Homicide: Life as an Extra
This week we pay tribute to Richard Belzer, who died on Sunday at age 78. Belzer was probably most known for playing the roll of John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street as well as Law & Order, for decades. In 1997, I appeared as an extra, playing a pathologist in the medical examiner’s lab, on an episode of Homicide. Belzer had a key part in that episode, and I was in the same room as him much of the day.
After the episode aired, I wrote the following article about the experience, while Homicide was still on the air. You can also watch a portion of that episode, where I can be seen walking in the background in a while lab coat on YouTube
This is the story of my day as an extra on the set of Homicide: Life on the Streets, a police drama that takes places in Baltimore. Homicide can be seen on Fridays, 10 pm, on NBC.
The idea started years ago. I was in the studio audience of a taping of Married With Children, the second part of the one where they went to Las Vegas. In this particular episode they had a lot of "atmosphere" people, as they were called, and I thought it might be interesting to be one myself. It would give me an interesting look at how a television show is made up close and let me see myself on a nationwide show.
In 1992 I moved to Baltimore and while having a beer at the tavern where they shoot parts of Homicide I got to talking with the bartender and he said the first step to being an extra was to send them a 5" by 7" portrait. After getting the picture ready it sat around for a few months because I forgot the address. I was supposed to send it to. I had sent e-mail to NBC asking them for an address but never got a reply. Then one day the sister of a friend of mine happened to mention that she had submitted a script to Homicide and she gave me the address to whom I should send it.
So, I sent off my photo and for a about two months never heard a thing. Then out of nowhere, on Tuesday, November 11, 1997, I get a call from somebody with the show asking if I could work the next day. I said yes' and they told me to show up at 6:30 am and that I would play a worker in the medical examiner's lab.
So, on I set my alarm very early and played it conservatively, allowing myself one hour for the driveto Fells' Pint, the part of Baltimore where they tape the show. At that early hour, traffic was light and I got there in 20 minutes. I walked around for a while and it was very peaceful. What is normally a very busy part of Baltimore was clean and empty, with the exception of a few homeless people sleeping on benches.
So, at 6:30 I arrived at the Recreation Pier which is where the police building seen on the show is located. First, they led some other extras and I to the wardrobe trailer. For the lab they needed four medical technicians and one pathologist. I was the best dressed of the five male extras who were scheduled to be in the lab so they made me the pathologist. First, they asked for my suit size and I told them I didn't remember. I have only bought two suits in my life and the second of which was three years ago. They gave me a lab coat in size 42. Then I filled out an employment form and after about 30 minutes of waiting somebody said they were ready for the extras in the medical examiner's office.
The other extras and I walked over to another building where they shoot those scenes. Things were already quite busy getting ready for the day. Kyle Secor (Tim Bayliss) was there directing. I later found out this was his second episode as a director and that other actors had turns at directing other episodes as well. The medical examiner, Dr. Julianna Cox (Michelle Forbes) and the two new detectives from Seattle, Stuart Gharty (Peter Gerety) and Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne) were there also. Everything was done in what looked to me to be an old warehouse. Space was limited, the director and other staff worked from a hallway where they viewed the action through monitors. The whole day everybody was shouting so that they could be heard through the wall.
They did one scene without any extras and then they called the extras to the lab. By this time John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) were on the set. I was told to look busy until some other extras playing two police detectives and a widow would come in and ask to see a body. Then I was to guide them to a body bag and one of the technicians opened it and showed them the body. After the woman wept for a moment, I guided them out. This was all done while the main characters were shooting a scene at the next table.
We went through this scene about a dozen times and finally Kyle Secor was happy with it. The atmosphere on the set was busy yet humorous. Richard Belzer seems very funny in real life and helped to lighten up the mood. He also greeted us extras when he came in which none of the other actors did. I was nervous the first few times but after doing it over and over it started to feel routine.
The next scene called for extras to look busy in the lab but evidently nobody had thought in advance what they were supposed to do specifically. So, a person who seemed to be in charge of directing the extras had us walk around and look busy. We shot the scene many times and he seemed to change the movement every time. At times, it was unclear what he wanted, and he often whispered during the course of action to "move other there" or other impromptu stage direction. Between takes he said I was walking too stiff and suggested I lighten up. One time during the middle of a scene had said "walk over there" but I misunderstood where "there" was and I left the room through the wrong door. It was kind of embarrassing but none of the main players seemed to have noticed.
The next scene, they had me stand at a counter, looking busy. A medical technician would come up and ask for some lab work which I was to give him. That scene was easier, all I did was stand there and look at bottles and pear through the microscope. During this scene the main actors were in a separate room in the lab. I doubt the camera saw much of us extras through the glass which separated the two rooms.
The rest of the day was mostly sitting around. They had plenty of eats and drinks on the set, and they fed us lunch. Much of the time I sat behind Kyle Secor and just watched him direct. At other times I chatted with the other extras. They really could have let the extras go at around 11:00 am but we stayed the whole eight hours, for which we were paid a flat $50.
When they were finished with the lab scenes everybody suddenly started packing up and getting out. Somebody asked for the badges the extras were wearing and told us to go to wardrobe to return our outfits. This I did and went home without much discussion with the staff. I saw one of the other extras chatting with Michelle Forbes on my way out but I personally never exchanged a single word with a main character the entire day, on or off stage. The shooting schedule was very busy and there was always a lot of activity. While it would have been nice to rub elbows with the stars. I admit that except for the lunch break they were kept quite busy. There seemed to be a feeling that the extras were to know there place and that was to stay out of the way when not needed, which we did.
Post Script: My show aired on January 16, 1998. The plot centered around Dr. Cox and her telling other medical technicians at a conferance about a very unusual case she had. In this unusual case a man was shot as he was falling from a building. As a homicide fan I feel this is the WORST episode ever created! Both the premise and the ending were entirely unbelievable. The dialogue consisted of mostly one-liners. There was also a sub-plot about Det. Gharty and Det. Ballard going after two hillbilly types from western Maryland who are involved in a drug deal that went sour and ended in murder. That story was only marginally better, overly filled with philosophy about whether all human life is of equal value.
According to Episode Guide by Dennis Kytasaari, "The real origin of the story comes from a speech made in 1987 by a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Don Harper Mills. It was a story he made up for their 1987 banquet, purely for entertainment" (see episode #88). After learning this it occurred to me that this episode would have been saved if it was learned that Dr. Cox was also making up the story. As it stands now the episode is so unrealistic it makes Three's Company look like a real life show.
Anyway, if you catch this show in reruns you can see me for only about one solid second and in various microseconds as the camera panned quickly across the lab. My only solid shot was about 15 minutes into the episode. Munch and Dr. Cox were discussing the facts of the case, in particular whether it was a suicide or not. I can be seen walking across the room as Dr. Cox says something to the effect of, "But if suicide was the cause of death." Look for me in a white lab coat, I was the only extra wearing one.
Post Script: Sometime in March, while I was not at home, Homicide left a message with my wife stating that they needed me, and to call if I could make it. I assumed they meant work for the following day. My neck was bothering me at the time, so I never returned the call.