Playing a corpse: it’s a living
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m a cop show junkie.
I mean it’s not like I have withdrawal symptoms if I go a month or so without seeing one. And I don’t wake up every morning jonesing for a show featuring a man in uniform.
Still, if I feel like watching TV, and one of the options is a cop show, there’s a pretty high likelihood that this is the option I’ll go with.
Even as a kid, I liked cop shows: Naked City, 87th Precinct, The Untouchables, and, for a change of pace, Car-54 Where Are You? Over the years, I’ve been a big fan of Hill Street, NYPD Blue, and the many manifestations of Law and Order (none more so than the late, lamented original and still the greatest). Not exactly “must watch” TV, but I am apt to turn on Law and Order: SVU (even though I find the plots increasingly preposterous) and Detroit 1-8-7 (if only to watch the marvelous Michael Imperioli, who having played Mafiosi Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos, has made the shift from bad guy to good guy; and the marvelous James McDaniel, who used to play Lt. Fancy on NYPD Blue.)
Given my fondness for cop shows, I was interested in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal on one of the few job growth areas for actors: playing a corpse. On a cop show.
As reality TV has forced out what is referred to as scripted TV - as if, ahem, reality TV weren’t scripted – there are fewer and fewer roles for the legions of actors who eke out a living on bit parts. Thus, we have the likes of Snookie, The Situation, and The “Real” Housewives of Wherever edging out real actors. As is the case with so many call centers that ended up back in the States, this is yet another instance of outsourcing at its not so finest: we’re turning our entertainment over to those whose only credentials are narcissism and pushiness, and whose only talent, as it were, is a stunning lack of shame.
Not that life has ever been all that rosy for actors. Most actors (painters, musicians, writers…) have always had to keep their day jobs. Years ago, I was walking down Charles Street when I saw a painter – as in house painter – going into a building carrying a ladder. He looked familiar, and it took me a moment to realize that I had seen him in a Súgán Theatre production a few nights before. Good he kept his day job – the Súgán has been out of biz for a while now.
Anyway, there’s a reasonably decent (casting) call for those who can play a dead body.
In the past few years, TV dramas have responded to feature-film trends and HDTV, which shows everything in more realistic detail, by upping the violence and delivering more shock value on the autopsy table.
The Screen Actors Guild doesn't keep figures on corpse roles, but currently, seven of the top 10 most-watched TV dramas use corpse actors, including CBS's "CSI," "NCIS" and spinoff "NCIS: Los Angeles." …
It all means more work for extras, casting agents and makeup artists who supply corpses in various stages of decomposition.
The Journal journalist got to play a shooting vic on Law and Order: Los Angeles. She was told that she was lucky to play a fresh kill.
A body that is "morgue dead" requires an actor to be still for three hours or more to get into chalky-white full-body makeup and a "Y incision" across the chest.
Cop shows also use mannequins, but that’s apparently only when an actor with more of a role than playing a victim is involved. Mannequins cost about $8K to produce.
Which is a lot more than the going rate for an actor playing a stiff, who, by the way, has only to demonstrate that they can lie still and control their breathing in order to secure a part. They get paid about $139 for an eight hour day, plus OT. Plus they get fed. They can also make an extra $100 if they have to pose for stills of the victim in the good old days, when they were alive. And if you end up floating face down in the East River for your part, you can earn a whopping extra $14 to $18 per diem. There may also be “hardship” pay associated with having to play a dead body in bad weather, as happened to one extra on Law & Order: SVU . She had to hang out in 14 degree weather with little by way of clothing on.
Hardship pay or no, it pays something approximating crap to play a dead body. Especially when you take into consideration that you can’t count on the crappy pay from one week to the next. Plus it doesn’t exactly liven up a résumé to have rolled over and played dead:
Playing dead on a TV show makes it hard to return to the living in another part.
Oh, yeah, and you get treated like crap, too, by the “stars”:
A production assistant who herds us around during the 11-hour day warns us that "people treat background actors like trash, walking props."
And yet it’s apparently one of the few jobs for actors that’s growing.
Sounds an awful lot like the general paradigm for the economy: a lot of decent paying jobs going bye-bye, replaced (if that) by the dregs.