Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Television Production Safe for Young and Old Actors?


The title of Jackie Cooper's autobiography, "Please Don't Shoot My Dog," came out of the fact that, when Cooper was a child, director Norman Taurog got him to cry in a scene by telling him that he had just shot his dog. This came to mind as I was watching a scene in the premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire. The small girl in this scene is genuinely frightened to witness an argument between her pretend parents. The father shouts angrily, he curses, he shakes mommy, and he finally strikes the woman across the face. The girl finally bursts out in tears. The art of film making is not so important that it justifies scaring a little girl out of her wits to accomplish a dramatic scene.

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I am always wary seeing small children and babies used in movies and television shows. The uncredited baby currently appearing weekly on the Fox sitcom Raising Hope is often in the middle of the show's broad physical comedy. The producers of the show assure the public that the baby is never in danger. Mikey O'Connell reported on the zap2it website, "[A]ll of the jokes at baby Hope's expense are smoke and mirrors." Still, it doesn't seem that this type of activity should be part of a baby's daily routine.

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Am I being the disapproving old woman snooping behind the curtain?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine to see a newborn used in a birth scene. I felt extremely protective of my son when he was first born and nothing could have persuaded me to put this fragile newborn fellow into the hands of a film crew.

In California, infants can start working when they are 15 days old as long as a doctor's note can be provided to assure the infant is in good health and is sufficiently developed to withstand the stress of film making. California has more regulations than any other state when it comes to protecting child actors, but these regulations may not be good enough. Paul Peterson, president of the child-actor support group A Minor Consideration, alleged that, in 1995, the production team of ER filmed a birth scene using preemies. "They were still four weeks short of their due date, and they were brought in to work," said Peterson. Peterson became aware of the incident when he was contacted by the nurse caring for the infants on the set. The producers denied this ever happened and no charges were ever brought against them.

Babies simply need more care and attention than they are able to receive on a film set. In 1994, a production coordinator on Chicago Hope asked the 20th Century Fox medical department if it would be acceptable to sedate an infant for a scene where the infant is supposed to be anesthetized. Janet Fisher, the supervisor of the medical department, put an immediate stop to these plans. She sent out a memo in which she explained the risk of sedating an infant and made it clear that an infant should never be sedated for non-medical purposes. The production coordinator embarrassed himself just by asking this callous question.

Filmmakers prefer to avoid animatronic infants as the results are less than convincing and sometimes even creepy. This is demonstrated by another scene in Boardwalk Empire.

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A recent episode of 30 Rock was able to do without a newborn in a birth scene and even got a couple of laughs out of it.

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The people busy making a television show are usually too preoccupied to consider a child's welfare. Gina Gillespie, who was a busy child actor in the 1950s and 1960s, remembered the cast and crew expecting child actors to act like adults. They were to know their lines, hit their marks, and never do anything to cause delays. Scenes had to be completed and no one had time to coddle a child. Gillespie said that her worst experience occurred when Loretta Young was directing her in a scene. Young asked Gillespie to move to another part of the set and, when the little girl failed to move fast enough for her, she snatched her up, carried her across the set, and dropped her where she wanted her to be.

Of course, all of these incidents pale in comparison to the tragedy that occurred during the production of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The story is well known. Two children were placed in the middle of a war scene by director John Landis. The children, accompanied by actor Vic Morrow, had to race across a distance while pyrotechnic explosions were set off around them and a low-flying helicopter pursued them overhead. One of the explosions damaged the helicopter's rotor blade, causing the helicopter to crash on top of Morrow and the children. It was a shame.

Actors at the other end of the age spectrum also require special care and attention, but the actors and their fans find the effort to be worthwhile.

It is no secret that we are more fragile in our later years than we are in our early years and health and safety concerns need to become a priority when a lead actor is over the age of 70. . This is a timely subject as three veteran television actors have recently returned to series television. 88-year-old Betty White is a curmudgeonly old landlady in Hot in Cleveland, 79-year-old William Shatner is a curmudgeonly old father in $#*! My Dad Says, and 84-year-old Cloris Leachman is a curmudgeonly old granny in Raising Hope. It should be hard for these actors to distinguish themselves while having to play the same standard utility role, but none of these old troupers seem daunted by the challenge.

The producers of Hot in Cleveland admitted to arranging a less than rigorous shooting schedule for White. ''They were making all these concessions where I felt like a heel if I said no!'' said White. Still, the producers of these series generally keep mum about health and safety concerns as it can distract from the primary objective of the series to get laughs. Also, the actors do not want to reveal health problems as it could prevent them from getting work. This is the reason that 73-year-old Jack Palance found it necessary to perform one-armed push-ups on a live Oscar telecast. He was in fact able to continue acting for another twelve years.

While Shatner's current working conditions have not been publicized, it is known that producer David E. Kelley took special measures to assure safe conditions during the filming of Shatner's last series, Boston Legal. Kelly kept well-equipped medics on premises. The law offices of the show were made to look as if they had waxed marble floors, but these floors in fact had a rubberized grip to prevent falls. Shatner was often depicted having a smoke on a high balcony in the chill of the New England night, but these scenes were actually shot on secure warehouse stages.

David Jason found that, at age 70, he no longer had the energy to play the feisty Inspector Frost and elected to end the ITV series A Touch of Frost with one last daring action scene.

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The long-running BBC series, The Last of the Summer Wine, features an assembly of pensioners involved in slapstick antics. The producers of the series learned better than anyone how to create madcap silliness with old actors while satisfying the insurance underwriters.

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All in all, I would like to see more old actors on television and less young ones.

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