was the only one who had shot Willie Nelson.