In one of those Star Trek alternate universes, I could have been like this with Billy Crystal. Consider the following:
- Billy and I were born in the same hospital, fifteen months and one minute apart. We grew up in the New York area (he on Long Island, me in Manhattan) in the 1950s as die-hard Yankee fans.
- Our fathers each took us to our first Yankees game. Billy describes it beautifully in his book 700 Sundays, based on his Tony Award-winning one-man play.
- Today, each of us continues to be devoted to the Bombers, despite our having long left the Big Apple. My home den in Michigan is a shrine to the team I remember, with an autographed copy of Mickey Mantle’s book The Mick, a 1965 scorecard I got signed by the Yankee and CBS broadcast teams, and lots of memorabilia of the 1961 Yankees … often cited as the greatest team in baseball history.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Billy chose the old-but-still-standing Tiger Stadium in Detroit to stand in for Yankee Stadium in his 2001 HBO movie 61*, I felt destined to be a part of it. He would be there for several weeks, directing the story of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and their race to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.
Thanks to my twenty years in town as a writer/producer, I had enough pull with the Affiliated Talent Agency to get myself cast as a paid “specialty extra” for a day—as a sports writer, no less.
Reporting to Tiger Stadium, I walked past a line of people waiting to get into the ballpark. These were the unpaid extras, certainly not in the same category as me.
I approached the Gatekeeper and announced myself: “I’m a specialty extra.”
“Get in line,” he cleverly retorted.
“But I’m with Affiliated,” I advised him.
“Get in line,” he repeated.
“Look, I’m already cast,” I asserted.
“Get in line,” he said, with what I sensed was his final warning. I got in line.
The gate opened soon after and I got in another line to sign in and then another line to wait to get in the next line. After 90 minutes, I was led to one of the concession areas where Makeup and Wardrobe staffers had set up their base of operations.
There were racks with hundreds of sport coats, shirts, shoes and slacks, all of which had apparently been sitting in a Hollywood costume shop since the Eisenhower administration.
The wardrobe lady handed me a kind of patterned short sleeve shirt, frayed brown windbreaker and tan slacks. “Don’t put anything in your pockets other than your wallet,” she instructed. “It cost us thousands of dollars already to ship back ripped pants. And don’t let them catch you with that camera.”
I quickly moved on to Makeup, where a young lady motioned me into her chair of horrors. There I was buzzed, brushed and Brylcreamed into an authentic middle-aged man from the 60s–1860s maybe.
One of the coordinators led the designated writers down a corridor to receive our props, including a reporter’s notebook and a press badge with a 1961 stamp. That’s mine in the photo.
It was 1 pm when we were seated behind third base to wait for the filming of our one big scene: a mock press conference during which Mickey Mantle (played by Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) would be announcing the formation of the M&M Corporation.
It would be a long wait.
The people who came on their own to portray fans were kept under constant watch. Nobody, however, monitored our little group; we had the run of the place. Wandering onto the field, even into the dugout, we freely mingled with some of the actors and minor leaguers playing the 1961 Yankees and Tigers.
During the lulls—which were 99% of our day—a few of us who came prepared with cameras and baseballs hit on the cast for photos and autographs.
Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile), was particularly gracious, despite the fact that “Roger Maris” was in most of the scenes being shot that day.
Playing pitcher Whitey Ford, Anthony Michael Hall (a dramatically bulked-up version of the nerdy Brat Pack teenager in Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles) was equally cooperative. We shared a table during lunch break.
Also approachable was Bruce McGill, memorable as D-Day in Animal House, now filling the role of Yankees Manager Ralph Houk. I told him about the Big Boy TV commercial I’d produced with his Animal House co-star, Stephen (Flounder) Furst.
Only once was I stopped by Security. A big bouncer-type asked me if I had any business being on the field. I gestured to my phony 1961 press badge. He nodded his approval and walked away.
The several thousand extras who showed up the first few days had by now dwindled down to a few hundred. Those of us assigned to the press corps were recruited to join a group in the upper left field deck to shoot crowd cutaways. By moving everyone around to different seats for each take, and “layering” the shots, we would pass for thousands of Yankees fans filling the stands.
Billy announced over a portable speaker that Mickey Mantle would be shown hitting one of his tape measure jobs into our section. The actual ball would be computerized, but we were instructed to reach up as if battling for the prized souvenir. By luck of the draw I was in the front row for that shot. At 17:02 into the movie, get out your telescope and you’ll see me in a white shirt and tie reach up and then watch the ball go overhead.
And what of our big scene: the press conference? During the day, it was rumored that we’d be bussed to a nearby soundstage; later we were told it would be filmed somewhere under the stands. When the scene still hadn’t been shot by 11 pm, some of the crew hustled out to the left field corner by the foul pole, threw a table and some chairs on the warning track and called for lights. A few minutes later, we were brought over.
A half-dozen extras playing news photographers stood or knelt by the table, while the reporters were told where to sit in the foreground, to the left or right of the camera. Two other reporters were actually L.A. actors who would be asking questions of Mantle and Maris.
As the cinematographer lined up his shot, it was clear that I’d be on the extreme lower left edge of the frame—or maybe not in the shot at all. I decided to increase my odds of being seen. After a few takes, I started leaning in. Then I rose up off the chair and leaned in. Then I stood and leaned in. Despite all these clever maneuvers, if you look at the press conference at 38:07 into the movie, you won’t see me. Not at all.
As the crew took the tables and chairs away, a couple of my fellow reporters asked Billy if he’d pose for a photo. It was now after midnight, and no one would have blamed him if he waved us off. But he stayed until everyone got their shot with him. I was the last one.
So … I got to meet a few stars, got to eat with the cast, got some photos and autographs, and a few dollars, too.
The story of my day was published in Michigan Vue, a magazine for the Detroit film and TV industry. When the issue came out, I sent it to Billy along with an 8×10 blowup of our photo.
I also included a letter in which I explained that when he was still a baby in the Bronx, before they moved to Long Beach, his parents would hire a babysitter for Billy and older brothers Joel and Richard. That babysitter was my Aunt Sari (pronounced SHAR-ee), my father’s sister. In fact, she still remained friends with one of the Crystal cousins.
Billy signed and returned the photo and added a note about Aunt Sari. That was nice.
The HBO movie was released in 2001, and won two Primetime Emmy Awards: Outstanding Casting and Sound Editing. It was nominated for ten more, including Outstanding Directing for Billy Crystal.
I was with him for only a few seconds—less time than it took for Mickey Mantle to run from home to first base—but in my book, Billy Crystal is a real Yankee.