The recent death of Fred Thompson is a comforting reminder that Hollywood can still beckon, even for those no longer in the first blush of youth.
Thompson’s first big job was as the Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee, quite a plum for his legal career. But Thompson was best known not for being a lawyer, but playing one on TV. Long after the Nixon era had faded into history, Thompson became known to a new generation of Americans for playing Manhattan District Attorney Arthur Branch on the network series “Law & Order.” If there was a similar path to midlife stardom for me, I’m afraid I blew it a few years ago, when I was offered my first role in a TV production.
In 2009, I was on a location shoot for “A Summer of Birds,” a public TV documentary based on a small book I had written on John James Audubon’s time in Louisiana. The film involved a few historic reenactments, including a scene in which Audubon, during his stay at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, painted a deathbed portrait of a neighbor who had passed away in the middle of the night.
In the days before photography, people would often discover that they had not a single keepsake image of a dying or departed loved one, so they would hurriedly send for an artist to do a portrait before the person was buried. When the designated extra playing the corpse failed to show, I was dressed in period garb and laid out on a table. The role required me to lay motionless for half an hour, a part for which, as my wife might tell you, I seemed ideal. But this kind of extended repose is much harder than it looks, which is why, in the final cut of the film, I could be seen twitching my lip ever so slightly.
I assured myself that no one would detect such a glitch — a confidence quickly dispelled on the morning after the TV premiere, when my elderly aunt phoned to offer her capsule review. The film seemed fine in almost every respect, she told me, except for that poor dullard who had played the corpse. His lip, lapsing into some sort of spasm, had blown his cover as a man no longer among the quick.
And so I became the actor so bad that he could not even portray a character who does nothing. I am, as the Tinsel Town types put it, Hollywood poison.
There is, in spite of it all, yet a second Audubon production in which I manage to play a small role — this time as myself. I briefly appear as an expert commentator in “Audubon,” a new documentary about the bird artist by filmmaker Al Reinert. I was relieved to discover, during a sneak peek at Reinert’s production, that this time, I didn’t twitch.
Editor’s note: “Audubon: The Film” will show for one night only at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge. Tickets won’t be sold at the theater, but are available in advance at tugg.com/titles/audubon.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.