|The late Irwin Keyes, as captured by the Coen brothers|
As Labor Day Weekend approaches, I find myself marveling at the number of ways people maintain connections to the film industry. Usually we think of Hollywood in terms of wealth and power. Most entertainment attorneys are looking to segue into becoming producers. And most actors fancy themselves as up-and-coming stars.
But today I want to salute the grunts of the industry, the folks who play the supporting roles, whether on or off camera. I tip my hat, first of all, a guy who – when not on the set -- hung out at my local Starbucks. Irwin Keyes was known to collectors of showbiz trivia as a fixture in sitcoms (like The Jeffersons) and horror films. In the latter, he was helped by his oddly distorted facial features, a result of acromegaly, the pituitary disorder that killed him two months ago, at the age of 63. Anyone who’s seen Irwin play a hitman named Wheezy Joe in the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty will not soon forget him. If you’ve watched the film, you know it’s definitely not a good idea to confuse your gun with your asthma inhaler. Irwin Keyes, hail and farewell.
Irwin was never a star, but at least he appeared on screen. Countless others are essential figures on the set, but never get to wear a costume and play a role. I’m talking about (for instance) those who train and oversee animal actors. In the words of the industry, they’re “wranglers.” They may be dealing with cats, dogs, livestock, or more exotic critters. In one Concorde film, The Nest, we had an official bug wrangler, who kept watch over our stock of killer cockroaches. Another kind of wrangler, I guess, is the certified teacher charged with making sure that child actors don’t neglect their schooling or otherwise get into trouble.
One friend of mine, Diana Caldwell, comes from a family of actors. She aspired to be a screenwriter, but needed an actual paying gig. That’s why, just out of college, she chose to put her skills as a projectionist to work. Fortunately, she gained entrée into a male-dominated profession when a leader of the local union, one who enjoyed thumbing his nose at the Establishment, decided to take her on. Over the years, she’s learned to adapt to changing equipment, while vastly improving her skills. For years she’s worked for Boston Light and Sound, whose head, Chapin Cutler, is famed for his work as a film preservationist. She also plies her trade at major film festivals where anything can happen in the projection booth – and usually does.
Then there are lifelong film fans who turn their enthusiasm into business ventures. An L.A. Times piece recently featured John Wyatt: for the last decade he’s run the hyper-popular Cinespia series of classic film screenings on the lawn of the historic Hollywood Forever Cemetery. On nearby Hollywood Blvd., Jeff Mantor owns and operates the venerable Larry Edmunds Bookshop, which has served cinema buffs for eight decades. It used to be that foreign travelers, making a pilgrimage to Hollywood, would buy an extra suitcase to take home movie books, movie posters, lobby cards, and stills. Today’s airline regulations make that more unlikely, and – despite the loyal patronage of filmmakers like Joe Dante and John Landis -- the fact that the store is today the only one of its kind in Hollywood cuts down on its attraction for daytrippers. Just last May, Eric Caidin of the neighboring Hollywood Book and Poster died suddenly while attending a film noir convention in Palm Springs. Here’s to Eric and to Jeff, the last of his breed.