Turning Sid into sorcerer.

Over the past thirty years I have acted as magical advisor on maybe a dozen television productions.  Being a magical consultant ranges from the best gig in the world to the very worst one. I want to share a story about the very best of these experiences.

I was sitting at home practicing my double lift when I got a call from Universal Studios. Steven Spielberg wanted a magical consultant for his new television series ‘Amazing Stories.’  I drove to the Universal lot (Yes, a drive on pass!) and received directions to a small office that was being used for pre-production meetings by the director.

Donald Petrie was the director’s name and he had been hand picked by Spielberg to helm this project. It turned out to be the only episodic television that Petrie would work on as he immediately went on to direct some very major motion pictures.  Donald and I got on like a house on fire and sitting in a crowded and untidy office we poured over the script while he shared his vision of the project.

To my delight I discovered that I would get to appear in the show, in a brief cameo, playing myself. Let me share a really cool secret with you. If you get hired as a magical consultant make sure you talk your way into an onscreen role. If you do this then your entire magical consultancy fee is added to your S.A.G. contract. This means that you will get residuals on both your acting fee and your consultancy fee and as any actor will tell you the best part about residuals is that like diamonds they are forever.

The plot for the ‘Amazing Stories” episode was simple but really rather touching. Legendary funny man Sid Caesar played an over the hill magician who’s career goes out in style when he gets a ‘magic’ deck of cards. There was to be a combination of live magic and also some (for the time) very cutting edge computer generated effects. I was to co-ordinate the live action magic and help integrate it with the camera tricks.

I was very aware that Sid Caesar was a comedy performer who cast a long shadow. However arriving in the States in 1974 I had missed the ‘Show of Shows’ and didn’t catch up with it until videotape arrived on the scene. Therefore going into the project I knew that Caesar was legendary but wasn’t quite sure why. I soon discovered.

Sid Caesar seemed like a very quiet and nice man when I first met him in his Canyon home. This wasn’t exactly the way Sid had been described in either of the books I had quickly read about him since getting the gig. I was very pleased that the wild man had mellowed a little bit. Sid was very serious about the role as it constituted something of a revival in his career.

In his heyday Caesar would wind down after recording his show at a local restaurant where he would drink a fifth of bourbon and two ‘criss crosses.’ If you don’t know what a ‘criss cross’ is let me explain—it is a large porterhouse steak laid out on the plate with a slice of prime rib spread across it in a large X pattern. With that much cholesterol in his system it is amazing Sid lasted long enough to be having a revival in his career!

The walls of Sid’s house were covered with some of the finest artwork this side of the Getty Museum. Sid was also wearing a fabulous new gold and diamond Rolex on his wrist. He was very obviously a successful performer who had invested his money wisely. However my job was to turn Sid into a looser whose career had wound down and finished leaving him broke and disillusioned. I couldn’t see the wisp of a ghost of any of these qualities in Sid so I left that to the director and contented myself with working with him on the tricks and routines that he would perform in the show.

I had three weeks to make Sid look as though he had been performing magic for fifty years. He was a very patient student. Very quiet but very, very thorough.  Our first lesson was the appearing cane. I showed him the basic handling of the cane and said, “OK, give it a shot.” Seconds later there was a fountain of blood as metal cane cut through flesh. Our practice session ended at this point while extensive bandages were applied to Mr. Caesar’s palm. If you watch the show on DVD you will notice Sid has a bandage on his hand throughout the entire episode. Not the greatest start.

I also had to get my own little segment together for the show. The opening shot in the script consisted of a close up of me producing a white dove from a handkerchief. The camera would then pull back to reveal a magnificent set that looked like Magic Castle. Actually the entire set had probably cost about the same amount to build as the Castle. Money was not in short supply for Mr. Spielberg’s first excursion into television.

I had cheerfully lied to my director and implied that I had been producing snow-white doves from handkerchiefs since my early childhood. I did what any expert would do; I hired another more specialized expert. I was lucky enough to talk Amos Levkovitz into working with me. Amos supplied me with the ‘know how’ and a dove to work with. I hated that bird and everything about him; especially his scaly little claws that gripped my finger! How we suffer for art.

I practiced and practiced though and the results of my work are recorded in the opening shot of the show. Sadly my efforts were to little effect. The opening shot was very fast and I am merely a blur and the dove an even less noticeable blur. That’s TV for you—three weeks rehearsal for two seconds screen time.

The show was moving smoothly from pre-production to filming when something seemed to begin to go wrong.  Sid Caesar just slowed down on us. Everything he did was at half speed. It started to cause problems as page after page of dialogue were discarded and secondary story lines just disappeared. The director was upset, the writers were upset, the other actors were upset and still Sid slowed down more and more. It was very strange indeed. The more upset people got; the more Sid slowed down. The only person who remained totally immune to the growing sense of doom and despair was Caesar.

Was the “Mr. Magic” episode of Amazing Stories the disaster everyone predicted? Not in the least– it became something of a classic and is considered to be one of the best in the entire series. The reason for its success was simple: it was Sid. The performance given by Sid Caesar was brilliant and his timing perfect. His pacing allowed him too inhabit that role as if it were the real him. He created a character that seemed stunningly real in a world of fantasy. I had a very serious lesson in acting and performing and began to realize why Sid Caesar was an icon in the comedy world.

Well, this was twenty-two years ago and my residuals are down to about the cost of mailing the check to me but I remember that time very fondly. The very best part of this story is that since that day in the Universal soundstage I have never once had to balance a beady-eyed dove on my finger!

~ by Nick Lewin on March 1, 2010.

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