I received a call from the casting agency that I’ve done a lot of work for regarding a role as an extra in an upcoming television series called, ‘The Pinkertons’. The show was centered around life in 1860s Kansas. When I got there, I noticed right away that one of these things were not like the other. Well make that most of the people were not like me, or the other black extra, an older gentleman who I quickly gravitated to. As expected for that era in the USA, everyone, meaning the Caucasians, had that ‘look’. You know the white 1800s look? The beard, hard face…ready to rope a black man look? They had it. Man these guys were awesome extras!
Back in da day!
“This is going to be interesting.” I said to my new friend and fellow minority. I don’t think there were any aristocratic looking blacks wandering around Kansas around that time, were there? Costume did a great job of putting us in getups that made us look like well-to-do slaves. Ok maybe freshly-freed slaves. They even came by from time to time and rubbed dirt on us. Hey, it’s all about credibility. Then it was time to send the extras to their various positions or activities. Now this is where ‘interesting’ comes in. Remember, blacks weren’t ‘in style’ back then. So where oh where should we go? At first they told us to stand on the train platform and pretend to lift a box. Nice! I will be on camera! Well that suggestion didn’t last too long. While all the other extras were finding their niches rather easily, finding something to do with the black guys was creating a small problem. That was until I spotted an 1860 wheelbarrow sitting there right in front of me. “I can push that”, I offered. The production guy was only to glad to agree. I pushed the thing for most of the day. Back and forth, figure 8s, letter H, back and forth…
It wasn’t exactly all I did. One scene called for the extras, or townsfolks as they/we were called, to pretend to be engaging in buying and selling outside their stores. There were Coffin makers, Mercantile stores, Pottery stores, etc. Again, it was no problem finding a spot for the Caucasians. My friend and I were brought over to the mercantile store that sold pots and pans and other supplies. We were told to pretend we were buying something. That idea lasted as long as the first one. After some head-scratching and hmms and aaahs from the production fella, I spotted another prop. A broom. “I can use this and pretend to sweep.” I offered, grabbing the broom and sweeping the dirt lightly. “Yes! Perfect!” The guy must surely be thanking his lucky stars that I was on the ball. I swept or pretended to sweep for a few hours.
I was having a field day with this. Watching them struggle trying to figure out where we should go. I could imagine the director thinking, “Who thought it was a great idea having a couple black extras? This could very well compromise the integrity of the show.” Or maybe, “I could have sworn the casting call was for white extras.” As each new scene was introduced, I would tell my friend and new partner, “Let’s see where they are going to put us now.” The we would both have a good laugh at the expense of the guy trying to find somewhere to hide to black guys. The last scene I did before they decided to wrap me, was shot on the train station platform. Everyone was to be on or close to the platform as it involved someone getting off the train and the hubbub that ensued. Again, finding somewhere to put the two black guys presented a headache. They finally decided to split us up. My friend was taken somewhere and I was taken to the platform. Yes! Right in the thick of things! Not so fast. The guy had another changed of heart, “Hmmm….how about you and you go stand at the corral and you pretend to be showing him what to do?” You and you meant my friend and I. He had come full circle and we were once again re-united.
My buddy trying to find where the camera was
So off we went to our new job as stable boys. We looked at the camera and figured if we stand in a certain spot we would be sure to get some face time but when the director yelled, “Background!” we were disappointed to see a pall of movie smoke coming our way. Effectively thwarting our dreams of being seen. We both had a laugh at this. “Oh well…”, said the old man.
The food was great. The people were nice and friendly and it was a great day spent outdoors. I later found a newspaper ad for extras for the show. It read in part: “Winnipeg casting agency Kari Casting has put out the call for “Caucasian extras, both male and female, ages 18-70, to fill background roles as townsfolk, saloon barmaids, saloon patrons, union soldiers, coal workers, police, and many more.” Maybe they ran out of caucasians?
That’s all folks
Click here to read about the show and see some more photos (with Caucasians) taken on the set. On page 2, you could see my wheelbarrow. A split second more and I would have been in that shot!