Surprising my friends by popping up on the screen at unexpected moments had its roots, I suppose, back in the 1960s. Hector Crawford was just getting started, and getting myself involved in film and television was not quite the insurmountable problem it would have been in the days when Australia had no film or television industry. My main difficulty was water – an awful lot of it between Tasmania (where I was) and the mainland (where all the t.v. programmes were being made). After leaving school I went into a normal job locally, knowing that getting employed in film and tv would not be as easy as going to the mainland and just walking off the street into Hector Crawford's and asking. (Well, actually, it was. Back then some people actually did get jobs in the new industry in just that way. I found out much later. Crank up the Wayback Machine. I want to return to the past and tell myself about this and a lot of other things I should have done if I had only known then what I know now. There are a lot of science fiction stories in which people get this sort of chance. They usually screw up big time.)
Actually, Australia had a thriving movie industry early in the 20th century. The first feature length movie made anywhere was made in this country. Then something happened, namely Hollywood. The best talent drained off to the USA, and lean times set in. A few dedicated people put in noses-to-the-grindstone efforts to save it, came hair-raisingly close to succeeding at times, but by the 1940s the Australian movie industry was stone cold dead. When television began, some bright spark had the idea of making it illegal to import commercials from overseas. Ads had to be made by Australians, even if they copied the overseas version frame for frame. Sometimes these Aussies worked with the overseas people as the original advert was made. There are even stories of people sitting around in hotel rooms doing nothing, and just putting their names on the Australian release when it came out. In the long run this resulted with a pool of people who knew one or two tricks of the trade, such as how to operate the equipment. Experts like these started turning Australian radio serials (like Homicide) into Australian television programmes. By the time I left school, some souls were being brave enough to use words like "Australian television and film industry" in public.
After eventually making the move to mainland Australia, I was able to find and see for myself places like Crawfords and Channel Nine and Channel 0 and so on. Getting any sort of work inside them was another thing altogether. The days of walking in off the street and getting a job were thoroughly gone, and the days of security guards at the gate and written applications to a secretary sitting beside a rubbish bin and "what sort of previous experience have you had?" were in.
There was at least one movie-type course happening right in Melbourne, as I eventually found out. The Film & TV course only took about a dozen people out of applicants from all over the country, but I applied for it anyway. And got in! (Here is one of the secrets of the universe: No matter how unlikely you think something is, if you do not try for it, it will not happen. If you do, the chances are not as totally against you.)
Now having a foot in the door, as it were, I was able to find out just how people like actors and extras did what they did. To work in the industry, one had to have an agent. To get an agent, one had to first work in the industry. To get this work, one had to first get an agent. It is a very tough business to get into.
One day, as I was going past Crawfords, I figured it might be a good idea to get some experience on the other side of the camera. It was not my first time having such thoughts, but on this occasion Crawfords was right in front of me. Did doing a film and t.v. course count as "work in the industry"? So the odds were stacked against me, at least it could not hurt to ask. At worst it would give me another anecdote to tell people back in class.
"Who would I speak to here, about working as an extra?"
"That would be me. Did you see our ad?"
"The Sullivans is filming stories set in Changi. We need tall, thin geeks who can pass as emaciated prisoners of war. How tall are you?"
"How much do you weigh?"
"What are you doing Thursday?"
That may not be quite the actual conversation, but it comes pretty close. It also leaves out the spooky way I was looked up and down at, like a side of beef. Back then the metric system was still such a novelty you never got away with giving your measurements quite so glibly, either, so the conversation was definitely much longer. Nor was the phrase "tall thin geeks" ever actually spoken out loud. All of which did not detract from one simple fact. I had walked in off the street and got a job.
So came my first historic foray on the small screen, wearing a sarong, a layer of suntan makeup, and nothing else. They filmed on the docks at Port Melbourne. In July! Know ye, who may live in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the middle of winter, and the tropical north of Australia is a long way from Melbourne. It was one of the coldest days of the year, if not the decade. The film crew strutted around in five layers of clothing each, complaining about the cold. Then they would tell us POWs to try and look hot, while a girl with an atomiser full of water ran around applying "sweat". There was a nice gentle breeze blowing in from the sea, directly off Antarctica. How much did we get paid for all that? I'll tell you this much; Not enough.
Actually, now I think about it, all summer-type scenes seem to be filmed in winter. Not one single exception comes to mind, after all these years.
One more example of winter shooting is Holiday Island. Set in Queensland (which is hot all year around) and filmed in Melbourne (which is not). This t.v. series was so awful it cured me of my early habit of compulsively watching everything I was in. I was only in one episode, dangling my feet in the liquid ice of a swimming pool. It was impossible to get out of the biting wind between takes. What looked like hotel rooms in the background was just a facade with no interior big enough for anyone to even stand in. From other people come such horror stories as people having ice cubes in their mouths to stop their breath being visible in close ups.
Even after Swinburne, I kept on doing the occasional bit of extra work, getting it through the agent I was able to get on the strength of the Crawfords thing. There was not a lot to keep me from it, as I was out of all other employment for quite a while. Being on the dole meant I was getting more money than when I was a student, but that was still not enough to get by on, no matter how frugally I tried to live. The level of my bank account decreased emergency by inevitable emergency. (One example: I go into a dentist for a routine checkup. The dentist looks around in my mouth and then says "How many of them are giving you pain?") Putting in for every film and tv associated job that was going, I stayed on the dole for two years. This was despite several promising responses, like one from the ABC which said they would get back to me, and never did. Meanwhile friends from Swinburne were all walking into jobs in the industry without a hickup.
When I had worked in the post office in Tasmania, taking an exam had been involved before the position was offered. There are not too many film and tv jobs in the offering at any one time, and to stay on the dole you have to prove you are looking for work. I sat exams for the Victorian PO for driver, and for PO clerk, and passed both. Those exams seem impossible to fail.
Coincidentally, the office where I started work was in the same suburb as I lived, St Kilda. My very first day on the job, one of the St Kilda box holders brought in a huge bundle of mail, and dumped it on the desk in front of me. "This person has left address, and we keep getting his mail. Is there any way you just send it directly back to sender without giving it to us first? We have been sending his mail back for years, and are getting tired of it!"
All the mail was addressed to me.
This, as may be imagined, produced some extremely interesting sensations.
Most of the letters were addressed correctly. My PO box was in St Kilda South. (This was before they added prefixes to offices that had compass directions in their address. All South boxes now begin with 1000, and all West boxes with 2000). As lots of people are under the impression things like "West" or "South" are fiddly details that can be safely left out of an address, back then lots of mail went where it was not supposed to. Combine this with sloppy box sorters, and even things correctly addressed were getting stuffed into the wrong places. For years the holder of the box at St Kilda had been sending my mail back marked: "Left address." I remembered things like that ABC offer that never finalised, and to this day wonder if I have been working at the wrong job for the past decade. (I just worked it out. It is now coming up on two decades! How time gets away from you.)
What would you have done? Quit the Post Office and gone back looking for work with a new mailing address? Stayed and wrought revenge on the mail-returners? ("Gee, maybe if your memory about where you sent my mail improves, maybe my memory about where I put yours will come back, too.") Chased up all old job enquiries? ("Remember I applied for a job with you this time last year? I wonder if you could tell me if I got it? Because I have this real good reason for not getting back to you, so can I have the position now please?") I stayed on with the Post Office because (a) it was a job and (b) I needed the money. I was still working in the film and tv industry as an extra, mostly after hours, on weekends, and in my yearly holidays. What I was not doing, due to lack of time, was making my own films any more.
The real money, for someone without a regular role in a series, is in commercials. If you are featured, there is even more money. The least money I have received for a featured role in a commercial was $300 for an Age ad, made by some bloke named Mark Mitchell. (Yes, that Mark Mitchell.) The most I have ever received was for a British car commercial never screened in Australia, (just made here), and which brought me in excess of $3 000. An ad for Australia Post ran two years, and got me even more than that with residuals for the extra year. It paid for a substantial part of my trip to Japan.
My first ever talking role was in Waterfront. "Look, do you want the job or don't you? If not move along, there are plenty of others who'll take it!" Good grief, I can still remember the dialogue. They actually phoned it through to me. The phone call was originally to find out my address, so a courier could deliver my script. When they found out how far away I lived, and counted the number of words I had, there was a silence on the phone. Then, "Do you have a pen handy?"
My first talking part in a commercial was as a UFO spotter in another car commercial. "They're out there, somewhere!" I utter, searching the daytime sky with a spotlight, just before a flock of Nissans goes overhead. I used several different kinds of voices, from perfectly straight, through Tim Brooke Taylor's UFO-spotters voice, to...I forget what now. I also forget which voice they eventually used. They liked every single one and filmed all of them. It's nice when you can do a performance where they like everything you do. When they don't like anything you do, you tend not to get employed in the first place. (For instance, I was almost the priest in the most recent Met ad. They said they liked the look of me, and that I was the best they had seen so far. Then I opened my mouth and blew it!)
The next talking role was in a student film, Mum's Christmas, which was eventually screened by the ABC. The next one of any note was as a Clerk of Courts in Blue Heelers. Most recently was a Just Jeans commercial, calling out bingo numbers. And, speaking-wise, that is it, for heading-on two decades of t.v. appearances.
Every so often I achieve fame of a sorts – the kind where total strangers recognise you in the street. Until Wog Boy this was always from commercials. Anything else, series and what-not, and you're usually gone before you register. The more popular the commercial the more "Hey is that you in the - - - ad?" comments. (Actually nobody has pulled me up in the street about Wog Boy. All comments from strangers are from people who come into contact with me on a regular basis, one way or another, and gradually begin to realise I look familiar.)
My most popular ad – going from public response – is easily the one for Sorbent/Kodak. (As a voice-over says you can decorate your home with Sorbent, the camera pulls back to reveal a family festooning their mantelpiece with toilet paper. No no, the voice over says, this is wrong. It then explains the competition being run jointly by Sorbent and Kodak, whereupon the family can be seen proudly displaying photographs of loo-paper on their mantelpiece.) One time as I was driving home, there was a massive bang from the engine, which then went totally dead. As I struggled to push the car off the main road and into a side street, another vehicle pulled up, the driver got out and said "Excuse me for asking, but is that you in the Sorbent ad?"
"Yes it is."
"I thought so. That's terrific. Real terrific."
And then he got back in his car and drove off.
In the science fictional field, there has not been an awful lot I have been in over the years. Apart from all the abovementioned is The Damnation of Harvey McHugh. Somebody caught a mention of the movie "The Piano II" in one episode, and realised the story was set in the future. I am more inclined to think it is a parallel world. For one thing, being on set gave me a clear view of the hard-to-see-on-tv government coat of arms – where the kangaroo has its head on the emu's shoulder.
In episode one of McHugh I appear within a series of still photographs, showing before and after effects of brain damage. Later, in the story where Earth is threatened by a doom meteor, I am one of the people sitting behind the McHugh character in a cafeteria, while a friend tries to cheer him up. ("It's not the end of the world, Harvey.") Everyone seems to have noticed me in the final episode, appearing as a government flunkey.
The X-plodez (pronounced "Exploders") ad was filmed on a blazing Melbourne summer's day, under hot studio lights, with me in a space suit. Real space suits have air conditioning. This did not have anything like that. What it had instead was layers of woollen padding to make the suit look realistically bulky. At least I did not have a real visor adding to ventilation problems. That was a special effect added later. along with all the reflections. All I saw at the time was the blue screen, while I acted the part of an astronaut who gets hit in the face plate by a pizza. I was paid by Heinz. It was a noodle commercial. For snack-thingies that come out of a cellophane packet. (Which had me puzzled until I finally saw a packet of the things in the supermarket. X-plodez are pre-cooked flavoured noodles in a cellophane pack which you crush and shake before opening. The thing that hit me in the face-plate would have been a flavour-mote, escaped from a freshly opened pizza-flavoured packet.)
Then there's The Genii From Down Under. In series one, look closely at those agorophobic tourists as they run frantically from the bus into their tent in midst of the Great Australian Outback (which on this day was located at Bacchus Marsh.) In series two, look carefully at the bus-load of weather-obsessed meteorologists at a stately English home, (being played by Werribee Park Mansion.)
My illustrious mug also puts in an appearance in The Stark Conspiracy. Earth is over-polluted, the super-rich are abandoning the planet, and I am a newspaper reporter. I was in every major shot filmed over an entire day, in the old Herald Sun building. I am also practically invisible. It was just the way the shots were cut together. My sleeve is just entering the shot, just leaving the shot, someone is standing in front of me, the camera moves at a critical moment, etc etc. Having recorded the programme, I went through the entire newspaper office scene frame by frame, and am clearly recognisable in one shot where everybody clusters around a t.v. set – for a grand total of three (count them, three) frames.
T.v. can be like that.
Here is my complete dialogue from a role as a parking officer in the movie Muggers: "Your meter has expired!" At least my name leads all the other actors in the closing credits. It can be good to have a name that gets you near the start of alphabetic listings.
Muggers was released and died so fast I never had time to notice it was on. It was a movie critics loved, but which nobody else went to see.
The humour was so dark, I never expected it to do tremendously well in cinema release to begin with. I figured it would die in theatres and become a cult hit in video release. Right now I am still waiting for the video to see if I was right about the second part. Being so correct about the release is the staggering bit. What is there about certain movies and t.v. shows that nobody sees them? Word of mouth about awfulness? That would require people seeing it in the first place. One high-speed flop I did see, along with three other people in the whole theatre, was Buckaroo Banzai. Maybe the other three did not like it and knew an awful lot of people. Or maybe there were vast numbers at the earlier screening, and they instantly put the word out to everyone except us four. Then there are movies like The Right Stuff, which did poorly in the USA where it was made, but was a hit here. What forces are at work? The collective unconscious mind of the human race?
In Wog Boy my speaking bit as a sushi-struck waiter is basically: "Enjoy your meal, sir." At least, that's all that finally made it to the screen.
The way they chose me for the role to begin with was explained as "The moment we saw you we realised you were just the person we wanted to throw raw fish at." The part with my being hit by the sushi would be even more hilarious if you knew how many takes there were. Filming was in a genuine upper crust hotel. I was given a three-minute crash-course in Five Star service by a head waiter, before the cameras started to role. How to hold a plate, how to hold and pour a bottle of wine (that indentation on the bottom of the bottle is there for a reason), which side to come from when serving food, which side to come from when serving drink, why waiters have that towel draped over one arm, and more. Much of which was finally ignored for the sake of camera angles and story movement.
The way it was filmed, Gianopolis' character in the dining room sees the tiny portions being served and asks "Is this all there is?" The waiter (me) places his serving on the table and says in his ear "Thank you for the sushi sir...and enjoy your meal." Then he withdraws, sniggering evilly. Gianopolous looks worried, dissects his food with both hands, and then rings for pizza. The way things are finally spliced together, he looks at the food that has been placed silently in front of him, takes it apart in search of sustenance, asks if that is all there is, and then reaches for his phone. I suppose I should feel lucky all my part did not end up on the cutting room floor.