Long time readers of this blog know that before becoming an eBay seller, I was an actor. I did mostly commercials and industrial sales & training films. And when there were no steady gigs, I was happy to get a job as an extra on a commercial. Extras are those people who walk around in the background of films who don’t relate to the lead actors or the product in any way. Extras are sometimes referred to as “atmosphere”. That should give you some idea as to how far down the totem pole of entertainment they are.
One day I got a call from my agent. Report to the McDonald’s restaurant in Harwood Heights, IL, not far from O’Hare Airport at 7am next Tuesday. Wear nice, casual clothes. I arrive early and the joint is already jumping. The crew has been there since 5am, laying cables, setting up the lights, doing the thousand things that need to be done before one frame of film can go through the camera. I could tell by the number of people working that this was a big deal. It turned out to be a national McDonald’s commercial that was to be shown during the Super Bowl. And it was to star basketball great Michael Jordan at the height of his popularity.
Being an extra means being available whenever the director wants you. This time we were told that shooting would begin after 2pm, when Michael got there. As word spread through the surrounding neighborhood, people started coming over to see what they could see. The police set up yellow tape around the parking lot to hold back the quickly growing crowds. The 16 extras had an area in the back with some folding chairs. There were also 2 giant RVs. One was used as a changing room and restroom for the extras. The other was for Michael, only. I knew Michael’s RV driver from previous extra jobs. Julie was a suburban mom who used her family RV as a home away from home for celebrities at various events like this one.
Back in the days before selfies, autographs were the only way you could show that you met a famous person. The people on the perimeter of the parking lot were holding up Chicago Bulls pennants, posters, even ordinary paper napkins, hoping to get Michael’s autograph. As the day went on, the crowd swelled and the yellow tape bulged in. The tension grew as two o’clock approached. There was big money riding on this and all the ad agency suits were looking nervous. Then, about 2:15, a production assistant told somebody that Michael had just gotten off the highway and would be here in 5 minutes. A buzz went through the room and then out into the parking lot and into the crowd, who turned their heads in unison down Harlem Avenue toward the highway. They were looking for some big flashy, fancy car.
Then, policemen moved some people aside and an extremely low slung Italian sports car hissed into the lot. It was so low, they didn’t even have to raise the yellow tape for it. The car slid right under. The passenger door gull winged up and out stepped Michael Jordan as gracefully as you would expect.
The crowd went nuts. Yelling, screaming, cheering and most of all thrusting their pens, pencils & crayons hoping for an autograph. He waved politely and went into the restaurant. The crowd let out a collective, “Awwww!” Some muttering, but no cursing. Michael was a god in Chicago in those days. He could do no wrong, even if he wasn’t going to sign autographs that day. I happened to be talking to Julie when all this happened. She told me she was with Michael the previous day at an orphanage fundraiser and he signed 1500 autographs
Then, apparently there was a problem between Michael and the sponsor that I wasn’t privvy to, but took the better part of an hour to resolve. Michael had to be finished at 4pm. They finally set the scene at 3. The commercial focused on three 12 year old boys at McDonalds talking about Michael Jordan, then they look over at a nearby table, and there is the great man himself. They are surprised and amazed. That’s it.
They set up the boys where they should be, then they tell me sit at the next table and look away from the camera. Then they put Michael Jordan at the table next to me, about 4 feet away. Then, very quickly all the crew disappeared behind the camera and they were ready to go. And then they weren’t ready to go, there was some technical problem that will take about 3 minutes to resolve.
So Michael is just sitting there and I’m just sitting there and it’s kind of awkward, so I decided to say something. I knew he was an avid golfer as I was, so I asked, “Hey Michael, why do you have to be out by 4? Do you have a tee time?”
“No,” he said, “Looks like rain, don’t want to get hit by lightning.”
I should have said, “okay”. Instead I said, “Hey, did you hear about the 4 guys out golfing and a big thunderstorm comes up and there’s lightning all around. And one of the guys pulls a metal 1 iron golf club out of his bag and holds it high over his head. ‘Are you nuts? You’re gonna get hit by lightning!’ the other guys scream.
“‘Nope, even God can’t hit a 1 iron!'”
Michael Jordan laughed at my joke. It was just a little laugh, “ha ha”, no, more like “huh huh”. Not much of a laugh, but a laugh none the less. He could have been a jerk about it. Because, let’s face it, it’s not much of joke. But it was a bonding moment between golfers and he took it in the spirit it was offered.
So, because of that, I like Michael Jordan.
PS Apologies to God. I’ll bet you CAN hit a 1 iron.
PPS I looked for this commercial during the Super Bowl and didn’t see it.