Backstage in South Florida: Acting (Up) on Miami Vice

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Lee takes his cue and ducks when duty calls

My entertainment encounters weren't always limited to the music biz. I briefly tried my hand at acting and succeeded in getting cast as an extra on a couple of occasions. Not exactly the kind of thing that qualifies one for Academy Award consideration, but they did provide some interesting anecdotes.

One of those gigs found me cast in a crowd of onlookers for one of the pivotal scenes in Porky's II (that's right, they felt inclined to film a sequel!) during which the bad guys were herded into a stadium full of jeering onlookers and paraded about naked. One wouldn't think that playing part of a crowd would have presented such a challenge -- after all, there was no need to reference the Stanislavsky method or anything like that. However, it did compel me to make a difficult artistic choice for the sake of my role. I had a long shag haircut, and the fact that the film supposedly took place during the 1950s meant my "look" didn't fit the setup. After all, even the producers of Porky's II had ensure their credibility to some extent. The casting director insisted that I submit to an immediate haircut to keep my part. However, being that we were out in the wilds of Key Biscayne at 3 a.m., I wasn't sure what kind of cut I would get. I certainly wasn't ready to see myself in a buzzcut. Despite the fact that I risked sacrificing a valuable role on my acting résumé, I pulled what people in the movie biz referred to as "a tantrum."

Of course, if you're Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro, an artistic dispute like this could shut down production indefinitely. If you're me, there's no consequence of any sort. At least not for the production. I'd simply be told to go home. Fortunately, we were able to resolve our creative differences (another inside cinematic term). I was sent to wardrobe, where they pinned my hair back and instructed me to sit in the upper decks of the stadium. Crisis solved... with no loss to the integrity of the production, such as it were. Fortunately, my long locks survived intact. Of course, you'll never see me in the scene, but I can assure you I played that bystander part to a tee. In fact, it's one of my proudest screen credits.

In fact, it's my only screen credit. However, I'm proud to say my next acting job showed that my career had advanced substantially. Think of it like the trajectory Matt Damon took from playing the kid brother in Mystic Pizza to a series of movies as superspy Jason Bourne. OK, not quite, but I did garner a lot more screen time this time around... and you could actually see me in the finished product!

I'm speaking of my widely hailed role in Miami Vice -- widely hailed by the friends and family who caught it. Here's the setup: A body had been tossed from an I-95 overpass. In a brilliant portrayal worthy of Emmy consideration, I played one of two undertakers assigned to carry the body of the victim off to an ambulance on a stretcher. So there I was, front and center, and I didn't even need to get a haircut to underscore my credibility. I duly arrived on the set where I had been assigned at 8 a.m., and shortly thereafter, the director blocked out the scene. Hey, I didn't have a talking part, but I could be guaranteed some screen time. The other stretcher-bearer and I would enter the shot directly in front of Crocker (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Phillip Michael Thomas). Then we'd pick up the corpse and carry it off.

It seemed simple enough, and in fact, it was. But right before the director yelled "Action!", Phillip Michael Thomas leaned over to me and whispered the words that would qualify as the most inspirational words one actor could share with another:

"Hey, man, can you duck down a bit? You're blocking me out of the shot."

I was overcome! What generosity he had to share that advice with me. It was if Stella Adler herself had taken the time to the impart words of wisdom that every budding actor needed to hear.

Well, maybe not. Maybe I'm exaggerating. No, definitely I'm exaggerating. But it's those intimate moments with one's costars that all actors cherish. Kinda. Well, whatever, Phillip Michael Thomas and I had our special moment. And I was captured in seven shots! Buy the boxed set of Miami Vice Season Two and watch that episode where the guy is tossed off the bridge. Yup, that's me down below, picking up the remains.

Interestingly, several years later, I was working at Hard Rock Café in Bayside when Phillip Michael Thomas and his entourage came in for lunch. I went over, introduced myself, and told him how much those words he shared on the set meant to me. He looked bewildered, but he did sign a photo for me with perhaps the longest inscription ever etched in the entire history of autograph signing.

"Especially for you Lee
Yesterday is a cancelled check,
Tomorrow is a promissory note...
Today is CASH IN HAND!
I'll be back to rock the Hard Rock Café... God bless
Phillip Michael Thomas."

It was good to see that the years hadn't diminished his ability to spread some wisdom. It wasn't in the category of "duck down," but it was too poetic not to be considered great advice. Tears welled up in my eyes, and by gosh, I comped him a burger!