Monday, June 7, 2010

No Acting Required

The origins of the often-used expression “N.A.R.-ing” in my profession are many. It has been reported that John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart and even the legendary Orson Wells coined the phrase.

Rumour has it that “The Duke” John Wayne, when he was offered a role, used to demand a full shooting script for his perusal. He would then retire to his ranch in Iowa and page through it notating each page that he thought would require no acting. Once he was satisfied that over sixty percent of the script could be “N.A.R.-ed” he would allow his agent to continue negotiations with the producer. Another rumour tells that Big John’s personal script of True Grit, with two thick black pencil lines and the large letters N.A.R. (no acting required) scrawled across every third page, was offered at a Sotheby’s auction shortly after his death.

My own experiences with a spot of “N.A.R.-ing” go back to the mid-seventies.

I was playing the lead in a made-for-TV period cowboy drama set in the early days of the gold rush in Australia. 

The scene involved the arrival of the leading villain, the leading lady and myself in a fictitious town called Muckinbuddin. We had already shot the following scene, which showed us climbing out of the stagecoach and entering the saloon. There were a few minor lines of dialogue in this sequence.

As it was the first time the audience was introduced to the slick smooth-faced bank manager, who would fleece the unsuspecting inhabitants of their newly panned gold, several close-ups were required by the director.

It was also the first time my love interest, Ms Henrietta Sweet, played by Miss Courtney Ashbourne, appeared in the story.

Miss Ashbourne was straight out of drama school and had secured this, her first TV role, after spending an evening on the casting couch with Herr Otto Geltmann, a German with Jewish connections in Australia and Bonn.

She was very nervous and the make-up and wardrobe departments fluttered around her, especially when her close-ups were being shot. Obviously Herr Geltmann had issued instructions, and the stylists wanted to make sure they would collect their weekly wages.

A late friend of mine and a fellow student of the Royal Academy, Mr Andrew Letagé, played the crooked bank manager, Mr Cyrus McFarlane. Andrew was a tall good-looking Anglicised Frenchman and, as he was a couple of years older than myself, I looked to him when I needed advice. His advice was always courteously given, and he was dutifully rewarded with a hastily taken sip from my Toddie.

In those days I had taken a liking to gin.

I had developed a marvellous adaptation of the pink gin cocktail. Working on twelve shots in Toddie, I added thirty-two dashes of Angostura Bitters, to gain the full effect of my cocktail. To help disguise the smell of alcohol from prying noses, I arranged with the continuity supervisor that I could store a jar of pickled onions in the side-sack of her ever-present camping stool.

I can not claim full credit for this delicious drink. A wonderful white-haired ex-Major in a Gurka regiment introduced me to it while I was filming a documentary in the Nilgri tea-laden mountains in India. Apparently the “Gin-onion” was a regular pre-noon drink for many officers in the British India Army.

I’m sorry, I digress.

We had started filming the two-minute in-town scene at eight in the morning and, because the stylists carefully rearranged every stray strand of Miss Ashbourne’s lacquer-encrusted hair before, after and sometimes during every take, we only wrapped the scene at three in the afternoon. By the time the whole sequence was in the can, Andrew and I had polished off the full contents of Toddie, and sucked and chewed ten pickled onions each.

The director then suddenly announced, “I need to get the preceding scene. A single long lens establishing shot. And I want to catch it as the sun sets over there.”

He pointed to a dirt track on the distant horizon. “How long to set up?” he asked.

The assistant director quickly conferred with the camera crew and the horse wranglers.

“An hour and a half,” he said. “It’ll take them that long to get the stagecoach over there. But I can send the actors with them to speed things up.

“Good,” said the director.

I excused myself for three minutes, and darted off to refill Toddie, and replenish the supply of pickled onions from the caterer’s van.

One hour later Miss Ashbourne, Andrew and I were seated in the stagecoach atop a small hillock overlooking the town of Muckinbuddin. The camera with a long lens was positioned in the high street approximately a mile and a half away from us. The wrangler in charge of driving the stagecoach had been given a walkie-talkie so that he could receive instructions, and be given a cue to commence action. This was our only means of communication with the base camp.

The words “Stand by!” crackled through the walkie-talkie and suddenly Miss Ashbourne went into a state of apoplexy. The director, prior to our ascent up the mountain, had instructed her to look out of the stagecoach window and admire the breathtaking scenery.

“It’s the first time you’ve seen the place, and it’s going to be your home for the next thirteen episodes, that’s your motivation! OK? You got it?”

The poor girl, now in a state of near panic as the make-up department was over a mile away, turned to Andrew and said, “What about my hair? They haven’t checked it? Does it look all right?”

Andrew calmly offered her my Toddie and I gently placed a pickled onion in the palm of her hand.

“Don’t worry, ma cherie,” gushed Andrew, “we’re doing a bit of “D.O.T.H.-ing”

“What’s that?” She asked. “Dot-on-the-horizon acting, my dear. Dot on the horizon. Very similar to N.A.R.–ing.”


As the sun set majestically in the background, the silhouetted stagecoach with its three pinprick dots peering drunkenly out the window weaved jerkily down the dusty track into Muckinbuddin.

Thank you, Major Maguire.


Michael said...

Fantastic, I must get a jar of extra-large pickled onions for my desk drawer forthwith...

Unknown said...