THE NIGHT THE KNIGHT WON'T FORGET
In forty-five years
of acting, I've only played two characters out of the Middle Ages.
One was Little John, Robin Hood's right-hand man, a character in rags and
tights. The other role, the one that took me back to all those drawings
of castles and moats, with jousting tournaments and sword fights, was that
of a medieval king.
I was to play the White Knight in a human-size chess set. The
chessboard was big. Each square was five feet by five feet. The Knights
were stunt men, on horseback. It was so important to the producers
that the armor look authentic, that they flew a specialist to California,
from London. Even my sword, Excalibur, the legendary sword belonging
to King Arthur, had to look just right.
The chessboard was assembled, with Vasquez Rocks looming in the
background. These rocks are a many-layered formation, located in
the high desert, about forty miles north of Hollywood, CA. They have
been used for thousands of film productions since the time of Gene Autry
westerns. TV shows, commercials, movies, and documentaries have been
shot with this impressive background. It is also a State Park, with
We were to work nights, for a week. When it got dark, spotlights
raked the ominous rocks. The chessboard was rimmed with hundreds
of lights shooting straight up. Two forty-foot high propane torches roared
between the set and the rocks, making shadows dance on the steep, craggy
face. Misters (fog machines) were used to make a three-foot mist float
across the chess set.
Who has the money to go to all this expense for a thirty-second TV commercial?
The American taxpayers, that's who. This production company was making
a recruitment spot for the U.S. Marines. You may have seen it. It
is the one where the medieval knight morphs into a U.S. Marine. It ran
for three years and finally they retired it to the U.S. Marine Corp Museum.
Anyway, one night while we were filming, it got so cold that the mist
froze on the chessboard. Not good for horses. As the Chess King I
stood on a pedestal. The Chess Queen stood on a rug. The horse
directly in front of the queen and me slipped on the ice. His back
hoof went over the edge of the chessboard and hit one of the spotlights,
making it explode. The circus was on!
Me? I bailed out. I headed off the chessboard in the direction
of my queen.
The next night
things went well. There were no surprises. Well, there was
one. Around midnight, the king felt the "call of nature." So,
I walked into the darkness, in the direction of the campgrounds and a line
of seven-foot sentinels... aka porta potties. They were not built for anyone
wearing armor; especially a six-foot four-inch King wearing a crown.
So, I left my crown on a nearby rock.
The troubles I had the next ten minutes could have been made into an
episode of the English comic "Mr. Bean." A Cirque du Soleil contortionist
comes to mind. You can imagine the urgency on my part to solve the
puzzle of my armor's buckles and clasps. While I was in this Houdini
imitation, I heard three or four vehicles pull up nearby. Their passengers
spilled out and began setting up camp. By the sound of their high-pitched
voices I deduced that they were possible a Cub Scout group earning their
I was too busy to care. My priority was to get out of the armor
suit I was wrapped in. Relief at last!
I took my time reassembling. The kids were unloading their gear
and oohing and aahing over the strange lighted chess game off in the distance.
That's when I made my dramatic entrance into their dark world. I
slammed the door open, jumped down the two steps, armor clanking, glistening
in the moon light, donned my crown, and strode off into night.
I am sure that was a night we will never forget the knight!