Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar Memory: A Life in the Movies

Tomorrow night we wallow once again in the soft porn of fame, fashion and film clips, half-watching Academy Awards to movies most of us haven’t seen and artisans we never heard of.

Yet, again this year amid the usual scene stealers, some of them canine, I will be thinking of a college classmate who devoted his life to being an anonymous foot soldier in that dream brigade.

One of these years, the Academy may want to devote the appropriate screen time of several seconds to the memory of all those Unknown Extras.

In the 1982 movie “Tootsie,” Dustin Hoffman in drag is auditioning for a soap opera when the producer asks, “I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?”

With no hesitation, the cameraman answers, ”How do you feel about Cleveland?”

That was the high point of my friend Les Goldman’s acting career—-in truth, it was almost all of it. He was still getting small royalty checks at his death several years ago. The only other remains of decades on film sets, in overheated halls and freezing streets are glimpses of him as human scenery in hundreds of movies.

You have to dig deep to find his name in the Internet Movie Data Base to learn he once was in judges’ robes for the first episodes of “Law and Order” in the early 1990s.

As sons of immigrants, Les and I spent our childhoods in dark movie houses, watching how people behaved and talked in places where the ways of our parents would never do. The movies taught us how to be American.

After World War II, he went to law school, passed the bar but never practiced. It was only on movie sets doing extra work after joining the Screen Actors Guild that he found his calling in a world that had enchanted us as kids.

Once, when I asked if there wasn’t a better way of spending days and nights than sipping stale coffee and schmoozing for a small check and no credit, he answered with the classic punchline, “What? And give up show business?”

He was still doing it well into his seventies, sharing a joke with Jack Nicholson here, teasing Kim Basinger there while the lights and cameras were being readied. When the film was ready to roll, he moved back, staying in character and out of the spotlight. In the era of no-shame reality shows, Les made an art of fading into the background.

Now, on sleepless nights, I can always find him in an old movie, part of a crowd in “9½ Weeks” or “Cotton Club” or, my favorite, behind a deli counter in “When Harry Met Sally” while Meg Ryan shows Billy Crystal how women fake an orgasm.

With Meg moaning and customers staring, the camera keeps circling and, in the background, there is Les in a long white apron ignoring the hubbub and solemnly slicing salami, never looking up—-as always, staying in character, keeping it real, making the scene work.

He never gave up show business.

Update: At this year’s Oscars, an eerie moment for me when a montage of past movie moments ends with the “When Harry Met Sally” scene, showing Les Goldman clear as day at the center rear of the frame between Meg Ryan and Billy Chrystal, before the camera shifts to another Extra, director Rob Reiner’s mother, at another table to deliver the punchline at Meg’s gyrations, “I’ll have whatever she’s having.”

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