I want to thank you all so very much for your comments. They mean a great deal to me.
Charles Norris was a big man. He had the build of an ex-athlete, a large head, and he sported a Van Dyke. He was an imposing man with a sardonic sense of humor. He was the first Chief Medical Examiner in the city of New York, circa 1918. He was one of the original founders of what would be forensic medicine as we know it today. He’s also one of the lead characters in The Poisoner’s Handbook, the film PBS is producing for their American Experience series, which just filmed in Prague in the Czech Republic.
I mention Mr. Norris’s size and general appearance because it’s one of the main reasons I got to see Prague and take on a wonderful and challenging role. I gave what I thought was a good audition, but when I finished the casting director said, in amazed tones, “Are you related to Charles Norris?!” I offered that, to the best of my knowledge, I was not. “Are you sure?!” “Well…I’m fairly sure, yes.” Everyone in the room seemed very amazed and pleased. They thanked me, and I left the audition for the cold, windy afternoon in Manhattan feeling that my chances on booking this might be pretty good.
And so they were. Yes, I got the job because I have good credits and I gave (if I do say so myself)) a really good audition (who knows why the muses are with you one day and the next they’re MIA?), but what nailed it was that I could look, with a little help, like Charles Norris. And that is why I got to go to Prague. If I had done a good audition, even a brilliant audition, but looked, say, like the songwriter Paul Williams, I never would have walked across the Charles Bridge, seen the Prague Castle, or (to my great shame) eaten half a roasted duck paid for by PBS. (Insert sigh from Claudia, longtime vegetarian.)
The director (Rob Rapley) is American, as was my co-star, the wonderful actor Chris Bowers who plays the key role of Gettler, the other half of the team that changed the face of forensic medicine.
Bellevue Hospital Lab – Charles Norris is perched on the stool at left, Gettler is in the suit on the right.
We shot most of it in a huge, cavernous and abandoned building on the grounds of a currently active mental facility. In this dank and freezing building (you could see your breath), Czech workmen faithfully recreated the lab used by Norris/Gettler in the notorious Bellevue Hospital of the early 20th century. There was also a morgue. I have some production stills which are incredible but I’m not allowed to share them with you yet.
It was pretty eerie. One scene called for me to do an autopsy using a live, Czech actor (as the corpse) who had to endure lying on a cold gurney wearing a speedo! Between takes workers turned on a kind of turbo heater and covered him in blankets. (I felt a little guilty as my wardrobe worker and great gal “Gaby” rushed to my aide between takes with a large down jacket!). If you look very closely when the film airs, you might just see goosebumps and a shiver here and there from the “corpse” as I go about the business of examining his teeth, scalp and nose. It was cold in there!
Everyone was commenting about how strange it was to be filming on the grounds of a mental facility. One day while riding in our van from the hotel to the location, I suggested that maybe we were the mental cases who only thought we were making a film but were, in reality, patients at the facility. This got a huge laugh, as everyone elaborated on the idea. “The camera is really just a cardboard box!” And so on. It became a kind of running joke.
Vojta – First Assistant Director and a great guy.
Some of the other actors in the smaller roles were American Ex-Pats now living in Prague. One had married a Czech lady and now had a newborn. I could understand the lure of living there. It has so much history. It’s written in every cobblestone and street sign. Even the architecture has that strange combination of communist sensibility with old world beauty. I’ll admit my historical knowledge regarding this region is sketchy at best, but this place was under communist rule less than thirty years ago! Pretty interesting.
The actual filming, the day to day work, was no different from anywhere else. You spend a lot of time waiting. “Hurry up and wait” is the clichéd reference to working in film. Luckily, I had a toasty-warm trailer to hangout in between scenes. And, despite the language barrier, I had some wonderful talks with the Czech crew, especially the trusty “Gaby” who made it her business to keep me comfortable and in the right suit for the right scene. Her English was pretty good, though she just about gave up on trying to teach me how to say “thank you” in Czech. I was, in this regard, a disappointment.
Walter Matthau once said the a film shoot on location looks more like a military takeover. He was right. So many trucks! So many cables, and equipment, and catering tents with lots of good food! I’ll end this part of my story with a photo taken after we “wrapped” the shoot. The means, as you probably know, we finished! So many good people in this photo. And memories for a lifetime!
Cast and crew – taken on the set right after we wrapped.
Charles Norris, I’m glad you were a big man!
In Part 3, I’ll take to the streets!