I was an extra in an Academy Award-winning movie. The story has a few twists and turns but in the end the movie, The French Connection, won the Academy Award in 1972.
In 1969 I was with Steve Keyes, a friend I had just met, and we went to his house in New Rochelle where he introduced me to his dad who was at the time on the typewriter. Ed said his dad was assisting Robin Moore in writing a book to be titled, The French Connection.
Around Christmas time, 1969 – a year later, I received a phone call from Johnny Smith, who asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. It seems his sister, Susie, worked in the office of a talent agency and they needed some hockey players for a scene in a movie. At that time, Johnny and I were both captains of the Pelham ice hockey team. He said we would make some nice money too. Of course, I said yes.
To be in the movie I had to join a union and have an agent. So, Susie Smith arranged for Johnny Smith, Scott Burrows, Jimmy Vear, my brother Jim Clemente, and myself to go down to Broadway (NYC) and meet an agent who would take care of the union membership and interview us. We all took the Metro North train downtown to Grand Central Station and walked until we ended up upstairs in some office off Broadway. There we filled out forms and then were categorized and photographed. When I say categorized, I mean I stood on a platform in a room with a bright light on me while some talent guy dictated to a secretary every single thing wrong with my face. After signing some forms, we were told that we would get phone calls from Susie Smith with the details about the movie shoot.
This is where it gets crazy. The first phone call from Susie Smith said that the scene called for street hockey players not ice hockey players. At this time, we were all at my house and we instantly said no problem we all could roller skate and play street hockey if needed. In fact, none of us had ever roller skated and played street hockey ever and none of us even had roller skates. We went to the Community Church of Pelham and borrowed roller skates we learned were available there. Next, we proceeded to learn how to roller skate and play street hockey in a day. Luckily for me I played goalie and just had a stand on my roller skates.
The phone rang a day later and it was Susie Smith again who told us we had to report to Union Square (NYC) in early January at 11:45 at night where there would be this big bus that would take us to the movie shoot. At this time no one had ever mentioned the name of the movie or what the movie was about. All we were told was that we were to play street hockey and it would take just one night. My mom volunteered to drive us to the city and dropped us off where the bus was waiting. Some guy with a big clipboard checked off our names as we entered the bus. Eventually when everyone was on the bus from the list the bus left Manhattan and brought us to a location under the Queensboro Bridge.
It was my first time ever on a motion picture movie set. They were bright lights and fog machines along with a catering truck plus some make-up trailers. Other teenage boys also hired to do the scene were on the bus too. They admitted they had never roller skated before either.
We mainly sat on the bus until our names were called because it was really cold outside. After all it was the first week of January. The first scene they shot was a scene where a police car is surveilling a Lincoln Continental. After that then they practiced a bust scene a few times, then filmed it from different angles. The two actors who seemed to be the main guys had sat next to me on the bus. One said his name was Gene Hackman, the other was Roy Schneider. At the time those names meant nothing to us. Gene Hackman told us stories about having three jobs and being in two shows at the same time on Broadway when he first started acting. He said his big break was a part in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. I didn’t remember him in the movie but I was polite and listened. Finally, I asked him if he knew the name of the movie. He replied, “It’s going to be called The French Connection,” based on some book. At once I remembered meeting Mr. Keyes while he was helping to write that book.
Eventually our scene was ready to be filmed. The director, William Friedkin, was very brief with what we could and could not do. He mostly was talking to the cameraman who had cameras set up in different locations all around the corner under the light where we were to play street hockey that night. The Pelham varsity jacket that I wore for that scene still hangs in my closet at home 50+ years later. From the moment they started shooting my fellow Pelham hockey players along with the actors they hired attempted to skate around. It was a less than perfect street surface with actual potholes. Everyone was falling and tripping while basically using their hockey sticks to stand up. We were given a crushed soda can to use as a puck and it made a specific noise like only a crushed soda can being shuffled by hockey sticks on a New York City street would make. Now I must confess the whole time they were shooting I kept shouting, “Pass it to TJ, pass it to TJ, pass it to TJ.” The whole shoot took less than 40 minutes. That included moving the cameras around for different angles and shooting the scene a few times with guys falling all over the place and tripping over hockey sticks and me yelling my name over and over again. When the shoot was over, we were back on the bus to get warm and wait another few hours while they shot other scenes until sunrise. While waiting on the bus we were told the movie would be released in the fall of 1971. The bus then brought us back to Union Square by 6 a.m. where my mom was waiting for us. Thank-you, mom.
In the summer of 1970, the check arrived in the mail with the pay stub listing the deductions for the union’s dues, agent fees and taxes. In that process the $1,000 gross pay was whittled by deductions for union dues, agent commission and taxes. The actual check was for $250, still not bad for a night’s work. I actually still have the check stub and the 1099 tax form.
In the fall of 1971, I was a freshman at George Washington University and was very busy starting off my college career. Then one day I saw a story in The Washington Post stating a new movie called The French Connection would be opening up all over D.C this coming weekend.
On the next Saturday night, in October 1971, I bought a ticket to a movie theater in Georgetown and sat with Bud Grey and watched The French Connection. Eventually the scene I was in flashed up on screen for all of seven or eight seconds. The soundtrack had been altered so all you heard were boys’ voices muffled with the distinct sound of the soda can being passed around. I was very disappointed that I didn’t hear, “Pass it to TJ, pass it to TJ,” over and over. Later in life I was to learn that if any of us spoke on the film and could be heard we would get a credit and get paid a lot more money. So other voices were canned and dubbed. Such is the movie business.
Fast forward 40 years in the age of digital iTunes movie purchases on your iPhone making it possible for me to buy the movie. When I played it, I was able to stop it and screen save the two seconds where I actually take up the whole screen. The photo shows me playing goalie on a street corner under the Queensborough Bridge wearing both my Pelham varsity jacket and holding my goalie hockey stick while clutching my goalie hockey stick.
Gene Hackman won the 1972 Academy award for best actor as Popeye Doyle and William Friedkin won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Director. The movie won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. Now every time I hear the name of that movie mentioned or I see Gene Hackman in another movie this whole story flashes through my brain and I smile.