By Elena Fechheimer-Broslovsky
In the early 1970s, members of Synanon were extras in three Hollywood films. The first, THX1138, was a dystopian futuristic story written by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It was Lucas’s full-length directorial debut. We were hired because appearing with a bald head created an image problem for many professional actors and extras. Most of us had no problem with it. We cut it off; it grew back. At that time, if a man in Synanon broke a cardinal rule (for example, stealing or using drugs) as a sign of contrition he was given the choice of shaving his head or leaving. If a woman broke a cardinal rule, she wore a stocking cap made from a woman’s sheer stocking.
We had a large Synanon population in Marin County where much of the movie was shot. To get time off work and hang out on a movie set was an enticement for many to be extras, including me. Bernie Kolb was the expeditor on this project, organizing the people and the transportation.
When I volunteered, Bernie told me, “We don’t let our women shave their heads.”
This was the second time I volunteered to shave my head and was refused. The first was at the Synanon Street Fair in San Francisco in 1968. They were offering “free haircuts” at the “Bald Head Barbershop.”
The shaved heads were to support a Synanon protest for two residents on parole who had been pulled out of Synanon by the state for refusing to take a drug test. By living in Synanon, a community based on truth and honesty they were drug-free. Portie Walker and Richie Marks went back to jail to prove this point.
It seemed like a good cause — I wanted to get involved and thought it would be fun. At the time my hair was down to my waist. I knew that hair grew back.
“Men only,” I was told curtly by one of the volunteer barbers who waved me away with barely disguised contempt. Apparently, the sign that read “welcome to the family of man!” was to be taken literally. *
The Synanon males who were selected for THX1138 walked around as bald, docile zombies. Hugh Kenny, who was one of them, stated that it wasn’t much of a stretch.
The second movie, California Split, a Robert Altman film, was shot at locations around Los Angeles in 1974. No bald heads required. Jack Cashin, a very sweet and shy Synanon Game player, worked on the film as a sound engineer. Jack knew that Altman worked in a particular way, with background sounds and action given weight to create his signature realistic ambience and a preference for using “real people” over professional extras.
Those of us privileged to be part of this film participated in the experimental use of radio mics (as opposed to overhead booms on set). We observed the meticulous care and attention to detail that Altman exercised. Not only did the main characters and those with speaking parts have these tiny mics but many of us in the background did as well. One scene at a bar in a fancy LA restaurant was less than two minutes in the final film, but it literally took all day to film, perhaps 10 hours. As extras, we were placed throughout the restaurant and given scenarios to act out. Once again, I found myself with Bernie Kolb who was instructed to act as if he were a movie director taking his blonde starlet, Edna Stewart, to the restaurant to sell his film project to a producer. I played the producer and was told to be skeptical about the project. Bernie waved his arms expansively to convince me. Edna mostly batted her pretty long lashes and smiled.
Others seated in the restaurant were given different scenarios and also had mics. We were instructed not to look up or react when stars Elliott Gould and George Segal entered the restaurant, sat at the bar, talked for a couple of minutes, and left. This entrance and exit were shot over and over. It is a minuscule part of the story. We could order anything we wanted to eat. I had a beautiful salad with edible flowers, Bernie had a steak, and I think Edna had dessert. The waitstaff had to keep track of each order because our plates were replaced after each take even though we were blurs in the background of a split-second scene. The restaurant bill must have been staggering because our plates were replaced probably a dozen times so that nothing looked different from take to take, regardless of whether anything had been consumed. When I watched the film I could see the burbling energy in the restaurant background as well as all his background shots.
The fact that I was eight months pregnant and huge in that scene could not be seen because I was sitting down. The other scene I appeared in was on the bus to the racetrack. We filmed both outside standing around and on the bus. Synanon members played all the background people in the movie and were appreciated because we were “absolutely unflustered by the camera.” The writer scripted for the main action in the foreground but also for the background, so we always had something to do and were involved. Altman liked that we were “real people with real stories to tell” who could improvise.
He featured some of our charismatic characters, sometimes known in Synanon as “faces.” Freddie Wells and Andy Mason had lines in a crowd scene at a basketball game. Freddie raised his fist in the air and made such a ruckus on camera that he was given a Screen Actors Guild card. None of us were paid, but Altman made a $10,000 tax-deductible donation to Synanon.
The third and final film, Death Race 2000, also a sci-fi dystopian futuristic tale. Here race drivers got points for killing people—especially old people and babies. It was produced in 1975 by Roger Corman starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. “In the year 2000, hit and run driving is no longer a felony—it’s the national sport!” is one of the tag lines for this extravaganza of mayhem. Alan Hubbard played roadkill. It is inconceivable to me that Alan was not discovered by Hollywood then and there. He was filmed from below casually combing his long hair in the middle of the raceway with two older guys, probably professional stuntmen, as the killer cars approach. They appeared to be playing “chicken” with the lethal drivers. Alan and one of the men jumped down a manhole just before the car came.
“Chicken game,” sneered the navigator, “chicken in a basket.”
The female driver quipped, “Chicken in a casket,” before she hit the one man left outside the manhole, who was thrown into the air with a somersault and fell dead on the pavement. Alan stuck his head out of the manhole after they passed, relieved and unaware that a car driven by Sylvester Stallone was bearing down from the other side. His decapitated body (a very fake-looking stuffed dummy wearing his jeans) was thrown onto the road after the killer car drove over the manhole from the other direction.
In both of the two dystopian movies, we got end credits and a “Thank you to Synanon Foundation,” which still appear to this day in IMDb.
*In 1968 there was a landmark case as to whether Parole Officers could enter Synanon to drug test Parolees. Synanon took the stand that our organization was built on trust and that members were drug-free to be part of the Community.
Synanon men shaved their heads on behalf of Portie Walker and Richie Marks were pulled out and sent back to jail. There was an article in Newsweek. Portie eventually returned to Synanon.