The phone call came in the fading hours of a winter Wednesday.
A young female voice on the other end was telling me that if I was interested in being an extra in a movie that was being shot in Baltimore, then I should show up at a quarter past six the next morning, clad in dark shirt, dark trousers, dark shoes.
When dawn broke, I was standing on a cobblestone street near the vintage marine terminal in picturesque Fells Point. A woman from Central Casting, clutching a clipboard, paced nervously up and down the sidewalk, crossing off the names of the 20 or so extras who left the security of their toasty warm beds to play out a fantasy.
Most of the assembled were men of all ages and from varied walks of life. One was an affable, easygoing Baltimore dentist named Fred, 32, who, like me, had dropped off a mug shot at Central Casting on North Charles Street for review. He explained that since his practice is closed on Thursdays, this would be an ideal day to get a taste of Tinsel Town, looking into the lens of a camera instead of at someone's molars. We stuck together, Fred and I, for the next 12 hours of sheer tomfoolery, stumbling and fumbling our way through scene after scene after scene.
* The three-hour NBC movie, "Liberty," is scheduled to air Monday night at 8. The docudrama -- featuring Carrie Fisher, George Kennedy, LeVar Burton, Frank Langella and Chris Sarandon (Lee Iacocca and Interior Secretary Donald Hodel don't even have cameo roles) -- traces how the Statue of Liberty came to be erected in New York harbor. Under a slate gray sky, with the thermometer dancing around 30 degrees, we were herded on a bus for the half-hour ride to Fort Smallwood Park, where the Patapsco River shakes hands with the Bay. A few minutes later we were rushed to a wardrobe trailer, then to a makeup trailer, where they really have vanity lights around the mirrors. A makeup artist plastered a beard and mustache on me, applied liberal portions of reddish yuk on my face and sent me on my way. Admittedly, things were beginning to be all too self-serving. So this was life in the fast lane, huh? Give me more, please.
The coterie of extras were dispatched to the beach, where we spent the remaining nine hours of daylight discovering how boring making a movie can be. High school physics was sexier than this. ever, while a whopping 90 percent of our time was spent waiting for something to happen, there was still the undeniable fact that we were privy to inside glimpses of a big-budget television event and not at home hearing about it vicariously through Rona Barrett on "Entertainment Tonight." I pinched myself every hour on the hour to confirm this wasn't another one of my intergalactic flights of fancy. Dull or not, it was an experience I could tell my grandchildren about.
"Firs' thin's firs'," bellowed an assistant director named Leo through a bullhorn, after parading all the extras together on the desolate and deserted shoreline, which offered a distant view of the Key Bridge and port traffic. He bent down, snapped up a paper cup that someone discarded on the sand, and pleaded, "Don' do dis to me, fellaz, paaleese! We mus' keep the set clean at all time." The decree had the ring of a football coach calling the shots under a blazing summer sun. I knew Leo meant business.
Along with an army of associates armed with bullhorns and walkie-talkies tucked in their back pockets, Leo carefully explained to the extras what the first scene was all about and how each of us would serve as pieces to the puzzle. I spotted George Kennedy, a massive wall of a man, walking in a small circle and kicking dirt, with hands clasped behind him. Wearing period costume and a somber expression, he was just as bored as the rest of us. Then, to pass the time, I tried to picture all the big fat zeros in his paycheck.
Our assignment was easy enough. Leo had us playing laborers on the statue project -- carpenters, riveters, coppersmiths. The producers had decided that Baltimore in 1986 looks an awful lot like New York City in the late 19th century, where much of "Liberty" is set. Hence our location.
The props on the beach that day included barrels, burlap sacks, a pair of mules hitched to a wagon (the mules were real), a shanty and sections of what was supposed to be "The Lady" strewn about.
"Roll cameras . . . background action!" growled the peripatetic Leo through his obnoxious bullhorn. That was, of course, our cue to become animated and perform on a level slightly below that of a 7-year-old. We rehearsed the scene three, four, maybe five times before the Powers That Be felt it was genuine. It was, at once, exhilarating and strange throughout.
The noon hour was fast approaching. We had shot only about two minutes worth of one exterior scene.
We were taken to a church in the Anne Arundel County suburb of Pasadena for a delicious hot meal. Now, there happens to be a very distinct line between the stars and the extras -- we didn't exactly hobnob with each other -- but we were impressed to see that these fabulously wealthy actors and actresses had not been carted off in a shiny black limo to a tony French restaurant for lunch. Nope. There they stood in line at the church parking lot, hungry and shivering just like the proletariat. And after the hearty lunch, LeVar Burton plopped down in front of a piano with an extra and proceeded to bang out some pretty decent jazz.
One hour later, we were back on the set, preparing for what would be the final scene of the long, tedious day in which extras were required.
This time, the giant arm of the statue holding the torch was being hoisted by a rented crane, while the action was being captured by a camera on another crane about 30 feet high.
This moment was particularly exciting because Fred and I marched up to Leo, volunteering to grasp the thick ropes attached to the wooden arm and pretend we were struggling to position the thing. The operation was supervised by George Kennedy, who plays a crusty Irish foreman on the project.
Satisfying the number one director, Richard Sarafian, was no breeze. He wasn't happy with the way we tugged the ropes in one take, singling us out with a great off-color remark that drew howls from the 100 or so cast and crew -- and Baltimore police officers -- watching in amusement. Following a mild tongue-lashing, we were actually more flattered than red-faced. We were singled out, after all, by someone who used to direct original episodes of the "Twilight Zone."
Surprisingly, the scene was "wrapped" in about half an hour. It was a good thing, too, because a wicked winter wind was kicking up off the river as nightfall galloped toward Charm City.
With an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, Leo collectively thanked all of the day's hired hands. We ambled over to the white trailer where our cunning disguises were unglued and we turned in our costumes. It was all very mechanical.
Later that evening, we found ourselves back at Fells Point and the real world that had been put on hold many hours earlier. Meanwhile, word traveled that the cast and crew's next stop was Paris to put the finishing touches on the elaborate production.
For our time and energy, we were awarded the dizzying sum of $40 and no cents. The money meant nothing. The psychic income meant everything and now I know why the divorce rate in Hollywood is so high.
The neon-bathed world of glitz and glamor awaited me. There were deals to cut, fast-talking agents to huddle with and six-figure contracts to sign. Chic parties in Malibu hosted by Sly Stallone and Joan Collins. Shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive.
At dinner that night, I mustered the raw courage to inform my wife I was leaving to embark upon a new life centered completely around me.
"That's nice," she replied. "Finish your cauliflower. And the furnace filter needs changing."
Tony Glaros is a Washington writer.