Mar 17, 2017, 05:57AM

How the Space Show Got Its Martian

Fiction: Casting s.f. in 1964.

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October 18 thru November 3, 1964

Because of the time spent on design, the show had to finish casting in 13 days straight. It came to two and a half weeks of Eppinger and Louie and Oscar Lytas and the casting director and the pilot’s director all crowded into Eppinger’s office. They camped out with notepads and donuts and coffee, the couch from Lauren’s officew as pulled in, and a trolley with a jug of water and some Styrofoam cups parked near the door. Everyone had to take a big step around it if they wanted to use the bathroom, and since it was Eppinger’s bathroom he didn’t mind.

The actors auditioning fell into these groups: leggy girls, white-haired men with broad shoulders, angular-faced character actors, older hawk-nosed actresses, peppy young men, men who were Chinese, and Negroes. Eppinger folded himself up and watched impassively, hand on mouth, other hand on top of the first one, a cigarette sticking out from his fingers (or, late in the day, a pencil). His main goal was to reveal nothing; he wanted a scientifically clean audition, without the actors taking cues from response.

The director and Lytas talked to the actors, told them to step forward, asked them about jobs on their list, read the lines for the actors’ scenes. Louie spoke up to too, said hi, asked how they were. All right, that was playing the host, and acceptable. But Eppinger still held himself in: a measured nod, maybe a quick rise and a handshake if the actor was that type, the sort who stepped forward to work the auditioners. Then business. Eppinger spoke only if key points did not get covered. “Stage combat?” he would throw out. “How about that summer doing Shakespeare in, up in Ashland. Henry IV, any of those?” He also liked seeing Shaw on a jobs list; he’d put a red check next to his copy. He was on the lookout for people who could wrangle dialogue.

The team foregathered at 10 or so in the morning, steamed along toward 1, broke for lunch, came back at 2:15 and steamed some more, right into evening. Eppinger sat and waited for a performance that clicked. His back hurt. At the end of the day he felt like there was an iron burr shoved next to his sacroiliac.

Because what you got, really, was person after person doing pretty much the same thing, or batches of the same thing: the broad-shouldered men commanding, the hawk-faced women being crisp, the dark young women playing a drama scene (written for the pilot’s female guest lead, but it gave them more to do) where they purred and then shouted, the young men playing a scene where they argued with the Commander, then tensely gave ground. You had to absorb quantities of this stuff, ride it out.

And then there were angular-faced men, the ones playing aliens. A few times Eppinger hiked himself up, leaned forward because his attention had been caught; his hands stayed wrapped on his mouth, though. One of the men—he had done Broadway (The Wall)–-had a neat, quizzical face, and Eppinger felt he did all right with the lines’ Shavian elements: the alien came out with sardonic, view-from-the-outside commentary about humans, and Eppinger wanted him to be a bit eyebrow-up and diabolical. “You speak of the dance, my friend, of courtship,” the actor read, and his voice dropped right into place. It rolled along the words, rising where they did, dropping where they did, so far. But then: “—a custom we’ll understand when those who practice it do.” And he goes up high on “those” or “practice” or “do,” one of those words in there. He couldn’t make the turn and his voice got thin and fluty. After sitting up, Eppinger sagged; behind his hands, his mouth slumped.

All right, one slogged; no packages were to be dropped in one’s lap. They had a possibility anyway, one more name to keep track of. “Thanks, very nice,” Louie said to the actor, and Eppinger uncrossed and recrossed his knees. Head cocked, he looked hard at the office’s near wall until the actor was gone.

 “Did all right,” Lytas said, for his two cents.

“Yes,” Louie said.

“Kind of squeaked there,” the director said. “Got a little thin.”

Eppinger nodded hugely.

Louie looked over at Eppinger. “Dialogue’s tricky,” he said. “You know?”

“Got its demands,” Lytas said.

Eppinger did not consider the dialogue tricky. He looked over at the director, but the director had lost interest and was writing notes.

“Looking for a pro,” Eppinger said. He left it at that, but he was nettled. A few minutes on and he leaned forward and fixed Louie’s eyes. “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Eppinger said. “When you look at your watch—don’t.” He explained about the scientifically clean audition, and it made him feel better.

More aliens. By and large they played it for strangeness. But when you saw strangeness, watched it acted out, it looked a lot like being slow and dense, and the actors being slow tended to wind up seeming the same. You picked them out by their physical contours: the big fellow from Addams Family (a live possibility, since he would give the set a landmark). Or you spotted one distinctive thing they did that was wrong. A slim, dark character (three different runs of Threepenny Opera, three cities, always the Streetsinger) would charge his voice up loud at the end of a sentence; a monotone for everything else, but he banged the end bit like a gong.

Then some actors had to speak up about the spaceness of it all, let on that it was all a joke. One man, giving his pages a last glance before launching in, took a moment to tip a nod at the director and throw out a comment. “‘Suvok’?” the man asked, twinkling. “I guess that’s a Martian.” Another, a bony-faced fellow, confided he’d been in something called The Man from Planet X. And up went his craggy brows; his alligator jaw dropped in a big grin. He looked from Louie to the director, inviting them to get a load of that title. Which, all right, agreed, that was a title for you, but Eppinger found the moment unsuitable. He reflected that a man with such a bony crest of a face, such an expanse of naked gray scalp and knobbed calcium, should let the thing rest decently still.

Those fellows irritated Eppinger, but then there was simple dullness. The second male leads: dark baby-faced types or else lifeguards, big blond slabs who had wandered from the beach into the studio. When you went for juveniles you ran that risk: fellows who were just a set of cheekbones or a set of shoulders, nothing else to say for themselves. The lifeguards were probably worse. Humble, a lot of them, which was something. But they all looked like they had more chest or arm than they knew what to do with. They’d be marooned in front of the doorway, sides in hand, like they were waiting for the paper to talk. “Go ahead, Billy”—or Curt or Doug or Keith—the director or Lytas would say. More often than not, the boy would look at him gratefully. Eppinger noticed this after the first two or three days, the grateful look. Without the go-ahead, the boy wouldn’t have known what to do. It made Eppinger sigh. You looked for some pep, was all he knew. In a young man, especially, you looked for some spark. The Chinese men—a very short list, most made the Negroes look young, but that worked out fine for the part.

The Negroes. Eppinger spoke to each one. He would get up and reach out to shake hands. So did Louie, so did the director and Oscar Lytas, all of them. But Eppinger weighed in especially. “Saw you did the Hellman,” he would say. “Very impressive.” Or “BBC. Wish I had seen that production.” He punched their shoulders, clapped their elbows. One of the fellows, a skinny boy—young man—shied away, and Eppinger’s hand hung in midair, nothing to cup. But the situation righted itself. “Glad to meet you, sir,” the young fellow rumbled, quite a noise for his skinny frame, and he extended his hand. This, actually, was their second handshake in two minutes. Still, that was all right; Eppinger figured that they added up.

 The starlets. They were Italian or Jewish, some Spanish, cute girls. Eppinger sunk lower in his seat, spent more time with eyes on the tip of his cigarette or pencil; good-looking young women embarrassed him, to some degree. The other boys played up to the gals. “You go right ahead when you’re ready, darling,” the director said, or there was Louie with “Honey, thank you, really a treat.”

The girls’ character was from India, and some of them tried an accent. As he listened, Eppinger realized that, really, you never met anybody from India; you didn’t see them in movies, except for Sam Jaffee. So he wasn’t really sure what an Indian accent sounded like. Eppinger liked the mature actresses. They were gallant old girls.

The mature leads, broad-shouldered men with crests of hair. Eppinger perked up. A man giving orders was always a good thing. The line Eppinger waited for: “One thing to understand—that burden is mine.” Could they do it right? Authority, but quiet authority: authority as a fact that a man shouldered. A few managed the effect; after all, the pages said “quietly.” But most of them got nowhere, in Eppinger’s opinion. They did it too loud or, if they did it quietly, they seemed limp.

The same with posture, whatever you called it. Eppinger didn’t know what he was looking for, but you saw a lot of squared shoulders and projected chins, and those became the things you weren’t looking for. You noticed the exceptions. One fellow, with a big head of white hair, stood with shoulders hanging back easily and eyes up toward the top of the wall; this was while everybody waited for Oscar Lytas and the director to wrap up a huddle. The man looked at rest. He just had that one moment there, but he seemed ruminative, peaceful, as if he would decide how long the moment lasted. Then, when the director and Lytas were ready, he stepped forward, an amble, and launched into the scene. He was all right, Eppinger thought.

“One thing to understand: that burden is mine,” the man said, and Eppinger nodded, hands still over his mouth.

Afterward, Eppinger looked at the man’s photo—the bolo tie. He looked at the jobs list on back. “The cattle man,” Louie said. “From the Kramer film. Not bad, I thought.”

Eppinger nodded, wanting to be dispassionate. “Liked him,” he said.

They finished at the end of two and a half workweeks. First, seeing everyone on the list, then the callbacks, then shuffling photos around on the table and arguing.

“Universal has got him,” Louie said of one fellow who had seemed not bad for the alien. “He’s playing a frontier doctor, I think.”

“I’ve worked with her,” the director said of a hawk-nosed actress. “I liked what she did. Nice and solid.”

“I think the, uh, the skinny one,” Lytas said when they were talking about the Negroes. “A little young, but he knows what he’s doing.” They all agreed, and it gave every man there a thrill. They had made the decision, hired a Negro, and they didn’t even need to dicker about which Negro. “Damn good,” the director said.

About another alien: “Think Rogue grabbed him,” Louie said, referring to the other show the studio was making. “He’s the hypnotist.”

Eppinger exhaled sharply and looked at Louie. He felt he’d been poached upon.

“We’re starting a bit late here,” Louie reminded him. Eppinger shook his head.

The director and Louie favored calling the craggy-faced man, the one who had appeared in Planet X. Eppinger thought not.

“How about the dark kid?” Lytas asked. “I mean the other dark kid.” He said this last bit because the young lead (Captain Adam Torres) had already been cast. He flipped through the photos. “Here. Ben, you remember? You liked him.”

Eppinger angled his head, took a look past Louie’s elbow. “Yeah,” he allowed, on principle he didn’t take to the idea of Lytas as a source of bright notions. But he did remember that boy. He had pep. He’d sort of hopped onto his mark, nice and neat.

“Not really a spaceman,” Louie said, sounding doubtful. Eppinger shrugged; he considered himself the authority on spacemen.

No crags on the boy, true, but his cheekbones were up and that counted for a lot. His hair was dark enough, just about. In a pinch you could cast him as a brave or a Mongol youth. Eppinger looked at the brush of hair over the boy’s forehead, imagined it gone and the two antennae planted there.

“He had pep,” Eppinger said. He imagined the boy tearing into the Shavian lines.

“Youth is good,” the director said. “That’s what it’s about these days.”

“A spaceman?” Louie said, dubious, and that decided Eppinger. He leaned over to tap the boy’s photo. “We get him on the phone,” he said. “Get him back here and see how he does with the lines.”

“The spaceman’s going to be young now?” Louie asked.

“Yes, an alien can be young. They go through the life cycle.”

“The life cycle?”

“That’s what I would term it.”

 “The life cycle.”

“This fellow had, he had spark. That’s—”

“All right. All right, Ben. We call up the young gentleman.” Louie paused. “Can I look at my watch?” he said.

“Ha ha,” Eppinger said. It didn’t sound right, but he was actually trying to be expansive and a good sport. “By all means,” he said.

The director, head down, was busily making notes on his clipboard. Lytas, head down, was straightening up the photos and resumes. Eppinger thought he saw Lytas smiling.

“An alien can be young,” Eppinger said, to get matters back on track.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter @CTMay3


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