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J. Michaels in A Lot like Love

They’re the vital but easily overlooked little guys of the entertainment business, toiling away silently in the background. But they wouldn’t trade places with anyone — except for maybe the star.

My wife — well, the woman I had come to think of as my wife — dropped me off at the bustling airport. I jumped out of her Mercedes, grabbed my suitcase from the backseat and told her I’d be back as soon as possible.

That turned out to be about five minutes later.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I told her. “I think the star accidentally knocked over his suitcase and ruined the shot.”

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Lary Crews in Raising the Bar
So she dropped me off again. And again. And again. On each take, as soon as I heard the assistant director yell “background action!” I departed the Mercedes with brisk, energetic steps — the very picture of a striving business guy off to conquer the world. I had no idea how much of my brisk, energetic striving was being caught on camera — in fact, I didn’t even know where the camera was on this particular shot. I also didn’t know that the Fox show on which I was working as an extra (Lone Star, featuring Jon Voight, David Keith and James Wolk as a charming con man) would be canceled after only two episodes and that “my” episode would never be seen.

But no matter. Like thousands of extras working each day from New York to Los Angeles, I did my small part to help create the scene. A reviewer (might have) called it “a nice touch that lent real authenticity to those precious three seconds.”

And that’s what extras — I mean, “background actors,” as they’re more often called on the set — do: They make it look real. While the stars laugh, argue, flirt or scheme in the foreground, the background actors keep it real by walking dogs, crossing streets, cheering the home team, waiting for elevators or taxis, spilling out of movie theaters or, in my case, climbing out of a car and schlepping into the airport.

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“I played a cop on one of Dick Van Dyke’s Murder 101 films. On every take, just before he walked into the murder scene, he’d look at me and make some crack. He was hilariously funny.” —J. Michaels
“We may be glorified furniture, but we’re vital to the production,” says veteran background actor Lary Crews, who has been an extra on Heroes, The Office, Cold Case and other productions (and who blogs about the background life at background acting.wordpress.com). “If you’ve got two stars standing in a hospital lobby and nobody walks by, something’s wrong. They can’t do the show without lights, they can’t do it without sound, and they can’t do it without us.”

“Everyone we place on one of my sets is an actor. They’re actors without lines, but they’re actors,” says Jeff Olan, who heads a Los Angeles casting agency that provides extras for Grey’s Anatomy, Medium and other shows. Olan, who also supplied the extras for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and From Dusk Till Dawn, likes to quote the famed director: “Every actor on the set, whether they’re speaking or not, is such an integral part of making this thing come to life.”