Q: Callista. That’s an unusual name, no?
A: Well, there’s Calista Flockhart.
That bit of chit-chat followed an encounter with the wife of Newt Gingrich last weekend. I’ve made smalltalk with Mrs. Gingrich once, and the weather was the subject. My encounter with Calista Flockhart, the actress, was much more interesting, though not because of her.
Early in the history of a TV series called Aly McBeal, Fox decided to invite affiliates to supply extras for the show. Aly typically ended its episodes with a dance scene in a bar, with pianist/singer Vonda Shepard supplying the soundtrack. The local news invitees would perform as extras in the bar scene, and shoot news stories about their experiences for the folks back home.
For some reason, WAGA asked me to do it. Andi Larner edited the piece. The 1997 video shows that unlike me, Russ Spencer hasn’t aged a day.
The story is arguably interesting because of the setup. Fox wouldn’t allow us to send a photographer, just “talent.” Fox supplied an LA-based photog, and I had to share the photog with another local news-type who was there for the same reason.
Upon arriving at the studio, I met the photog. He was an agreeable man whose name I don’t remember, unfortunately, shooting a Betacam. I also met the supervisor of the extras. And I met a Philadelphia TV anchor named Jill Chernekoff.
I hadn’t watched an entire episode of Aly McBeal until I learned of my assignment. The show was getting a lot of buzz, though. And Chernekoff was obviously a huge fan. She was pumped about being part of the production.
We conducted interviews with members of the cast (including Jane Krakowski, the hilarious woman who now appears on 30 Rock, but excluding Calista Flockhart, the show’s star, who was unwilling to chat with us). Otherwise, Chernekoff mostly ignored the photographer. So he and I stuck together. He let me hang on to his wireless lavaliere mic and worked with me to produce the story to my liking.
Chernekoff and I ended up sharing the Beta tape shot by the photog. While viewing the tape afterward, I saw her say, on camera, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.” It was irresistible. I had to use it. I ended up shaping the story around our shared experience.
Crunch time time came at the end of the day, when they finally shot the bar scene.
They escorted the extras onto the set. Flockhart was there. While wearing the lav, I introduced myself and struck up an awkward conversation with her about the show’s place in pop culture.
Jill saw this and tried to ask Flockhart a question. Flockhart put her hand in front of her face and objected to the “interview,” a classic diva moment. I used it in my story.
The director told us to find a spot on the dance floor. I scanned the room, observed the cameras, and found a spot I judged to be somewhat high-profile. Jill stood opposite me.
Then she scanned the room, observed the cameras and realized she wasn’t as in-range as I was. “Switch places with me!” she pleaded.
I’m usually pretty accommodating with a pleading woman. I briefly considered the request, then coldly refused.
Sadly, Jill’s face time in the episode was pretty nonexistent (it didn’t help that she was not a very tall person). Mine was minimal, but I’m easy to spot if you’re looking for me. I wrote Jill an email afterward. She never answered, and I guess I can’t blame her.
If Aly McBeal ever made it into syndication, I never saw it. It only recently came out on DVD. I think this is the episode in which I appear. At its conclusion, there’s a point at which you can briefly see the top of Jill’s head.
I’m the 90s-era extra who clearly can’t dance.