Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Air America" - My 15 Minutes of Fame

Photo of Mel Gibson at the premiere of Air Ame...
Photo of Mel Gibson at the premiere of Air America. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1968, artist Andy Warhol said, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by that; nor do many others who have paraphrased him, but I think he was probably right. I do know that, after 50 years of roaming the globe, and, often like the character in ‘Forest Gump,’ being on the fringes of momentous events, I’ve probably accumulated my 15 minutes – and, maybe even a few seconds more.
English: Robert Downey, Jr., taken at the AIR ...
English: Robert Downey, Jr., taken at the AIR AMERICA movie premiere 1990 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If being seen in a movie counts as fame, though, I think I had my quarter-hour in the limelight in 1990, or maybe it was 1991, when I had the opportunity to be an extra in the movie, ‘Air America,’ starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. Unlike those who actively seek notoriety, my moment under the lights was a combination of pure accident, and being in the wrong/right place at the right/wrong time.

I was the U.S. Consul in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai when the movie company came to town to do the location shooting for this black comedy about the Vietnam War, and the exploits of the CIA’s airline’s operations in Laos. They recruited some 50 people in Bangkok as extras, many of them Vietnam veterans who’d settled in Southeast Asia rather than returning to the U.S. As a matter of information, I too am a Vietnam vet, but I’d chosen to enter diplomatic service after leaving the military over running a bar in Patpong.

One of my duties as consul was to provide services to American citizens in the area, and unfortunately, one of the movie company’s assistant directors, an Israeli-American, became ill and died shortly after they arrived. His was a complicated case, because his American relatives wanted the remains shipped to Israel. I was around the set so often taking care of his affairs, someone (and, I no longer recall who) suggested I be an extra in the film’s bar scenes which were being filmed at a local pub. My boss, the consul general, and the embassy approved, and since the filming was being done at night, I didn’t even have to miss work.

After several days of ‘drinking,’ ‘dancing,’ and ‘carousing,’ for the camera; all make believe, but very much like activities I’d participated in in the 60s as a young military man; the company began packing up to travel to Mae Hong Son, on the Burmese border, to film the flight and pilot briefing scenes. I was asked to go along to be an ‘extra’ pilot. Again, the embassy approved, provided I used my personal leave to do it. No problem, I thought, after all, it might be fun.
Mae Hong Son (2007-02-473)
Mae Hong Son (2007-02-473) (Photo credit: Argenberg)

It was; in Mae Hong Son, most of the shooting was during the daytime, so evenings were free for my wife and I to explore the border area. We even had a couple of free days that allowed a visit to a nearby village occupied by the famous long-neck women. I had a chance to spend an evening with Mel Gibson; barely recalling riding back to my hotel on the back of his rented motorbike; and shoot the breeze with some of the other actors like Tim Thomerson.

But, we’re still getting to the ‘fame’ part. During the shooting, the director finally noticed that even though the film was about the Vietnam War, a war in which a large percentage of the American GIs were people of color, there were only two ‘extras’ that were non-white. Kudos to Roger Spottiswoode; he had a small role written in – or maybe it was there all along and they just hadn’t cast it – of a few lines. It was near the end of the movie, when the Mel Gibson character ‘rents’ a military plane to move his ‘collection’ of weapons, and features Gibson, Downey, and the ‘dispatcher.’ Someone suggested I read for the part, along with three or four other guys, including the only other person of color, and to my utter surprise, I was chosen.

I mean, I had to sign a contract and everything, and the rate paid for filming that scene was more than I got as an extra for two or three days shooting. It was done in two takes – and didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, although, in final editing, they dubbed in someone else’s voice. I didn’t get to go back to L.A. with them – no sense trying to push my luck, I figure.

The movie only did so-so in the theaters, but it’s been on cable movie channels around the world regularly. I saw it on South African cable around this time last year, and several people have mentioned seeing someone who ‘looked like me’ on hotel cable when they’ve been traveling. It’s also available on DVD for anyone who is a fan of not quite B, but not A movies either.

It was fun doing it, although, I wouldn’t think of acting as a profession. Hours are too erratic, and with all the food on movie sets, unless you have a real action part, you’re in danger of putting on weight.

Now, you might well ask, what does this have to do with anything? Well, nothing really; I just happened to be getting a jump on spring cleaning and ran across a faded copy of the contract I signed way back then, and thought it’d be a fun thing to write about.

Interested in Andy Warhol art?  Check it out at

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