Extra! The unheralded "stars" of movies
If you're a Hollywood movie or TV show and need a "biker guy," just call Central Casting. (CBS)
For all the hoopla of Oscar Night, there's one group of Hollywood professionals the Academy always overlooks. They're the anonymous performers from "Central Casting," deserving of some EXTRA attention, as Lee Cowan is about to show us:
They are some of the most familiar faces you'll probably never recognize - hoping to be stereotyped ("mob guy," "lawyer") into greatness.
Names don't matter here. It's all about size, shape and type. Faces are photographed, body parts are measured - all of hopefuls who carry the classic Hollywood dream: hoping to become a Hollywood extra.
Extras are Hollywood's houseplants - cinematic wallflowers, the face in the crowd - or the crowd itself.
They are the unknown souls drowning with Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic"; the nameless airport passengers being chided by George Clooney in "Up in the Air"; the Israelites faithfully following Charlton Heston through the parted waters of the Red Sea; or they're baseball fans so "Natural"-ly cheering on Robert Redford.
"In some ways they're the unsung heroes of the movie world," said film historian Leonard Maltin. "But being unsung is kind of part of the job description, isn't it?"
Maltin said there isn't a lot said or written about extras, precisely because they're not supposed to be interesting.
"You're not there to improvise, you're not there to show off. You're there to be part of the background, and be an authentic-looking part of the background," he said.
So where do directors shop for that background? In a place that sounds more like a punch line than a business: Central Casting.
"No one believes there really IS a Central Casting!" said Jennifer Bender, a VP of one of the biggest cliches in Hollywood - part temp agency, part circus recruiter.
"We get called, 'We want three blondes, two brunettes, two African Americans and an Asian, between the ages of 20s and 30s,'" Bender said. "I mean, that's by definition what we do."
It's been around a long time, since 1925 - created as a better, more organized alternative to the perils of Hollywood's casting couch.
Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille was a frequent client. He even appeared in a short film about Central Casting and its talent-in-waiting, who come "from the ends of the Earth" for "the magic call that may mean the lucky break."
Today, Central Casting's mission remains the same as it ever was, and 87 years later remains a booming business.
It hires between 2,000 and 3,000 extras EVERY SINGLE DAY, including casting Oscar-nominated films like "Moneyball."
"That movie had thousands, thousands - I mean, we had to fill up stadiums," said Chris Bustard, who was in charge of finding them all at the request of producer-star Brad Pitt.
Fitting because, after all, Central Casting is where Pitt got HIS start.
Pitt told Cowan that when he first signed up at Central Casting "I had no idea was I was doing. But I got here, you know, I landed, had a meal at McDonald's and got the paper. And by the end of the week I was an extra!"
So was John Wayne, Ronald Regan, even "Desperate Housewife" star Eva Longoria - pretty humble beginnings that are enough to keep some 300 new applicants coming to Central Casting every week.
Summer Wesson is one of the casting directors who has at her fingertips an unlimited database. If her screen came alive, it might sound something like this:
"Biker, downscale bar patron, homeless ..."
"Cop, doctor, lawyer, news reporter, baseball player..."
"Hair down: Homeless, mental patient, lots of mental patient; Hair back: Nun, medical technician, nurse ..."
Jennifer Bender said that some people that have been an extra in so many different films that they're almost like stars in and of themselves. "Absolutely, there are several of them, and I think there's a few that you would probably recognize."
One of them may be Jesse Heiman, dubbed the "World's Greatest Extra" in a YouTube clip that was made by, believe it or not, a fan!
It's been viewed more than 2 million times - highlighting Jesse's appearances in everything from "Glee" to major motion pictures like "The Social Network" and "Spider-man."
"Are you OK being the 'World's Greatest Extra'?" asked Cowan.
"Well yes, of course," said Heiman. "It's a title. I have a title! It's like I'm the Madonna of the extra world!"
There are others you might have seen and not know you've seen, like John Starr, who's been an extra since he was cast to sit behind John Travolta in "Welcome Back, Kotter."
"You're the lowest person on the totem pole," Starr said. "You're an extra - literally, just an extra."
"It does strike me, though, that to be successful at it, you sort of have to embrace the obscurity of it all," said Cowan.
"I always say you have to embrace the humility," Starr replied, "because it really is a humbling position, unless you're able to just enjoy it for what it is."
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