An ad on the rock & roll radio station KROQ said that if you wanted to be an extra in John Cassavetes’s new film, Opening Night, go to the Pasadena Auditorium on January 19th wearing dress clothes, and you’d also get a free lunch, but no pay. I thought, “That’s the best offer I’ve heard yet,” so I dressed up in a suit and tie and went.
There were several hundred other people there and we all sat in the audience clapping all day long while watching John Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands, perform a scene from a fake play within the movie, that ended with each of them reaching back and grabbing their own ankles. By lunch my hands were bright red and aching. Nevertheless, unlike many other extras I might add, I went back in for the second half of the day and clapped until my hands were swollen and throbbing. When I got into my car to drive home that night I could not make a fist or tightly grab the steering wheel with either hand. I had to drive by pressing my arms against the wheel.
A few days later I received a call from an assistant director asking if I’d like to do some more extra work on Opening Night. I immediately said, “Sure.” Luckily, the next location was much closer to my apartment. It was at the American Theater on Wilshire Blvd. between LaBrea Ave. and Vine St., about two miles away. It was a night shoot and I was instructed to be there at 5:00 P.M. wearing an overcoat.
As the crew set up outside the theater, the extras, all dressed in warm coats since it was supposed to be New York in the winter, did nothing but hang around the front of the theater for the next five hours. I attempted to strike up a conversation with a German fellow who apparently had absolutely nothing to say about anything. I asked if he liked any German films and the guy shrugged. I said, “Fassbinder? Herzog? Wim Wenders? Fritz Lang?”
A sandy-haired, bespectacled, collegiate-looking fellow of twenty-five, wearing a long wool coat, stepped up and said, “I’ve seen all those guy’s films.”
I said skeptically, “All of them?”
He nodded. “Pretty much.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“I mean, I’ve seen all of Wim Wenders’ films, all of Werner Herzog’s films, nearly all of Fritz Lang’s films, although I’m still missing a few of his early silents, and I’ve seen every Fassbinder film that’s been released in the United States, but there are several that haven’t been released here yet. I think German cinema is very interesting these days, what do you think?”
“I do, too,” I said. “Although, quite frankly, Fassbinder bores me. I do like Herzog, though, particularly The Enigma of Kasper Hauser.”
The fellow smiled. “Yes, that was very good. My name’s Rick Sandford.”
“Josh Becker,” I said, putting out my hand. Rick shook my hand and I thought, “Oh, he’s gay, too.”
Rick asked, “What’s your favorite movie?”
Stalling, I replied, “The ones I’ve seen the most are Play it Again, Sam and The Godfather. Fourteen times for Play it Again, Sam and twelve times for The Godfather. Ten for Godfather II.”
Rick grinned. He was impressed. “But what’s your favorite film?”
I sighed. Good question. Finally . . .
“The Magnificent Ambersons or The Bridge on the River Kwai, how about you?”
Rick grinned. “Not Kane, huh?”
I shrugged, “I love Citizen Kane, don’t get me wrong, but I like Ambersons better.”
Rick nodded. “I agree.”
I imitated Ray Collins from The Magnificent Ambersons, “By Jove, Georgie, you are a puzzle.”
Rick imitated Tim Holt, “I will be shot. I will.”
We both laughed.
Rick said, “My favorite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve seen it twenty-eight times, in the theater, all in 70mm. It is sublime.”
I nodded; very impressed. I thought seeing a movie fourteen times in the theater was pretty obsessive, but I knew nothing about movie obsession compared to Rick.
We talked movies non-stop all night long during shooting, then went back to my place, talked movies all day, then we went back to the set and continued shooting and talked movies all through the next night, too. Not only were John Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands in these scenes, but so were Joan Blondell from the ‘30s Cagney movies, and Paul Stewart, who was actually in Citizen Kane.
At dawn, after two entire nights and one whole day of non-stop movie talk, Rick and I ended up at Rick’s place. He lived in a bungalow behind a house in West Hollywood. A decaying red VW bug with flat tires was parked on the grass in front of his door. Inside it was actually quite a spacious bungalow, although every piece of clothing Rick owned was strewn across every single surface of the place. Rick had abandoned the kitchen at some point months before, once he’d used every dish, and a swarm of fruit flies circled around over the sink. I opened the door and looked in. Rick said, “I don’t go in there. Just shut the door. Did I mention that I’m being evicted.”
I nodded, “I wonder why? Is that your Volkswagen out there?”
“Yes, but I don’t drive. I don’t have a driver’s license, or a bank account, or a credit card, either.”
Rick tossed away some clothes, unburied a record player and put on the soundtrack album of Taxi Driver by Bernard Herrmann. It’s a great score, but it sounded just awful.
I wrinkled my brow. “What’s wrong with it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Rick, sitting down on the bed.
“It sounds terrible.”
“Really? In what way?”
I said, “In an audio kind of way.” I inspected the cheap little stereo and found that there was a glob of dust on the needle the size of a gumball. I plucked it off, then set the needle back on the record—it now sounded 50% better.
Rick’s face lit up like he’d just witnessed a miracle. “You fixed it.”
I still didn’t think it sounded all that good. I dug through more clothes to the back of the stereo and found that one of the speakers wasn’t plugged in. I plugged it in, and suddenly all the rest of the instruments could be heard. Now it at least sounded normal.
Once again, Rick was utterly thrilled. He clasped my hands together in joy. “Oh my god, it sounds great!”
“Yeah, for a ten dollar stereo.”
I sat down on the foot of the bed and lit a cigarette.
The room was cloaked in a gray early morning half light. The smoke from my cigarette hung in the air. Rick was leaning back against the pillows and headboard, nervously jiggling his foot, causing the whole bed to shake and squeak.
Rick said, “I’m gay you know.”
I said, “I know.”
Rick looked slightly alarmed. “How did you know?”
I shrugged. “I just knew. From the first second I met you.”
Rick looked intrigued. “Really?”
“So, you wanna have sex?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m not gay.”
Rick smiled. “But you could start.”
We sat in silence for a moment. Rick continued jiggling his foot and the bed continued to shake and squeak. Finally . . .
“Am I making you nervous?” asked Rick.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, you are writhing there on the bed.”
Rick said very calmly, “You call this writhing? Give me a chance and I’ll show you writhing.”
We both burst out laughing and the tension was broken.
Sounding rather unsure, Rick asked, “So, what is it then? You want to be ‘friends’?”
I shrugged, “Sure.”
Rick rubbed his chin in befuddlement. “I’ve never had a straight friend before. What would we do?”
“Well, we could probably go to the movies together.”
Rick nodded. “Yeah, I guess we could do that.
I shrugged, “Look, we may not have sex, but we’ll always have the movies, and Paris.”
Rick smiled. “You know too much about movies to not be gay. You wanna smoke some pot?”
I grinned, “Now you’re talkin’ my language.”
As we smoked a joint, Rick showed me his file of carbon copies of letters he had written to movie stars and directors, as well as all of their replies. He’d written to seemingly everybody, and many had actually answered him, too. Rick believed the reason that he got responses was because he wrote ten to thirty page in-depth studies of their entire careers. “How could they possibly ignore it?” he said. I read Rick’s 25-page letter to Gena Rowlands, written immediately after he’d seen A Woman Under the Influence and was deeply moved by her performance. Rick’s letter wasn’t some insignificant piece of fan mail; this was a serious piece of analytical writing, and Rick was clearly a very good writer. Oddly, his typewriter wrote in script.
I said, “I loved A Woman Under the Influence, too. I won an award for my review of it in the college newspaper.”
Rick said, “I’d love to read it.”
“Sure,” I said, immediately knowing I’d never show it to Rick because, having just read Rick’s writing, my writing now seemed painfully amateurish, particularly from two years ago.
When I finally left Rick’s place, after at least 40-hours of non-stop movie talk, as well as two long chilly nights of extra work, I felt like I was tripping on acid. All the colors seemed heightened, and the bright areas were leaving trails.
Strangely, I knew that Rick was now one of my best friends, and always would be.
Opening Night’s A.D. called me back in for another day of extra work, but they didn’t call Rick. This was apparently based on zip codes and proximity to the new location, which was a restaurant in downtown L.A. All of the scenes were being shot inside the restaurant between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, who were both sitting in a booth with their backs to a big window. Since this was supposed to be New York in the winter, the people passing back and forth outside the window, including me, had to be dressed appropriately in coats, scarves and gloves. An A.D. was stationed at either side of the window, choosing which extras to send through and when. Being a ham deep in my heart, every time I went through and suspected I’d be seen on camera between the two actors, I’d shiver and shake my arms like I was freezing (it was probably about eighty-five degrees out). The A.D.s loved my little performance and sent me back through over and over again. Each time I’d do a little variation on my frozen routine, and each time the A.D.s would smile in approval, then send me back through again.
Lunch that day was served inside the restaurant. I saw Gena Rowlands sitting all by herself in a booth. Strangely, no one was eating with her. I summoned up all of my courage, walked over and asked, “Do you mind if I sit down?”
She shrugged, “No. Go ahead.”
I told her that I had written a very positive review of A Woman Under the Influence for my college newspaper at Eastern Michigan University a few years earlier and had won an award for the best article of the month. She smiled weakly.
After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, I said, “My friend, Rick Sandford, wrote you a very long, typed fan letter a few years ago analyzing your entire career. Do you remember it? His typewriter types in script.”
Without any hesitation Ms. Rowlands reached into her purse and retrieved Rick’s letter, all dog-eared and clearly having been read many times. She held it up and said, “This one?”
I was astounded. “Yeah, that one.”
Gena Rowlands nodded. “It’s a good letter,” and she put it back in her purse.
666 N. Vann Ness
Having indeed been evicted from his bungalow in West Hollywood, Rick Sandford and his best friend, Stacey, with whom he had grown up in Reno, and her big dog, all moved into a one-bedroom apartment at 666 N. Van Ness, next door to Nate. Stacey was a smart, slim, boyish, lesbian. Soon thereafter, Stacey’s lover, Krista, came to stay for a while, too. She wore a foot-long Bowie knife on her belt, and she also had a big dog. The small one-bedroom apartment immediately became a total madhouse.
Rick began hanging out at my place as much as humanly possible.
I asked Rick, “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Rick said, “Sure. Procreation is a sin.”
I filled the kettle in the bathroom. “Excuse me?”
Rick repeated, “Procreation is a sin. Humans are smarter than animals, we don’t have to have children just because we have sex.”
“Certainly not you,” I said.
“No, of course, not me. I mean, heterosexuals, like you.”
“Right. Okay.” I served the instant coffee (with three spoonfuls for each cup), then sat down and rolled a joint.
Rick concluded, “So procreation is a sin.”
“A sin? Don’t you think that’s a tad extreme?”
Rick gulped his coffee and got excited. “No, I don’t! Don’t you see, this is the worst of all possible worlds!”
I lit the joint, took a big hit and handed it to Rick.
“Yes. Clearly.” Rick took a hit, then another gulp of coffee and said, “Hey, that’s pretty good, for instant.” He blew out the smoke. “Yes, the worst of all possible worlds.” He handed me back the joint.
I took it and chuckled. “You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“No,” said Rick, dead serious.
“Rick, is your rent paid?”
“Okay. So is mine. And we’re both sitting here on a Tuesday afternoon, smokin’ a doob, drinkin’ coffee, with our rent paid. We’re not living in mud huts with our animals; we’re not at Auschwitz; it’s not the Inquisition; there’s no Black Plague. How is this possibly the worst of all possible worlds?
Rick was getting agitated. “Because there were never this many people on the planet before.”
“So, we’re using everything up, and destroying the environment!”
“But at this present moment it’s not all used up. And procreation isn’t a sin, I think it may just be the whole point of why we’re here. Y’know, continuation of the species, and all that.”
“But we don’t have to! We have bigger brains! We have free will!”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Humans are no different than worms or bugs. Procreation is the point of existence. All this other stuff, like art and philosophy and literature and movies are just to kid us into believing that life means something more than procreation, but in fact it doesn’t.”
Rick slammed his coffee cup down on the table so hard it spilled. He stood up and pointed down at me.
“We can’t be friends, we have nothing in common!”
I smiled. “What about all those movies? And Paris? Look, we’re friends now, Rick, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Rick stomped out of the apartment.
I grinned, toasting up the roach.
Rick and I began going to the movies together all the time. We frequently went to the Vagabond Theater on Wilshire Blvd. and Vermont, the oldest revival house in town with the most uncomfortable seats. We saw The Member of the Wedding with Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde, which we’d both seen before. The movie was so good, and moved us both so much that we just sat through it a second time, in those painful, horrible seats.
As we walked the several miles home, we both kept repeating lines from the film.
“Do not try to capture me,” said Rick.
“Well, the party’s over, and the monkey’s dead,” I said.
Rick did Ethel Waters, “Oh, this ol’ glass eye don’t do me no seein’ good at all.”
We both burst out laughing, feeling great. What could be better than seeing a movie you absolutely loved, twice, with someone else who loved it just as much as you, maybe more? Nothing, that’s what.