RICHMOND, JUNE 4 -- Lights! Camera! Governor!
In a performance probably not destined for Academy Award consideration, Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles made show business (or, more properly, state political) history today by appearing in a bit part in a lavish movie production here.
Baliles, his hair slicked down in early 20th century fashion and wearing an old-timey suit instead of his customary pinstripes, made his acting debut in the shooting of "The Ballad of Mary Phagan," a multimillion-dollar, made-for-television production being filmed at historic locations in and around Richmond.
For collectors of Hollywood trivia, the line uttered by the first Virginia governor ever to act in such a celluloid saga was, "Sir, I'm from Virginia and I protest."
Contrary to widespread reports that he accepted the walk-on part in a shameless attempt to rub elbows with actor Jack Lemmon and other celebrities, Baliles insisted that the acting job would help underscore his administration's efforts to lure filmmakers to the state.
However, the governor also made it plain that economic development was not the only thing on his mind. "I have one small request," Baliles told Lemmon at a news conference in the grand lobby of the Jefferson-Sheraton hotel, today's location. "If possible, I'd like equal billing."
Appropriately, "Mary Phagan" is in part a political drama, the story of the controversial 1913 case of Leo Frank, who was convicted of murdering 14-year-old Phagan. He was spared by Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton, only to be lynched later by an angry mob.
Lemmon, who plays Slaton, said he was watching Baliles "like a hawk" for clues to proper gubernatorial behavior.
"The ease with which he handles himself in front of people is a lesson for any actor," Lemmon said of the politician.
In today's scene, Baliles and about 20 other men played leaders of a national delegation that traveled to Georgia to protest Frank's scheduled execution. "You're angry, but try to control your anger," coached director Billy Hale.
Baliles and the others spent about 90 minutes on the hotel's sweeping staircase while various elements of the scene were shot, and shot again.
The governor allowed as how it was exhausting work, telling one associate he would rather "work two days without sleep" than stand under the bright lights to recite one line of dialogue.
Producer George Stevens Jr. said he invited Baliles to participate as a way of saying thanks for Richmond's hospitality.
In addition, noted Stevens, a longtime Washingtonian, "the cross-over between politics and show business has not escaped me."
The four-hour series is scheduled to be aired early next year.