The Big Blonde

I haven’t worked in the film industry for decades. Thanks to so-called social media, I’ve reunited with a bunch of beloved former co-workers and crew members, many of whom I haven’t seen in ages. A veteran cinematographer, who is my Facebook friend and a former crew member, regularly posts obscure (and sometimes unrecognizable) photographs of celebrities on their birthdays, without any words of identification. It has become a fun pandemic pastime, excavating the psychic landfill that is memory, in a concerted effort to identify the individuals in the photo.

Philip Blaine Austin (1941-2015) photo by Tyler Thornton

Thanks to insomnia, I am frequently awake at all hours of the night. On Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in my sleep-deprived haze, I saw one of these celebrity portraits posted by this Facebook friend: a black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing a wig, a false mustache, and a sunshade rimmed, snap-brim fedora. I was only half awake at the time, but the young man in the picture was suddenly very familiar to me – and yet I could not place him.

As Yogi Berra would say, “It was like déjà vu all over again.”

*                                  *                                  *

I arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1982. Allen Daviau – a veteran television commercial cameraman whose first major feature, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial had opened in the theaters nationwide that summer – was a childhood friend of my aunt’s husband.

In the early 1980s, Frank Tuttle operated a small television commercial production company called The Film Tree at 8554 Melrose Avenue in fashionable West Hollywood. At this time, the Film Tree had two veteran, old-school commercial directors on staff, John Orloff and Bob Reagan. Allen Daviau was frequently employed to shoot commercials for Mr. Orloff and Mr. Reagan. The gracious Mr. Daviau picked up the phone on my behalf, and called Frank Tuttle’s production coordinator, a kind and approachable young woman by the name of Hope Grossman, and asked her to hire me as a fifty-dollar-a-day P.A.

Production assistants ­– euphemistically known as “P.A.s” – are the lowest paid, lowest ranking members of the film production crew. Expendable, affordable, and easily replaced, the P.A. is the pawn in the filmmaking chess game. No task is beneath a P.A.’s pay grade or job description. Consequently, as a PA, much of my time was spent removing the garbage from 33-gallon trash cans and transporting the collected refuse to a large steel dumpster. As a teenager, one of my theater mentors had instructed me to work at every job on the crew, starting at the bottom, so that when I was in charge, I would know if the people on my crew were worth their salt. So, I endeavored to be the best P.A. in town.

Although I had seen Rolls-Royce automobiles at car shows in Pebble Beach and on southern California freeways, John Orloff was the first person I ever met who actually drove one. John Orloff was aloof and mostly disinterested. I had only just recently learned to drive a car and I dreaded the thought of ever being asked to gas up his Rolls.

Bob Reagan was an affable guy with a penchant for knit sweaters. He was easy-going on the set. Mr. Reagan was one of the first directors to encourage me to become a first assistant director – ostensibly the “first mate” on the director’s “boat.”

Bob Reagan had fallen in love with a younger woman named Elise, who’d formerly been one of his clients at an advertising agency. In a few years, when Bob moved over to Stuart Gross’ Harmony Pictures in Burbank, she became the producer of Bob’s tv commercials.

The filming of a thirty-second television commercial – even one that’s just a close-up of a can of soup – often involves a workday lasting from 10 to as many as 14 hours. Bob Reagan’s weakness was that he was hooked on a certain soap opera that aired on weekdays at 3:00 pm – was it “Guiding Light” or “General Hospital?”

Consequently, no matter how many pages of dialogue were planned, or how many different camera set-ups were required, or how many locations were scheduled in a given shooting day – unlike anyone else I ever worked with in the industry – Bob Reagan would efficiently execute his shot list and miraculously finish the shoot day shortly after lunch, completing the final camera setup (known as “the martini shot”) like clockwork, by 2:30 pm. Then he leapt into his BMW and drove home to watch his beloved soap opera. The professional is the guy who can do it twice.

My first day working at the Film Tree, very little was going on in the office – the place was deserted. It was readily apparent that my services were not really needed there. It was equally apparent the Allen Daviau’s star was rising so quickly, that if he asked somebody to hire you as a P.A., they did so whether they needed you or not.

As they were unable to find much for me to do, I was handed a rake and sent up to the rooftop of the building to rake the leaves and clear the rain gutters. Alone on the roof, with a commanding view of the West Hollywood neighborhood, it was apparent that no one had been up there in years. Although this was not the sort of task I had envisioned for my career in Hollywood, I was, in a manner of speaking, employed.

When I phoned her the following week, Hope Grossman explained that work was slow that autumn, but she said that, in December, she would hire me for several weeks, for a John Orloff job, working on television commercials for Union 76, to be shot at Dodger Stadium.

Dodger Stadium, in the Elysian Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, opened in 1962. In my childhood, it was the home stadium of baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers. I remember attending a baseball game there with my father when I was little. Set on a hill overlooking the asphalt wasteland that is Los Angeles, the stadium is just a few blocks away from the neighborhood of Asian restaurants and residences that is still called “Chinatown.” In those days, there was a Union 76 service station on the Dodger stadium property that was regularly used as a filming location.

The smog was still pretty awful in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Mountains, some more than a mile high, stood just a few miles north of the Hollywood Freeway, but they were rarely visible due to the air quality. Often the smog was bad enough to give me a headache. After a good wind or rain the air would clear, and the sudden closeness of these rarely seen, enormous mountains was overwhelming.

During the many weeks and months of unemployment, depressed and despondent, I would drive up into the highest elevations in the San Gabriel Mountains to enjoy the solace of the wilderness above the metropolis. I just needed a break from the incessant drudgery of phoning strangers and hitting them up for work.

When December finally arrived, I was assigned to assist Louis Benjamin, the prop man, in pre-production of the Union 76 television commercial shoot. At this time in history, gas stations were expanding to become minimarkets. So, a service station/mini-market set was constructed at Dodger Stadium. Those of us on the prop crew spent the day filling the shelves and refrigerators with all manner of items one would find in a gas station mini-market.

Although I’d run errands for a couple of Film Tree productions, this was really my first day on the set as a P.A. on location. On the first day of filming, the crew arrived at the Dodger Stadium location, hours before sunrise.

Just a few months earlier, I’d left San Francisco and my job at Recycled Records at the corner of Haight and Masonic Streets and moved to Hollywood. In those days, especially in San Francisco, narcotics were very popular, and I remember, in my naivete, feeling so happy to have gotten out of that city and moved to Los Angeles, in hopes of getting away from that drug culture.

I discovered that December morning long ago, in the hours before sunrise at Dodger Stadium, that crew members arrived early in order to purchase small quantities of cocaine from a certain crew member, wrapped in bindles made, origami-like, from squares of coated magazine paper. Then they excused themselves to the privacy of the grip truck, where a certain drawer in the cabinetry contained a mirror, a single-edged razor blade, and a four-inch-long section of plastic straw. Many of the people on the film crew were using cocaine and consequently, quite a few were already “on edge,” at 5:00 am in the morning.

The “magic hour” natural lighting available at sunrise and sunset cannot be duplicated. When filming on location, the sunrise or sunset shot is often the most important shot of the day. On that first morning at Dodger Stadium, everything was in position an hour before the sun actually rose, ready for that sunrise shot.

In that era before the Interweb and cable television, the three American television networks reigned supreme. Almost every nationally broadcast television commercial was shot on 35 mm film, budgets were capacious, and the luxuries enjoyed by the film crew were many. We were served surprisingly excellent catered meals at inconvenient, often remote locations – at practically any hour of the day or night required – served on real china with real silverware and cloth napkins.

It was at this time that the breakfast caterer arrived at Dodger Stadium. There in the dark, just outside the motorhome, a man and a woman were unloading hot trays of steaming delicacies. I was unaccustomed to being awake that early in the morning and the smell of the food aroused my appetite.

I’d just moved to Los Angeles and really didn’t know anybody in town. But for some strange reason I was certain that I recognized the man who was serving the breakfast, but I couldn’t figure out from where. He looked strangely familiar. Although he was young, his hair was prematurely white. In the darkness of the parking lot, I did my best to place him.

When one lives in Southern California, one gets used to seeing famous people in ordinary places. It happens more than you’d think. It soon becomes commonplace to recognize celebrities at the dry cleaners, the grocery store, and at Tito’s Tacos. As I stood there smelling the delicious food, the woman who was helping serve the breakfast handed a burrito to one of the grips. “Thank you, Oona,” the man said.

Then I had the strangest sensation: in my sleepy state, with the warm breakfast in my tummy, it dawned on me ever so slowly where I had seen that familiar looking man with the shock of white hair. It was déjà vu all over again.

I finally figured out where I had seen his face before – on the cover of a phonograph record made by the Firesign Theatre. It was Phil Austin.

The Firesign Theatre (left to right) Phil Austin, David Ossman, Philip Proctor and Peter Bergman (1980)

It is difficult to fully assess the influence of the Firesign Theatre on my generation. Called “The Beatles of Comedy” by the Library of Congress, the Firesigns were a surreal and influential American spoken word comedy quartet that wrote, performed, and recorded through more than four decades. Although I didn’t own any of their recordings, their albums were so well-loved by my friends, that I’d heard their intricate and profoundly amusing radio theater-of-the-mind many, many times.

My brain was having the hardest time accepting that this famous humorist, Phil Austin, was working a day-job as a breakfast caterer. But in Hollywood, everything was possible and soon a fellow crewmember confirmed his identity. I was incredulous. It turned out that Mr. Austin’s wife, Oona was, in fact, the breakfast caterer and Phil just came along to help with the early morning delivery.

This was the first time I met Phil Austin’s wife, the former Oona Elliott. In a city where so many women worked so hard to look so attractive, Oona was strikingly beautiful in the most wholesome, unaffected, and effortless way. She was tall and statuesque. And warm and genuine. She seemed so comfortable being herself, that it was just a delight to stand around and watch her engage. What can I say? I had a terrible crush on her at the time.

*                                  *                                  *

One of my tasks as a P.A., was to fill several ice chests with a variety of popular soft drinks and then cover them with crushed ice. Whenever any member of the crew grew thirsty, they’d open the nearest ice chest and find their favorite chilled carbonated beverage, juice, or water. I would regularly drain the melted ice from the bottom of the cooler and replace ice and sodas as they were depleted.

I took pride in my work, however menial. I remembered the words of the great Chuck Jones, the animator and director of the wonderful Warner Bros. cartoons, who said: “Take your work, but never yourself, seriously.”

John Orloff’s cameraman on this job was Pat O’Mara – a one-eyed shooter who wore a black eye-patch. He had dark curly hair, and a black beard that gave him the familiar countenance of a pirate – all that was missing was the parrot on his shoulder.

It was a brisk clear December morning in Los Angeles. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the air temperature warmed. At one point, the piratical Mr. O’Mara left the camera dolly and navigated his way over to one of the ice chests full of cold cans of soda. Moodily, he pillaged through the contents, plunging deeper into the ice, but seemingly unable to find what he was looking for. Finally, in anger and frustration, he kicked over the ice chest with his booted foot, turned his back, and drifted back to the camera dolly, his thirst still unquenched.

The blacktop asphalt parking lot at Dodger Stadium, like so much of Los Angeles County, was perfectly flat and level. Consequently, the cylindrical 12-ounce soda cans that toppled from upended cooler slowly rolled away with sufficient centrifugal force that, for what seemed like minutes, all you could hear was the undulating sound of the heavy, chilled aluminum cans rolling, seemingly in slow motion, over the uneven surface of on the asphalt.

Everyone on the crew was so surprised to see somebody kick over a fully-loaded ice chest – work stopped for a full minute. All eyes were on me – the new P.A. I imagined the bird’s eye view from above, as the cans rolled slowly away from their common point of departure.

During this silent tableau, I slowly began collecting the gradually retreating circle of soda cans and started placing them back in the ice chest, when Hope walked over to me. I was so self-conscious and anxious, I suspected she was going to fire me on the spot.

But instead, she quietly explained that Mr. O’Mara was just having a bad day. Apparently, his favorite beverage was Dr. Pepper, and that particular morning he had not been able to find a can of Dr. Pepper in the first few inches of ice, at the top of the ice chest, resulting in his decision to kick over the cooler. Hope assured me that I’d done nothing wrong, and that Mr. O’Mara’s conduct had been unprofessional.

I was reminded of the legend in which a teenage jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker played in a jam session with some Kansas City virtuosos. Bird played so poorly, the drummer Jo Jones unscrewed his cymbal and tossed it at Bird’s feet, making a terrible clatter, and sending the ashamed Bird back to the woodshed with his tail between his legs.

Thereafter, I was careful to make sure that there were a couple of cans of Dr. Pepper near the top of the ice of every ice chest, at every hour of every day, for the rest of that shoot. This was a very informative lesson in my motion picture training.

Hope suggested that I go find the key grip, Skip Cook, and help him hang the large painted canvas backdrop for an upcoming shot that afternoon. I found Mr. Cook, a giant of a man, who appeared to be about five-foot-forty. I told him that Hope had instructed me to assist him with rigging the backdrop.

Apparently, he was also having a bad day. Like an enraged grizzly bear, Skip Cook clutched my narrow shoulders in his enormous paws, lifted me bodily off the ground to his eye level, and roared, “You’re not going hang anything! Do you understand?!? I’m going to hang this backdrop!”

Experiencing a sudden loosening in my bowels, I sputtered, “Yes sir,” and retreated to the sanctuary of one of the commodes in the vehicle euphemistically referred to as “the honey-wagon.”

*                                  *                                  *

Dick Slattery as “Murph,” in a Union 76 tv commercial (1978)

Richard Slattery was a square-jawed, rough-looking, gravel-voiced American character actor who often played callused cops, drill-sergeants, and tough-guys. For fourteen years, he appeared as “Murph,” the grandfatherly service station proprietor in television commercials for Union 76 gasoline.

By the time I worked with him at the end of 1982, Mr. Slattery had done hundreds of Union 76 commercials and was pretty well flying in his sleep. The advertising agency was well-aware of this fact and, in preparation to retire Mr. Slattery and his character, they’d already introduced a younger actor to portray “Murph Jr.,” as well as several other younger characters to replace him.

I was sent to the liquor store to purchase vodka as part of the food and beverage hospitality in Mr. Slattery’s dressing room in his motorhome. Mindful that celebrities are often brand conscious regarding their adult beverage choices, I asked Hope what vodka to buy. Apparently, she’d worked with Mr. Slattery before. “Just get several bottles of the cheapest stuff that comes in the big 1.75-litre bottles,” she told me.

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In the 1980s, commercials featuring things to eat dominated network television. Advertisements for fast food restaurants, soft drinks, pizzas, frozen dinners, steak houses, beer, breakfast cereals, candy bars, ice cream, and snacks were ubiquitous. As a P.A. working on television commercials, I frequently found myself working on advertisements for food and drink.

When you make a television commercial about something that is edible, the food or drink that’s actually photographed is painstakingly prepared by a professional “food stylist” to make it look as appetizing and attractive as possible. This is a highly exacting and specialized job that only a few truly master. And just like every other job on a motion picture set, one or two individuals in the industry distinguish themselves as being noticeably better at their job than all their constituents. At this time, in Southern California, Oona Austin was one of the first choices for the job of food stylist for television commercials.

When I found myself working on a crew with Oona, I would surreptitiously find a way to get myself assigned to her team where, in the safety of her enclave, I would be sheltered from the slings and arrows of production. Oona was a great teacher, so I learned a lot of really important things about the food stylist’s job, which served me well later, when I was producing food commercials. For instance, Oona showed me how to mix Elmer’s glue with milk, so the milk wouldn’t look thin and pale under the bright lamps used in cinematography.

One day, I was instructed to use an air compressor to remove all the dust from the contents of several dozen boxes of Kellogg’s Apple Jacks breakfast cereal. Then I sprayed each individual piece of breakfast cereal with shellac, so that when it was photographed, falling through the frame in super slow motion, there wouldn’t be any dust visible in the shot.

Another specialized job in food photography is that of the “hand model.” The hands that you see holding forks, knives, bottles – or pouring a glass of beer – in television commercials belong to a few of the busiest people in the industry, whose faces are rarely seen. In my time, the best hand model on the west coast was a fellow called Bill Karp. Bill Karp was so good at his job we would literally schedule photography based on his availability alone. In the 1990s, I used Bill Karp exclusively in a series of TV commercials produced for Sizzler Steakhouse. I still see that footage reused in commercials aired thirty years later – the shots were so difficult and expensive, and so perfectly executed by Bill’s magic hands. He had a certain gift for hand and eye coordination that was superhuman.

I remember that Bill Karp was on that Apple Jacks commercial I did with Oona Austin in Los Angeles, 35 years ago. Oona sent me to the Irvine Ranch Market in West Los Angeles to pick up a case of the most perfect large red delicious apples I’d ever seen. The film sped through the camera at the highest speed, to achieve a super-slow-motion effect. As the bright red apples fell through the frame, Bill Karp swung at them with a razor-sharp eight-inch chef’s knife, cutting each apple perfectly in half. I actually witnessed, on a several takes, Bill deftly slice the stem of several of the apples in half. The professional is the guy who can do it twice.

*                                  *                                  *

I just adored Oona Austin and sought every opportunity to work in her company. In an industry where many of my supervisors were abrasive and abusive, she always treated me with humanity. In my memory, she didn’t wear any make-up, yet seemed to be the most beautiful woman on every film crew. She just had this natural beauty that made one stop and admire how comfortable she was being herself.

I appreciated that she was married to a celebrity, so I consciously refrained from asking her questions about her famous husband or his famous Firesign Theatre cronies. Occasionally, I would see Oona’s husband Phil, when he dropped her off at the studio in the morning or picked her up at the end of the day. He affectionately referred to her as “The Big Blonde.”

One afternoon, Oona and I sat in the food stylist kitchen on the sound stage, cutting up tomatoes for a bottled salsa commercial. At one point, she spoke of her happy marriage and her abiding love for her husband, Phil Austin. This was something one rarely heard about in Hollywood. Most of the interpersonal stories were either about extra-marital affairs, divorces, or men in positions of power who were sleeping with their female subordinates.

And then Oona told me something that I never forgot – she said that she and Phil had never spent a night apart. She explained that she didn’t like to do jobs out of town because it was so important to sleep in her own bed with the man she loved.

I was 24 years old. I was single. Although I had had girlfriends and believed I had been “in love,” I had never experienced any relationship remotely like what Oona was describing. I was deeply affected. Her words haunted me for decades. I wondered what it would be like to be in the kind of relationship where one desired to sleep in their own bed every night with their own special someone.

*                                  *                                  *

The photo of Oona Austin that Phil carried in his wallet (1970s)

After they’d retired to Fox Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound, Phil wrote about Oona on the blog page of his website, when he was sixty-six years old:

“So there she is. I carried this picture of The Big Blonde around in my wallet for years and even laminated it; thus the crinkles and reflections. She’s standing at the top of our steep hillside driveway at the house in Hollywood…

“That smile. There’s a summer sun warmth to Oona’s smile, a big encompassing expanse of pleasure in other people. She’s the most sociable and social person I’ve ever met.  She’ll walk into parties full of sullen Entertainment Types and beam at them: ‘I don’t know anyone here!’ brightly and launch that smile at all the people she suddenly knows. She can talk bikes with bikers and science with sciencers.  One year at the TED conference, I found her surrounded by at least ten entrepreneurs and scientists, each falling over the other to engage her and the smile in their projects and dreams and schemes. There are guys on movie sets all over Hollywood who bring her pictures of their kids and their cars and their dogs.”

“We used to talk on the phone for hours, before we fell in love,” Phil explained. “It’s not some whacky smile, that smile. Look at her eyes. She’s looking at you, she’s wondering where she fits with you.”

Phil reflected on the photo which he carried his wallet for so many years – probably until the day he died in 2015:

“She’s in her twenties here in this laminated world, early Seventies of the Late Lamented Twentieth of Centuries. I took this picture, so she’s looking at me, wondering where she fits with me. Over thirty-five years later, it’s turned out to be some fit. We figure we’ve only spent three nights apart in all that time, due to a couple of work problems in the Eighties of the … (yeah, yeah, yeah.)  We’ve never had kids, just kind of adopted stray relatives here and there. We spend a lot of time together, more than most couples do, I think.

“We are each other’s kid, she and I.”

They were married for 43-years.

*                                  *                                  *

In the late 1980s, I left Los Angeles and relocated to the San Francisco Bay area where I worked as a producer of television commercials. On a number of occasions, I would arrange to shoot in Los Angeles, so that I could work with Oona. She was the best food stylist around and I made my reputation as a producer by hiring only the very best people. I knew she had no interest in traveling and that she wouldn’t do it if she couldn’t go home each night to Phil.

Although I stopped working in the motion picture industry in the 1990s, my subsequent occupations continued to involve lots of traveling. For decades, I spent dozens – sometimes hundreds – of nights a year on the road, far from home, and sleeping in motels. Sometimes I had girlfriends, but regardless of the level of mutual commitment, spending many nights apart was a given from the get-go.

I haven’t seen Oona in thirty years. But many’s the night I have lain awake, unable to fall sleep in my unfamiliar motel room bed, haunted by her story of how she and her husband had never spent a night apart. I still wonder what that would feel like.

*                                  *                                  *

I’ve known so few married couples who really adored one another mutually.

I remember, many years ago, a conversation I had in the motorhome, at the end of a shoot day, with a very attractive make-up artist, Pegi Levin, who was married to a man who was quite well off. The sun was setting, and we were packing our cases and getting ready to head home, so the motorhome driver could dump his tanks and return the vehicle. Pegi was a little older than I was and had more life experience to draw upon – this was evidenced by the large diamonds set in her earrings and her wedding ring.

She candidly explained how we are confronted with a binary choice in each love affair – whether to be the one who is adored, or the one who is the adorer. She encouraged me to figure out which of these two choices brought me the greatest happiness.

It was a real gift – this concept afforded me a quantum leap in understanding interpersonal human relationships. As Salman Rushdie put it, “between the adored and the adorer falls the shadow.”

Many failed love affairs involve two adorers – or two adored ones – struggling vainly without the balance of their natural counterpart. Perhaps a certain equilibrium in the adorer/adored dynamic is crucial to successful relationships – I have no idea. For most of us, it seems we’re still figuring out whether we’re happiest being the one who is adored, or the one who is the adorer.

It’s usually one or the other.








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