I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.
My 25-Year Obsession With Beverly Hills 90210Recently, I was in a bar amongst a group of young screen-addicts who were drinking Moscow Mules and comparing Instagram followers. When the bartender gave me my beer, I noticed that his nametag read, “Nat.” As a joke, I said, “Aww, what happened Nat? Did the Peach Pit close down?”
Nat wasn’t amused. Neither were the 20-something bar patrons surrounding me. In fact, nobody around me even recognized the reference to Beverly Hills 90210, one of my all time favorite TV shows that had been off the air since 2000. I quickly tried to explain to everyone that “Nat” was a solid gold reference from the 90’s, but they promptly rolled their eyes and went back to discussing a recently posted Instagram photo uploaded by the Supra Shoe Company.
“Supra is killin it,” one of them remarked.
I took my beer and walked to the end of the bar to watch basketball.
You must understand. Beverly Hills 90210 was to my generation, the single greatest television phenomenon we had ever experienced. The show debuted the same day I began my sophomore year of high school. Brandon Walsh had sideburns at 15-years-old, Kelly Taylor had already had a nose job and been raped by a college guy. Dylan McKay was balding and had already beaten drug and alcohol addiction. All of this at age 15. Growing up where I did, these guys were already living way beyond their years. At 15, my biggest accomplishment had been when I learned how to waterski during Jewish summer camp.
Donna Martin had a terrible boob job. David Silver’s friend shot and killed himself accidentally. Steve Sanders’ mom was a recovering coke-fiend actress.
My friend’s moms? Well, one of them was considered a local Tucson celebrity because she once taught aerobics to Dyan Cannon at Canyon Ranch.
Nobody I knew drove a Corvette. Nobody knew where to even get drugs OR a nose job… And finally, the most facial hair we could scrounge up at the time was an occasional lone straggler poking its way from the bottom of our chins. Of course, I had no idea that the actors were really 25-years-old. So, intrigued, I studied them. Imitated them. I grew sideburns. I edited my school paper like Brandon Walsh did and treated it as if it was the West Beverly Blaze. I squinted like Luke Perry when I went on dates and I did my best to turn my small table-bussing job at the local 50’s diner Little Anthony’s into my own little private Peach Pit.
Of course, at my high school, the white trash rednecks got all the hot chicks. The dudes who stayed shirtless most of the time, dipped Copenhagen and listened to Metallica. The dudes who drove souped-up 1982 Fords and went jackrabbit hunting and drank Budweiser and sported long hair. The dudes like Randy Gatemouth, a 17-year-old sophomore with two missing teeth and three earrings who wore a T-shirt that said “Big Johnson’s Casino: Liquor Up front; Poker in the Rear.”
I was more of a Brandon Walsh type. I listened to Sting, Dire Straits and rap. I spent 45 minutes blow-drying my hair into a pompadour every morning. I took my dates to my diner and shared milkshakes and maybe got away with a French kiss at the end of the night. Meanwhile, Randy Gatemouth was rumored to have sired a child with a girl from Palo Verde High School who had hidden her pregnancy and given it away for adoption at age 16.
To put it bluntly, Randy Gatemouth did NOT watch Beverly Hills 90210.
But I did. And I followed it religiously. I recall how I was shocked when Dylan and Kelly hooked up when Brenda went to Europe. I remember Brandon losing his virginity. I cried when Dylan’s dad was murdered. (Sorry, spoiler alert for those of you planning a binge watch this weekend). I even WROTE about the show for the school paper, comparing the lives of these fake people on this ridiculous show to the lives of the average Tucson, Arizona high school kid in the early 90’s.
The love affair continued into college, when I rushed a fraternity and was given the pledge name, “Brenda.” Every Thursday my entire frat would gather in the common TV room and watch the show like we were executive producers in a ratings testing lab. I played air guitar to the brilliant opening riff. Much to my surprise, I found kindred souls who never missed an episode.
“Dude, Kelly or Valerie?” Was a common question amongst the guys.
“Bro, I’m from Manhattan Beach,” a brother and fellow fan exclaimed. “No way these bitches can afford a house like that on the Strand.”
“How’s Luke Perry’s movie career going since he left the show?” I would occasionally toss around. (Note to readers: I did see – and enjoy – 8 Seconds.)
After graduation, turning 21 and discovering that the real world existed outside of college, I sort of lost interest in the show. I stayed through an extra year or two, always amused at Steve’s KEG house antics and eventually his wife Janet, but soon it just dried out and became ridiculous. It probably had been for years, but around 1997, I finally decided that I had graduated from my obsession with Beverly Hills90210. And then I began working as an actor.
The only other guy I knew in college who followed his dream into acting was a friend named Marc. His first job? Playing a character known as “The Man” on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. I never admitted it, but I was so jealous. I refused to act like it was a big deal, but God Damn, it was as if he had “made it.” Here I was, scrambling to get a SAG card, and this kid had swooped in and landed a role on my favorite TV show of all time. I harbored a certain hatred for that for about a year… Until I was asked to audition for the role of BRODY on an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. The character was described simply as, “Steve’s Old College Buddy.” I remember the lines so well. Here is what the script and audition looked like:
STEVE and JANET sit at a table. They gaze into each other’s eyes.
Thanks babe. You’re a great guy.
Steve smiles and holds her hand. Suddenly, BRODY, 23, Steve’s old KEG brother walks up to the table holding a beer. Even though he’s out of college, Brody is still very much living the party life.
Woah! Sanders! The legend, man! I see you’re still scoring as many chicks as in college!
Steve looks horrified. Janet stares daggers at her husband.
I knew it, Steve. You haven’t changed one bit!
Offended, Janet stands and leaves. She covers her mouth crying. Steve looks at Brody, upset.
Woah! What’s up with her?
Steve angrily tosses his napkin on the table.
Thanks a lot, Brody.
Steve walks off, leaving Brody at the table. He sips his beer and returns to the party.
BOOM! That was it. I knew I could nail the part of “Brody” and I worked those two lines as if I was auditioning for Richard III on Broadway. The day of the audition came and I went in, overly prepared. A bunch of other young actors (One who I SWEAR was Jeremy Renner) sat in the waiting room running their lines. When my name was called, I went in and auditioned and walked out with a confident swagger that screamed, “ I NAILED it.”
I didn’t even get a callback. I was crushed. My dream had been shattered. I was so sure I was going to play “Brody” that I cried myself to sleep that night and wondered if I had made a bad decision dedicating my life to the world of acting. My agent, Iris Burton (Legendary rep to child stars who passed away about 7 years ago) called me the next day. Through a cigarette-tinged trachea she told me the bad news. “Zach, it’s not going any further with 90210, but they like your look,” she said. “They wanna know if you’ll do extra work. I said no. We’ll get the next one.” “Wait!” I screamed. “Tell them YES! I will TOTALLY do extra work for the show!” “Are you fucking serious?” “Yes, Iris – it’s my favorite show of all time. I have to be in at least one scene.” “I don’t work with extras, Zach.” She demanded. “I work with stars.” “Please Iris? I’ll only do this once.” Iris Burton hung up on me and I was called in for a day of extra work on Beverly Hills 90210 the next morning. A bunch of young actors, most of who were in high school and/or community college were shuttled from a parking area on a backlot to the actual 90210 set. (I can not recall where this was). When we got there, I managed to find a script and I read through the dailies. I quickly noticed that the role of “Brody” was nowhere to be found. I located an assistant director and asked who was playing the role “I was born to play.” “The Brody role got cut after the first table read,” the assistant director said. “Oh, thanks,” I replied. YES. I now had an excuse on why I didn’t get the part.
I returned to “extras holding” and sat with the crowd of kids I was convinced would someday be lining up to be extras in my OWN TV show. Suddenly, a woman came in and said, “I need four men for a scene at the Peach Pit.” I threw up my arms like Donna Martin over the toilet on prom night. The woman pointed at me. “Red shirt guy, come with me,” she said. I fixed my hair and walked over to her along with three other dudes. Holy shit, I was going to the Pit. The set was a mess. Cables and cameras were everywhere. Lighting guys and grips strolled through their routines as if this job had become a burden. Some even complained about the set up of the scene. To me, however, it was as if I had made it past the most exclusive velvet rope in the world.
This was the time of the show when only Steve, Donna, Kelly, David, Brandon and Valerie remained. When I glanced at the call sheet, Jason Priestly and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen were the only ones scheduled that day, but I doubted they would even be in the same scene as me. Imagine my surprise when I glanced out the window and saw Priestley stub out a cigarette before strolling up to the set for “last looks.” I studied him. In high school, I had actually bought a pair of “Pepe Jeans” because he was the face of the brand for about two months. I idolized him. He was in Tombstone. Hell, he was even in Calendar Girl. I was in awe. He was so suave, so cool. He looked so intimidating… Until I realized he was about 5’8”.
As Priestley got his makeup worked over, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen entered the room next. She was stunningly beautiful and seemed extremely happy. She very charming and took time to shake everybody’s hand. At one point, I tried to “eye-seduce” her, but I think she got a little creeped out by my gaze and turned away. I went back to standing around and waiting.
“You, with the red shirt, you wanna take money from Joe?”
I wasn’t sure if that was meant for me. I looked for the female Extras Wrangler. Sure enough, she was talking to me. She said I had one job to do in the scene.
“Take money from Joe.”
Whatever that meant. As it turned out, JOE was Joe E. Tata. “Nat” himself. The owner and king of the Peach Pit. I nodded my head ‘yes’ and went to my position in front of the cash register.
The scene played out like this: Brandon’s old “sports bookie” was in town for some reason or another and Brandon was freaked out. Valerie was there to comfort him (I think). My role was to take my change from Nat at the beginning of the scene and promptly exit through the front door. They set it all up. I was nervous. They rolled sound and began the scene. “Action!” yelled the director as the huge 35-millimeter cameras spun their thousand-dollar-a-foot film. Nat handed me a few fake bills.
I took them from his hand and responded, “Thanks!” I walked out.
“CUT!” The director yelled. “Did anyone tell this fucking kid to speak?”
I turned bright red. I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong, but I was quickly reprimanded by the Extras Wrangler who told me to not talk. Little did I know it, but I just cost the producers roughly $3000 dollars in 35-millimeter film because I thought I could sneak in my own line on the show. Lesson learned. Don’t speak.
“Just smile and take the money from Joe,” she said to me.
So I did. And I did it again. And again. And at the end, I heard the director say, “moving on” and I fully expected him to come up to me and offer me a recurring role on the show right there. Instead, the Extras Wrangler told me that my day was done and that I would receive my $50 paycheck in the mail within a few weeks. I signed a contract and left, knowing that I was forever immortalized on screen of the TV show that had shaped most of my teenage years.
All these years later, I have had many encounters with cast members of the show. Janet (Lindsay Price) is actually a close friend of my family. Priestley and I have mutual friends and you’re damn right I own his autobiography. David Silver (Brian Austin Green) and I had a West Beverly High “dance-off” at Comic Con 2008 (See YouTube link below). And I’ve hung with Tiffani Thiessen, Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth through mutual actor pals. I once shared a joint with Luke Perry in the smoking section of a club, but we didn’t keep in touch. And last year I failed at trying to get Ian Ziering to be a guest on my History Channel show. (Sharknado made him too big I guess). As for my friend Marc, his acting career took a small detour, and he invented the brilliant “Drop Stop” car crack filler that is revolutionizing the way we stay focused on the road. Couldn’t be more proud of him.
I’m guessing that Jimmy Fallon is days – if not weeks – away from doing some sort of fun Beverly Hills 90210 reunion sketch on The Tonight Show and he’s gonna be lauded and praised for bringing us all back to 1992 again. Heck, if I had a show like that it would be my “sweeps week” cornerstone. Still, for me, the show meant a lot. It made me want to move to California as much as the Doors and Neil Young and posters of hot blondes posing on Ferraris beneath the caption, “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” Whenever I meet a cast member, I revert back to the teenager I was in 1992, dreaming of an acting career and a night partying at a hot club with Shannen Doherty and her 5-day husband Ashley Hamilton. Suddenly my fading youth speeds back to me like Steve Sanders in a street drag race in 1990. These folks are forever in my references and mind and heart.
So, whenever I meet a bartender named “Nat” I am going to reference the Peach Pit as if it were 1993 and I was playing air guitar in my fraternity in front of the big screen TV. No matter what the ultra-hip Instagram crowd at the bar thinks about it. By the way. I eventually saw the scene in the episode where I took the money from Nat at the Peach Pit. If you look closely, you can almost see the tip of my sideburns as I walk out the door…
*Watch Zach’s new video for his song “Too Old for Molly, Too Young for LSD” !*