Get a Grip!

Star-struck Hollywood hopefuls fight to make the scene in Phoenix's filmland fringe.

"I just wanted to give this a try," Brown explains. "This was the closest that I'd gotten to establishing a base with this kind of work. No, I don't want to make a lifelong commitment to being in the background. I want to have lines, and a featured role. But I thought I was getting closer."

One potential asset for Brown in seeking extra work is his striking appearance. He's a short, stocky, light-skinned African American with a shaved head and a thick, salt-and-pepper goatee. Put a golf cap on him and he'd bear a strong resemblance to Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker.

But the superficiality of the movie-casting process has made him paranoid about every aspect of his looks. He crash diets incessantly, though with little result so far. Three years ago, he went to a cattle call for the Kevin Costner dud The Postman, but was told that he was too dark for the part. He says he was depressed for at least two weeks.

Actor/stunt man Shay Calinawan, right, takes a break with Three Kings supporting player Fadil Al-Badra.
Actor/stunt man Shay Calinawan, right, takes a break with Three Kings supporting player Fadil Al-Badra.
A still from the set of The Postman, Kevin's Costner's postapocalyptic Western dud.
A still from the set of The Postman, Kevin's Costner's postapocalyptic Western dud.

These days, he grudgingly finds some humor in the rejection. "Lots of people would kill for this nice Saint-Tropez tan," he says with a grin.

Last year, he thought he'd scored a speaking part in Mike Nichols' extraterrestrial comedy What Planet Are You From?. This was the break he'd been waiting for. Three weeks later, he was told that they'd changed their minds. They'd decided he was too short for the part.

Brown was born and raised in Champaign, Illinois. In the mid-'80s, he moved to Los Angeles and briefly worked for the Department of Defense. He met some people who did defense-contract work for McDonnell Douglas, and they promised to help him get a job in Phoenix. So he rode into the Valley on his Kawasaki Ninja 600 sport motorcycle.

In March 1987, he took a higher-paying job with Motorola. He says he was fairly contented there for nine and a half years. But in 1996, the movie virus hit him.

"I came across information about Jerry Maguire being filmed at Sun Devil Stadium," he says. "I went to a cattle call in the grand ballroom at the Embassy Suites. There were hundreds of people there. I'd never seen so many people with their best attire on. There were people with their pets -- anything to get attention."

Brown wore an earth-toned sweater his parents had given him for Christmas, because he considered it the most hideous thing in his closet, and all the more likely to get attention.

Two days after the cattle call, he was in a dentist's chair getting a root canal when he got a call telling him he'd been hired.

He played a TV network sound technician, on the field during Cuba Gooding Jr.'s football action scenes. "My arms would get tired from take after take of holding this long pole with the microphone on it, and I kept banging the cheerleaders on the head with this pole.

"I was within elbow's length of Tom Cruise. I'd been watching him getting psyched up and rehearsed. He spent a lot of time in his trailer. When he came out, he was completely focused and very intense. I was sizing him up and down, trying to get a feel: Here's this $20 million man. What makes him a $20 million man?"

Brown didn't get an answer to his question, and he also didn't get much screen time in Jerry Maguire. He concedes that he's so far in the background that he tends to blur into the scenery.

Things only got more frustrating with his next film assignment, playing a waiter in The Ride, a Michael Biehn vehicle that was shot at the Arizona Boys Ranch. His contribution ended up on the cutting-room floor.

"I was really bummed about that one," he says.

Even his extended gig on Three Kings had its share of disappointments. Sure, he got to wear green military fatigues and, yes, he drove a Jaguar through the desert in one scene. And for the first time, he made it into several shots of a film. But he could have had more. He thought he had every extra's dream: a close-up.

"During a scene at the prison, there was a real nice close-up of me sitting on the steps with George Clooney and Ice Cube," he says. "People standing behind the monitor said, 'Wow, you've got a great close-up, if you make it past the editing floor.' But I didn't make it."

In his fedora hats and rolled-up pachuco black jeans, with his wisp of a sandy-brown goatee, Ralph Brekan gives off the aura of a self-conscious, apprentice bohemian. Yet he's happily domesticated -- with a wife, two kids (with a third on the way), and a comfortable east Tempe home whose backyard is a stone's throw from the Superstition Freeway.

He can be breathtakingly pretentious -- referring to himself in his bio as "one of the leading renaissance forces at the turn of this century" -- but he's not proud. If the lowliest imaginable grunt work puts him in proximity to creative people, he'll respond zealously. His old SCC classmate, L.A.-based filmmaker Karl Hirsch, affectionately remembers him as "a nut, who was very excitable and very ambitious. He wanted to be the next David Lynch."

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