THE NIGHT THE KNIGHT WON'T FORGET
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 camp grounds.
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.
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 camping badge..
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
I am sure that was a night we will never forget the knight!