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IT MAKES NO real difference what time zone you’re passing through as you read this. Day or night, morning or evening, somewhere at this very moment an episode of one of the flood of television crime dramas, like Law & Order, Bones, or CSI: Miami, is being aired. The shows have become as much a part of our American lifestyle as fast foods and fad diets.

And in a bow to full disclosure, I hereby admit to something akin to addiction to them. I’ve watched reruns of reruns without apology. And as I’ve done so, one of those pop-into-your-head questions has whispered to me: Who plays the roles of all those dead people?

You know, the shot-stabbed-beaten-suffocated-poisoned corpse lying there as the grim-faced detectives arrive on the scene -- the one being zipped into a body bag or laid out on a gurney in the medical examiner’s office. Are there actors who specialize in playing these creepy parts? Is there a buzz within the industry that nobody, baby, absolutely nobody, can play dead like ole so-and-so?

One of Hollywood’s favorite trivia questions, you’ll recall, spins around an early screen role of Academy Award winner Kevin Costner. Remember the opening scene of 1983’s The Big Chill, when old pals gather for the funeral of a friend? All we see is the mortician preparing the dearly departed for the memorial service. Yep, the nonspeaking, laid-out-on-a-slab part was played by Costner.

I doubt even he envisioned what a growing industry this dark art would become.

Hollywood actor/independent filmmaker Sondra Lowell has even contemplated writing a how-to book on the subject. She’s already got a great title picked out: Your Career as a Corpse. “I’ve always thought of it as a fascinating aspect of acting,” she says. Lowell got her first taste of the specialized craft when she played a mother who passed away while lying in a hospital bed. She candidly admits that the work wasn’t that demanding. But those few seconds on camera helped her qualify for the Screen Actors Guild health insurance. How’s that for irony?

Later, when friends asked what the experience was like, Lowell, ever the professional, remained “in character.” “I have no idea,” she responded. “I was dead.”

Rest assured this isn’t just a matter of closing your eyes and holding your breath when the cameras are rolling. Lowell, who has seen things from both sides of the camera, recalls casting a young actor to play a corpse in her movie WebcamMurder.com and his subsequent insisting that he play the role with eyes open, blankly staring into the great beyond. “The problem,” she recalls, “was that he couldn’t stop blinking.”

So, while it may not be Shakespeare in the Park, playing dead isn’t a snap. Just ask young actress Raegan Payne, who, in addition to being the creator of the volunteerism blog The Good Muse, started out in Hollywood as a stand-in and playing dead bodies.

You may remember her from an episode of CSI: Miami, slumped behind the wheel of a car that had been firebombed by some dastardly felon. As the camera peered through the shattered windshield, there was Payne, motionless and looking far from glamorous. Then there was the time on Cold Case that she lay on an apartment floor, a gory mess of fake blood concocted from red food coloring and with Karo syrup splashed in her hair.

“It’s a little like playing Halloween and getting paid for it,” she says. “How much fun is that?”

It does, however, get a bit demanding. When, for instance, Payne won the part of the Cold Case murder victim, she first had to spend considerable time in makeup, and then a former Los Angeles homicide detective, hired as a consultant by the show, spent an hour arranging her body into just the right position.

“It can get pretty gross,” she admits. “By the time the shot is done, your clothes are sticking to you and you’ve got the syrupy gunk in your hair.”

But she was paid union scale and also got a free lunch out of the deal.

For 50-year-old Columbus, Ohio, computer programmer Chuck Lamb, the idea of acting dead on-screen literally began with a dream two years ago. “One night, my wife and I were watching Law & Order, and I told her, ‘I could do that.’ That very night, I actually dreamed I was on the show, playing a dead guy.”

That’s when Lamb began his quest for stardom. He launched a website, DeadBodyGuy.com, and as we say in showbiz, the rest is history. Curiosity seekers came running to the site like lemmings. Television programs like the Today show and BBC News called. The Los Angeles Film Festival honored him with a Special Achievement Award for Self- Promotion. And lo and behold, casting directors found him. While he’s still not made it to his dream show, he’s acted dead as a doornail on the WB’s What I Like about You and on a pilot titled The Jury, and he has appeared in several independent horror movies.

Today, Lamb’s personalized license plate reads DeadGuy.

“Hey,” he says, “I feel like a six-foot, 220-pound balding Cinderella.”