Working Stiffs: Playing Dead on TV Can Keep a Career on Life Support

February 11, 2011
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imageFrom WSJ: “Corpses, hold your breath?and, Action!” the director yelled. I had been slumped in an office chair on a Hollywood set for hours, covered in a gooey mix of corn syrup and medical latex made to look like a messy chest wound.

It’s not easy playing dead for a living.

Last month at the Los Angeles Center Studios where “Law & Order: Los Angeles” is filmed, I got into character as shooting victim Nancy Jimenez, a mortgage broker killed in a coming episode. It’s a gig actors call “corpse duty,” and in a shrinking market for jobs in scripted TV, dead-body roles are on the rise.

In the past few years, TV dramas have responded to feature-film trends and HDTV, which shows everything in more realistic detail, by upping the violence and delivering more shock value on the autopsy table.

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The Screen Actors Guild doesn’t keep figures on corpse roles, but currently, seven of the top 10 most-watched TV dramas use corpse actors, including CBS’s “CSI,” “NCIS” and spinoff “NCIS: Los Angeles.” The new ABC series “Body of Proof” revolve1s around a brilliant neurosurgeon turned medical examiner who solves murders by analyzing cadavers.

It all means more work for extras, casting agents and makeup artists who supply corpses in various stages of decomposition. Matthew W. Mungle, who won an Oscar for his work on the 1992 film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” does special-effects makeup on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS.”

Mr. Mungle has hundreds of prosthetic chests that can be cut open during autopsy, organs that can be pulled out and removable limbs. “Just when you think they’ve thought of every way to kill someone, we have to build another severed limb,” he says.

“Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf agreed to let me spend a day as a corpse on “Law & Order: Los Angeles” (known as “LOLA”) on NBC. Usually, the show opens with a teaser in which a body is discovered.

In this episode, I’m one of six victims, working at Vela Mortgage Associates when a gunman shoots the place up. “You guys are going to be dead soon. I love saying that first thing in the morning,” a 29-year-old production assistant, John Clarkson, tells us when I arrive at 8 a.m.

The crew says I’m lucky to play “freshly dead.” A body that is “morgue dead” requires an actor to be still for three hours or more to get into chalky-white full-body makeup and a “Y incision” across the chest.

The clear molds that create bullet holes in my chest and forearm are made of medical adhesive. A Bondo sealant, a malleable substance that dries rock hard, is used to make the wounds look three-dimensional.

A bulletin board in the “LOLA” makeup trailer is covered in photos of heinous crimes?a man who died from blunt-force trauma to the head, a woman with multiple stab wounds. The makeup applied “depends on how they died, how long they’ve been dead and how much we can get away with on TV,” says makeup department head Harriette Landau.

“NCIS” and “CSI” also use mannequins molded in the likeness of the actor who plays the victim. These take a couple of weeks to create and cost about $7,800.

A typical crime drama shoots in eight days and costs around $2.5 million. Making regular use of these fake stiffs is too costly in time and money.

And corpse actors also lend verisimilitude. “The truth is nothing looks more realistic than an actor playing dead,” says “NCIS” executive producer Mark Horowitz.

New York casting director Jonathan Strauss says actors don’t need experience to play a corpse, but he does make them lie on a sofa and demonstrate the short breaths required on camera. Not everyone can do it. “The dead work hard for their money,” he says.

Actors don’t like putting corpse roles on their r

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