I didn’t want to let this week pass without taking note of the departure of one of our generation’s greatest funnymen, Dom DeLuise. It’s ironic to work in an industry called “comic books”, when someone like Dom virtually wrote the book on comedy. I had the chance to spend the day with him early in my screenwriting career, when he directed a TV film called Boys Will Be Boys–which, yes, sounds like a porno title (and probably is) but was really more of a Home Alone flick with two kids instead of one.
It was a bit of a vanity project, and Dom called in favors from Hollywood friends like Mickey Rooney, Ruth Buzzi and Charles Nelson Reilly (of “Match Game” fame!) to populate the cast. It also starred John Voight, Julie Hagerty, Randy Travis, Dom’s son Michael and even the exquisite Catherine Oxenberg, who I’d had a mad crush on ever since her pouty-lipped heyday on Dynasty. How’s that for one of the most bizarre cast lists you’ll ever see?
Anyway, my good friend Brian Hennessy–now at Disney, and who went on to produce the film Schooled–had been Dom’s First A.D. at the time, and he invited me onto the set as an extra, so I could see the sausage made from inside the factory. This in itself was an eye-opener as I spent the day with the rest of the extras–several dozen painfully struggling actors, desperate for a camera to pan across their faces for even just a moment; as if Steven Spielberg would be at home watching this direct-to-video feature, see some random actor onscreen for two seconds, and jump to his feet shouting, “That’s him! He’s my next Indiana Jones!”
As it turns out, some actors actually make entire careers out of working as an extra. (More by circumstance than design, obviously, but still.) Comic book artist Arne Starr, who worked on Star Trek titles through some celebrated runs in the 1990s, actually has an entire web page devoted just to his “background” work; I had been in talks with him at one point about possibly doing a Trek project for IDW, and he once spent an entire conversation recounting how that’s-his-hand-in-that-scene-from-CSI, that’s-his-ponytail-in-There Will Be Blood, and so on. (Arne has actually appeared in dozens of major projects ranging from Iron Man to Mad Men and Frost/Nixon–and yes, of course, even the new Trek.)
So, maybe it was because I was the only extra there who really didn’t give a shit about scoring my big acting break by sipping fake champagne in the background of some cocktail party scene, but at one point during a gap in the shooting I found myself standing next to Dom DeLuise, and he actually began chatting me up. (Probably a good example of how utterly magnanimous he was.) By complete coincidence, it turned out that I had once worked for his attorney, an old friend of his, and he seemed to suddenly savor the opportunity to talk to someone on set who wasn’t handing him a headshot or asking him to resolve some lighting catastrophe.
Mickey Rooney, meanwhile, had been a sheer comic genius in his scenes that day–ad libbing like a madman and rewriting entire comedy bits on the fly. At one point, he decided he wanted an extra onscreen with him to bounce a riff off of, and the herd of extras nearly stampeded for the opportunity of delivering a single line, some even pulling out their SAG cards should they need a union cred to take a speaking part. At that exact moment, however, Mickey saw me chatting with Dom, then grabbed me by the shoulder… and I suddenly became The Guy.
After we shot the scene a bunch of times (my line ultimately left on the cutting room floor–oh, the humanity), I ended up back in the tent for the extras, who immediately swarmed me to find out how it had gone and what I did to get the part. And so, for the rest of the day, I became King of the Nobodies, an anonymous celebrity among unknowns–people who wanted to chat me up and find out my secret, when I was actually the one person among them who well and truly couldn’t have cared less about whether Steven Spielberg saw my face in the corner of his TV for two passing seconds.
(But, hey, I even made it into the trailer–look for me over Julie Hagerty’s shoulder at 0:40 to 0:42! How did Spielberg not see me??)
Eventually, however, the day became unbelievably hot, especially for late September–something like 90 degrees, made worse by the fact that it was a backyard scene around a pool, when all of us just wanted to jump in and be done with it. But Mickey Rooney, already pretty old at the time, was a trooper, doing take after take, the same scene with a dozen different spontaneous improvised punchlines, to give his friend Dom the most material to work with.
What none of us realized was that it was also Mickey Rooney’s 75th birthday–and just when the heat became unbearable, Dom ordered a break and surprised Mickey with a massive cake; then, to everyone’s surprise, he invited all the extras in the tent out front to join them–again, the type of gesture by someone who recognized that a tent full of people out front were all getting paid $79 to bake in the heat all day. So, in typical surreal Hollywood fashion, the fake cocktail party now for 30 minutes became a real party, with Mickey spending his birthday surrounded by elegantly dressed people he didn’t even know.
Despite that, before he cut the cake, Mickey got misty-eyed and told us all a story. He had become famous at an extremely young age, working the Hollywood lots when he was just a little kid, barely old enough to know where he was each day and having no perception that what he was doing was Extremely Important to all the grownups around him.
One day while shooting, however, he got bored, as kids often do, and started wandering around Warner Bros. during the long breaks between takes. He came across some guy drawing funny pictures, which of course was infinitely more interesting to a seven-year-old than watching people hang lights all day. So, while everyone on the set searched for him, he spent the day with some unknown artist as the man drew cartoons of a rodent–and that’s how Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse.
After the story, Dom kissed Mickey on the forehead, and you could tell it wasn’t the first time. People will talk about how Dom DeLuise made them laugh in roles from films like Blazing Saddles, History of the World, Cannonball Run (as Captain Chaos!) and countless others, and they’d all be right. But I’ll also remember the day that I spent eating Mickey Rooney’s birthday cake as King of the Nobodies, all because Dom was such an incredibly nice guy. He’s sure as hell going to be missed.