December of 1997 I was managing a private nightclub in Philly. A group of out-of-towners approached the door looking to be admitted without membership. One of the guys told me (I think his name was Scott) he was working as an assistant director on a film. I thought he was just conning me in an attempt to get into the club. I told him I would let him in but only if he could get me on the set of the film. I gave him my phone number and I admitted his group, waiving any cover charge or fees. I figured I would never hear from him.
Three days later I received a phone call from costuming (not Scott) asking me to come in for a fitting. I went. After the fitting they told me to show up the next day to the set on 3rd Street, between Market and Church St. I went.
The movie takes place in the late 1860s. They dressed me in a period costume, gave me a handful of cigars and told me to stand in front of some steps and smoke the cigars. This was December and it was pretty cold and damp and the costume was pretty thin and flimsy. I was freezing. I stood there for hours while they did take after take of wide shots of the street with the crowds of people. Every now and then someone would get me coffee.
After about hour 5 I really had to pee. They took a break to reset the cameras and I asked if I could use the restroom. When I returned to my spot in front of the steps there was a buzz of activity around my steps. There were set designers spraying fake soot and fake dog pee (I am not kidding) on the fake snow. They were setting up lights and Jonathan Demme the director turned towards me and said, “Good. You’re back.”
He then said something to an assistant director and the AD came over to talk to me. The AD explained the shot and they wanted me to puff on the cigar because the smoke added to the look of the shot. He also told me to make sure that the cigar stayed the same length for consistency’s sake. So basically in between takes I would need to light another cigar and smoke it down to the right size.
I was thrilled that Jonathan Demme, who directed Silence of the Lambs, one of my favorite films, was including me in the shot. That was when the “buzz” around the steps got louder. The next thing I know I am standing next to Oprah Winfrey. I tried to introduce myself, but hair and makeup people surrounded her. Demme and Oprah talked for a few minutes about the shot, Oprah was going to be walking down the street in front of me. Oprah walked up the sidewalk about ten feet away from me. We were at places.
I knew there would be several takes. I knew it would take a while to film. There were going to be several occasions for Oprah and I to talk. I was planning something witty to say. In my mind she would laugh, she would find me fascinating. She was going to discover me. I would become big time.
Somewhere around take # 8, while the cameras were resetting, I was lighting another cigar and Oprah, standing ten feet away from me, said, “Excuse me. What’s your name?”
This was it. This was my moment. Oprah was going to engage me in conversation. I was going to be a star. “Bill.” I responded.
“Well Bill.” Oprah addressed me. “Could you PLEASE, stop blowing that smoke in my face? It is making me sick.”
“I’m sorry.” I said. “The director wanted me to keep…”
She cut me off. She called over the director and they spoke in hushed tones. But I watched Oprah point to me and say, “That thing really stinks.”
I hope she was referring to the cigar.