A night on the street with 'Homicide'

January 13, 1994|By Stephen J. Stahley

The opportunity to step out of my everyday life and into the world of TV was too delicious to pass up. I had been offered a one-night job as an extra on the set of NBC's "Homicide," the drama series based on the homicide unit of the Baltimore City Police Department.

In March, on a lark, I had sent a photo of myself to a casting company working on a John Waters movie in the city. Months passed. I heard nothing, and I forgot all about it. Then, in late August, I got a call. That photo had landed me a job on "Homicide." They wanted me to play a detective.

The instructions I received over the phone were minimal: the time and place to report, what to wear, and the amount I would be paid ($40). The sparse details gave my imagination free rein as the big night approached.

A tattered section of East Baltimore Street served as the setting for the episode, which airs tonight at 10 on WMAR-Channel 2. Huge equipment trucks, dozens of high-powered lights and a frantic team of technicians gave the street a carnival atmosphere. Police vehicles on loan for the episode and uniformed officers blocking off the street gave the area the feel of a real crime scene.

Shortly after arriving on location with the 40 other extras, I met with the wardrobe consultant. I was wearing the most likely-looking detective outfit I could assemble from my closet. My blue sports jacket, charcoal slacks and red-striped tie met with the consultant's approval. For props, I was given an official detective's shield and a toy plastic revolver in a holster.

The main action of the episode being filmed that night centered on the discovery of a body in an alley. The show's leading actors and most of the extras, playing curious neighbors, were involved in that scene. The rest of us waited and wondered what our scene would be. I was fully expecting to play an understated, background role, something on the order of an animated piece of furniture.

After three hours, the five of us playing detectives finally got our marching orders. The director paired us with five other extras playing crack addicts and explained the scene to us. A squad of detectives has just raided a crack house and was forcefully escorting the handcuffed crackhead prisoners to a waiting paddy wagon parked nearby. The detectives then run back down the street and re-enter the crack house.

An abandoned building served as the focal point for the scene. The filming begins as the detectives and their prisoners burst out the front door. One pair at a time, they make their way up the street. I was too astonished to be nervous.

The extras playing the crackheads were told to act hostile, resistant and combative during the arrest. The detectives were instructed to push their prisoners up the street, force them into the paddy wagon, unholster their service revolvers and return to the crack house in search of other suspects.

My prisoner did a superb job of getting into character. He writhed and struggled, forcing me to work hard to deliver him to the paddy wagon. The only problem I had was with the plastic revolver. Pulling the weapon out of the holster for the first time, I suddenly realized I had not handled a toy gun since I was 11 years old. It took some quick recall of scenes from police shows to help me assume the correct posture for running down the street with a service revolver.

There were five takes of our brief scene. Each retake generated more energy, especially from the crackheads. By the final take, the detectives and crackheads were working on each other like opposing linemen in a closely contested football game. From now on, no one will ever be able to convince me that actors don't work hard.

The arrest scene was the only one for which we were needed. By midnight, my stint was over.

I returned to the location the following evening with my wife. We found the street devoid of all traces of television production. East Baltimore Street had reverted to its usual identity.

I parked the car and began to describe to her, in lavish detail, where the various scenes had been filmed. In the middle of my account, three mangy dogs emerged from an abandoned building and crossed the path of a disheveled man who was stumbling up the sidewalk. From somewhere, not far away, the sound of automatic gunfire could be heard. A police car, with lights flashing, turned the corner and barreled past us.

The sights and sounds of real life had returned to the streets. I had visions of unmarked police cars pulling up to the building that had been used for my scene. Guns drawn, detectives would emerge from their vehicles and burst into the darkened doorway. The line between art and life was getting precariously thin. It was time to go home.

Stephen J. Stahley, 42, of Baltimore County is keeping his dajob as Homeless Programs Coordinator for Montgomery County.

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