Seat Open!

There are things in my life I am grateful happened to me.  I recognize they are somewhat absurd and out of the ordinary and, for that reason, I treasure them dearly.  One of those things is getting to be a seat filler at the 2003 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards.

You see, I worked at the USC television station as one of the nightly producers of a live talk show.  The producer of the SAG Awards, Jeff Margolis, always came on as a guest during awards season since the Shrine Auditorium where the SAGs were held is literally across the street from the campus TV studio.  As a kind gesture, Margolis extended the invite for three of us to work as seat fillers that year and I was one of the lucky people that got to attend.

I put on my old homecoming dress, my roommate did my hair in a fun updo, I made myself up, and I reported for duty a couple of hours before the show began.  While the nominees and celebrities filed down the red carpet, I entered through a side door and got instructions on what the gig entailed.  We were instructed to line up on the two sides of the auditorium and we would be directed to empty seats during the commercial breaks.  You were not to get up from your seat or go to a seat while the show was on or else it disrupted the shots of the audience.  Once in your seat, you were not to strike up conversation with the actual guests unless spoken to.  The other rule was no eating or drinking, as the seating was banquet style and there was a place setting at every seat.

My friend and I waited impatiently to see where we would end up as the attendees milled into their seats.  Shortly before showtime, we were both told to report to “The West Wing” table.  My friend took the seat reserved for Martin Sheen, while I was placed in the one for Stockard Channing.

“Oh my lord, Rizzo,” I whispered under my breath.

I expected to sit there silently, but the cast was quick to engage us, especially Bradley Whitford who not only bothered to get our names, but complimented us on how we looked that night.  This would be my friends seat for the entire night, as Sheen did not attend.  I vacated after Channing showed up after the first award and thanked a clearly shell-shocked me for keeping the chair warm for her.

I returned to the back of seat filler line.  When I got to the front again, I was dispatched to the “Chicago” table.  Richard Gere’s girlfriend Carey Lowell was off chatting with other folks, so I occupied her empty seat.

I wasn’t there long before Lowell returned with a friend, leaving absolutely no free seats at the table.  The problem was we were in the middle of the show—this was not a commercial break.  I stood up, aiming to make a break for the line, when I looked on the large screens and realized the camera was panning the audience.  Considering “Chicago” was the movie to beat that year, I was effectively in SAG Awards No Man’s Land.

I panicked and ducked behind a chair.  I heard a chuckle and turned around to see who at the Chicago table was laughing and what they were laughing at.

It was Queen Latifah. And she was laughing at me, squatting on the floor in an old homecoming dress from Contempo Casuals in the middle of the Shrine Auditorium.

I scanned the room unsure of what to do when I saw somebody waving from a nearby table.  It was a fellow seat filler, who gestured there was an empty seat at their table.  I eyed the screen and, once I saw the camera was back on the presenter, I dashed to the chair and flung myself in it, letting out an exhale of relief.

Then I looked up.

Oh. Hello Jack Nicholson.

I was at a table that combined the casts of “About Schmidt” with some miscellaneous nominees, including Julianne Moore who was being honored for “Far From Heaven” and Daniel Day-Lewis, who was there for “Gangs of New York.”  It was a pretty primo table located right near the front of the stage.  In fact, should you hunt down a video of the night, you can see my face as I laugh at poor Megan Mullally when she fell on the way to stage accepting her award.

The people at the table were very nice, attempted to entice me to drink, and kindly offered me the remnants of the bread basket.  Kathy Bates and Nicholson didn’t talk much, as they were clearly chatting and catching up most of the evening.  A few visitors stopped by the table.  Being a Southern snoop, I couldn’t help myself but eavesdrop at what Nicholson was saying to one such visitor.  He had less than flattering things to say about one of the more powerful people in Hollywood at the time.

I clearly didn’t hide my interest in the conversation well, as what happened next was one of the five scariest moments of my life.  Nicholson turns his head and sees I am listening.  He then takes his index finger and points it at me, not saying a word.

He didn’t need to say anything. I knew this was my lone warning that I could not say a word to a soul ever without this man going all “The Shining” on me.  So, I gave him an exaggerated shrug with a slight shake of the head as if to say, “Why Jack, I have no idea what you have been talking about and I would never, ever dream of repeating it even if I was on my deathbed and you were 30 years in the grave.”

This was the extent of my interactions with one of the most talented actors in movie history.  There weren’t even words, just gestures.  I almost think I would cherish the memory less if there was small talk or polite chatter.  It was a frank, honest moment that stands out above all in a night filled with glitz, glamour, and the Hollywood dream.

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