Friday, October 27, 2006

Making a Scene

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

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

That was the high point of my friend Leslie Goldman’s acting career—in truth, it was all of it. He was still getting small royalty checks at his death earlier this year. 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 won’t find his name in a search of the Internet Movie Data Base, and only if you Google down deep will you learn he once flashed across the tube in judges’ robes for an ancient “Law and Order.”

As sons of immigrants, Les and I spent childhood 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 the world that had enchanted us as kids.

Once, when I asked if there wasn’t a better way of spending his days and nights than sipping stale coffee and schmoozing for a small check and no credit, he answered with that old 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 moved. 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 panning 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.

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