For someone who was being reminded of the day he got shot in the head and almost died, James Brady was in a jolly mood.
Yesterday morning, in a hotel conference room full of reporters, President Ronald Reagan's former press secretary sat in his wheelchair next to Beau Bridges, the actor portraying him in the HBO movie "The James Brady Story." Brady looked at Bridges, who was padded a bit, with strands of hair pulled across his bald crown. "It's like an out-of-body experience," he said, smiling.
The film's cast and crew were at the Washington Hilton to begin their re-creation of the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, that famous burst of shots from a cheap handgun that crippled Brady.
One reporter asked whether Brady and his wife, Sarah, would be outside to watch the filming. "I think the scene they're shooting this morning would be difficult to see," Sarah said, meaning the scene in which an actor playing John Hinckley Jr. pulls a .22 from his pocket and starts pumping bullets. No, the couple wouldn't be watching.
Besides, said Brady, "I was there for the first one."
The room erupted with laughter. And the off-kilter tone of the day was set.
On the T Street side of the Hilton, you could see the heat rising in waves off a 12,000-watt lamp as it bounced some added daylight onto a clump of 20 extras. The film crew spent the whole morning around this group, which presumably will look like an impressive crowd when "The James Brady Story" is shown in May. The extras pretended to watch with excitement as the presidential motorcade approached.
In their midst was a weird-looking guy wearing a cream-colored windbreaker, a creepy look of determination in his sunken eyes. This was Steven Flynn, an actor who has done a few made-for-TV movies but nothing to compare with playing Hinckley. (Flynn hasn't met James and Sarah Brady, who are now gun-control activists. "I don't imagine they'd want to meet me," he said, laughing.)
As fresh as the memories of Hinckley's assault still are -- the TV networks had cameras right there, and they broadcast the scene again and again -- the re-creation yesterday was oddly unmoving, even as Flynn was firing blanks toward the camera. The first time Flynn did it, one veteran District cop said to another on the set, "He wouldn't have hit nothing with that first shot he got off." Then he snickered. For the next two takes the officer watched Flynn, then shook his head, turned around and snickered some more.
Only a handful of passersby even stopped to check out the action. "If they let me smoke in my office, I wouldn't even bother to come out here," said one gentleman, standing across the street.
The scenes to be filmed today are bound to be more dramatic. That's when the bullets hit and the bodies fall.
Ned Corrigan, a local actor and stuntman, was standing around yesterday in a policeman's uniform. He plays Thomas Delahanty, the District officer who was wounded along with the president and Brady. "Back of the neck," Corrigan said, tapping himself behind his ear.
He and the other stuntmen spent a couple of hours Sunday watching network news tapes of the assassination so they could get the falls right. "I'll probably throw some pads on," Corrigan said.
(The real Delahanty, by the way, left the force on a disability retirement. And judging by one young officer, the police department should do a better job of venerating him. Looking at Corrigan's prop badge, the cop asked the stuntman, "Is that your real name? Delahanty?")
Inside the lobby of the Hilton, Associated Press photographer Ron Edmonds was hanging around, preparing to re-create his own role in the events of March 30, 1981. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his picture of President Reagan being pushed into his limousine -- "the grimace shot," Edmonds calls it. The photographer was asked to be an extra by a casting agent from Houston, where most of "The James Brady Story" has been filmed.
"I probably wouldn't have done it if my wife hadn't egged me on," Edmonds said. "She said it would be good to have our daughter see it."
A fellow photographer stepped up to tease Edmonds, saying the cameras draped on his side hadn't been invented in 1981. What kind of authenticity is this?
That's when Edmonds held up the Nikon F3 hanging around his neck. "This is the one. I took it out of mothballs for this," he said, smiling modestly. "And the 50 millimeter."
"Same lens?" the other photographer asked him.
"The same lens," said Edmonds. "This went out of commission the day after I won the Pulitzer."
"I don't blame you."
Ah, nostalgia. In the conference room, Brady graciously chatted with reporters for 45 minutes after the press conference was officially over. He told of a certain network correspondent who had waited in line for the chance to ask him one question: "Did it hurt?"
"Can you imagine, a person being paid $275,000 a year, and that's the best question she can come up with?" Brady said, smiling broadly.
Up close, you can see the disturbing scar that traverses the top of his head.
"And the answer is, 'Hell yes, it hurt!' "