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TV Corpses at Halloween

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
In Hollywood and elsewhere, there's plenty of work for unemployed actors and actresses, if they don't mind playing Yorick and not Hamlet.

The enormous success of television shows featuring bloodied bodies (Law and Order and its clones, Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order: Criminal Intent; Crossing Jordan; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its clones, CSI: Miami; and CSI New York; Cold Case; Bones; as well as the many BBC America forensic science dramas), has increased the demand for actors to play gory corpses. Not much dialogue but plenty of exposure.

Emmy-winning special makeup effects artist, John Goodwin, has successfully achieved turning living actors over to the Grim Reaper's icy grip by varied horrible means, including riddled with maggots (Clark Duke), flesh charred by fire (Jon Sklaroff), disemboweled (Rachel Shumate), throats opened by corkscrews (Nancy Yoon), and other delectable deaths.

"When a forensic show comes along that has to be correct in terms of forensic science then it's important to feature the body up close," CSI creator and executive producer Anthony E. Zuiker told the LA Times. "After all, there's nothing like a good victim to win over the audience." And, Zuiker added, "it's not just anybody off the street who can act dead."

Tim Kring, executive producer of "Crossing Jordan," said he asks actors at casting sessions to show him a sample of that which crime writer Raymond Chandler dubbed The Big Sleep. "Some can't do it. They twitch, or you can see them breathing," Kring said. "But some are very good. You can pry their eyelids open for close-ups and get a blank stare."

The trick is total relaxation," CSI's producer-director, Danny Cannon said. "Holding your breath doesn't work. You get starved for oxygen and your veins throb. But if you shallow-breathe down in the diaphragm, then we don't see it."

Playing dead is an art not always achieved. A famous CSI goof occurs in episode #2.13, "Identity Crisis", when Grissom enters a house and finds a dead woman sitting at a table with her back to the camera. The camera pans around the body, and precisely as the camera's focusses to show her face, she blinks. That didn't happen with actor William Patrick (Bill) Johnson.

Johnson, who played gambler Tyson Green on CSI episode 1.15, "Table Stakes," was complimented as a "good breather" by Cannon himself. "Everyone on the show was wonderful to me," recalls Johnson, "especially Gary Dourdan who asked me 'Can I get you a blanket?' It was quite a night, freezing temps and hordes of onlookers because we shot it outside on the bridge that connects Bally's to the Bellagio. My character was a gambler who didn't pay his debt and was rubbed out by the mob."

Johnson's character got whacked on an outside elevator which, in real life, was a public access - handicapped elevator which had to be available no matter what. So every time a handicapped person wanted to use the elevator, the production stopped, the person got on the elevator, looked quizzically at the "dead guy" in the corner, and was told by the crew, "It's all right. He isn't really hurt."

When the scene could resume shooting, Johnson's character released squibs (packets of fake blood), and a prosthetic bullet hole was placed on his forehead. When the "body" was found by Grissom, it had a quarter coin in the bullet hole, with a note left by the killer, "Call someone who cares." Even worse than such a cold and uncaring note is the fact that this murder was never solved by Grissom's CSI crew. Staff members like Matthew Mungle are far more sensitive.

Mungle, who was in charge of special effects makeup during the first season of "CSI: Miami," told the LA Times, "The real pictures [of bodies] sometimes bother me. I can't handle real blood. I faint."

That wasn't a problem for Elizabeth Devine, a real-life crime scene investigator before becoming co-producer and technical consultant to CSI. She said her biggest battle is trying to prevent characters from being shown eating in the lab.

"Nobody would ever eat or drink or do anything in the lab; that's what offices are for," she said. "I lost a couple battles, particularly Dr. Robbins eating in autopsy. There's just no way anyone would do that because it's so disgustingly gross in there and it smells terrible."

One wonders if another problem for her might be the female CSIs who don't wear head covering. Are those hairs they take to the lab carefully preserved in plastic bags ever traced back to CSIers Catherine Willows or Sara Sidle? Food for thought.

Speaking of food, when Halloween revelers with nails through their heads and fake blood gushing from plastic wounds knock at your door Monday night, be sure you give them some candy. They may be hungry actors auditioning for a job.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand

"A Balloon In Cactus"
October 30, 2005 column

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