Twenty years ago, or maybe it was nineteen, I worked one day as an extra on the movie set of American Outlaws. My ‘co-stars’ were Ali Larter (of a memorable scene in Varsity Blues), Scott Caan (son of James), Colin Farrell (Alexander the Great himself), Timothy Dalton (a once-only James Bond), and the glorious Kathy Bates (who made us all cringe when she used a hammer on James Caan’s knees in Misery).
American Outlaws cost $34 million to produce--$125 went to me for my day’s work. I suspect my named co-stars worked at a higher pay grade--and brought in $13 million at the box office. Wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk movie, but I have the disk and it is fun to watch every now and then.
My appearance is visual only, and only for a few seconds, while the fellow in front of me made a much better daily wage speaking a few lines to Colin Farrell who was portraying Jesse James, telling him that General Lee had just surrendered in Virginia.
My son Ben was working at the local movie theater in Lockhart when the film came around in 2001, and the theater owner obligingly snipped a couple of frames from the reel and gave them to Ben to give to me, since I was a hometown guy and a star in the film. There I am, on celluloid and the silver screen with brushed-on grit and grime on my face and wearing my Confederate reenacting uniform.
There were thirty or more of us extras in the line of dirty Rebs marching along in that scene. I heard one fun comment from the staffer in the costume trailer who was handing out artfully ragged Confederate uniform costumes to the guys who answered the call for extras, but didn’t have their own outfit like we reenactors did. He said those uniforms had been hanging in a studio storeroom since they used in the fantastic wide-angle scene of the Confederate wounded lying on the ground in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind some sixty years earlier. Maybe that was BS or maybe he was telling it straight. I dunno, but it was a great line.
Anyway, I was near the front of the line of extras, with my mug visible, with directions to dare not look directly into the lens of the camera, and to look grim and weary. How I came to be in front of the line and behind the actor who spoke is a mystery. I confess I did figure out that those guys in the back would likely not be seen in the final movie version, but I didn’t fight to move up in the column, like the third monkey in line to get on the ark. Maybe I did growl once or twice and shove a little bit, though. After all, nobody was going to call me by name to go to the head of the line, so a man had to look out for his fame and glory.
We did at least fifteen takes of the tiny scene, enough to make me wonder how a whole film is ever finished. We were on a remote location at Camp Swift near Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin. There were innumerable vehicles, generators, shade awnings and comfortable chairs for the real actors. We Rebs waited in the shade of some trucks, sitting on the grass, likely getting chigger bit. There were numerous young pretty women darting around on important errands. We were fed well. I never laid eyes on Ali or Kathy or Tim since they weren’t in our scene.
I’m glad to have the two frames of film as a memento of a long, hot enjoyable day seeing how Hollywood works out in the backwoods, near Bastrop, Texas.
There is a geographic link in this memory, as my new novel in progress, With Might & Main, features a couple of historical characters who were from Bastrop. One was Colonel R.T.P. Allen, a West Pointer, who opened and ran a military academy in Bastrop before the Civil War. He served as the first commanding colonel of the 4th Texas Infantry regiment in Virginia, and then the 17th Texas Infantry regiment, which fought in Louisiana, the outfit the novel is about. Unfortunately, while Allen was acknowledged to be an exceptional drill master, he must have been a very difficult man, for he was removed from not one, but both of his regimental commands during the war, including the 17th. Allen finished the war commanding the POW camp in Tyler—Camp Ford.
The other fellow from Bastrop was an attorney before the war, Captain Elijah Petty. He wrote dozens of letters home to his wife that have been published, and provided me with wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots of life in a Confederate army regiment. Reading his anecdotal, sometimes lengthy and detailed letters about his personal daily activities and what was going on around him, was similar to working that day as a movie extra—seeing how sausage is made, so to speak. Petty was a handsome guy and his historical fate is part of the climax of With Might & Main, so I’ll leave you guessing. His letters reveal a devoted husband and father who was very concerned for his family back in Texas, as well as loyal Confederate officer.
I hope to have the manuscript of With Might & Main completed by the end of August. More later.