What is Props' job?
"Well", says Prop Master PETER BANKINS, among whose movies is Monster's Ball, shot in part in Louisiana State Prison, "we're responsible for everything the actors handle. Newspapers, watches and jewelry, maps, sports equipment, police equipment, cell phones, computers, weapons, paintings the actors may pretend to work on - all of it."
How did you get started?
"I was about twenty-five years old. I'd worked as an extra on a couple of films - Blackula, Coogan's Bluff - and then as a production assistant on television commercials - but I began to pay attention to a friend who did props. And I thought 'I can do that!'
Another friend, Michael Milgrom, was a Property Master doing television commercials in Hollywood. He helped me get a job as a go-fer production assistant. After a few months as a jack-of-all-trades, I began working as a property assistant, on Pepsi, McDonalds and Dubonnet Wine commercials.
In those days, there was a union called Nabet - National Association of Film Broadcasters and Technicians - and in it, unlike today's IATSE, it was easy to move up in grade quickly. Today, you have to have worked ten thousand hours as an assistant before you qualify to take the requisite entry test. Back then you just took the test. So I passed the test, and the union set me up on my first job as full-fledged Property Master on a Johnson's Wax commercial. Other jobs followed, and I gradually built up a reputation.
I met others, including Ed Markley, also a friend of Michael Milgrom - and we three had in common all being immigrant boys from Eastern Europe. Ed was the Unit Manager on my first two jobs, and he recommended me to Irby Smith, the producer on my first movie of any note, Young Guns. That film, and subsequent ones with Smith, such as Major League, Young Guns Two, Rookie of The Year, helped propel my career."
Have you traveled a lot?
"You name it. Lisbon, Montreal, Genoa, Egypt - all along the Nile, Luxor and Carnhac - Panama, Acapulco, Amsterdam, Africa, the French Riviera --."
What actors have you particularly enjoyed?
"So many. Jack Lemon, George C. Scott, Will Ferrell, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Nicole Kidman, Gene Hackman --. And Barbara Streisand, Julia Roberts, Annette Bening, Hallie Berry, Emilio Estevez --. All the women were really sweet. And I especially enjoyed working with David Mamet, the writer-director. I worked on three of his films, Heist, Spartan with Val Kilmer, and Red Belt."
What in particular did you enjoy about about Mamet?
"The great thing about working with David is that he's a very upbeat guy. He's very appreciative of everyone's efforts and even when he makes changes, he does it with good grace. I can't tell you how many times he's come up to me and said 'Peter, I've got a DFI for you' - DFI stands for Different Fucking Idea. Somehow, working with David, you feel your job is very meaningful."
Can you give us a Mamet story?
"Well, on Spartan there was a gun fight scheduled first thing in the morning. I arrived at work to discover that on the location move the night before, a heavy cart had knocked the combination lock off the gun safe, and I couldn't open it. I told David what had happened, and called a locksmith - but repairing the damage was going to take about three hours. David suggested we try borrowing guns from a neighbor - but no luck. So David had to rehearse the actors without guns till the locksmith finally rescued the situation. Many other directors would have publicly flayed me for the delay - but he never said a word to anyone, and most of the crew had no idea that anything at all had gone wrong."
What other stories do you have?
"I have so many moments in my head. On Nine Months, Chris Columbus chose me to do a scene with Julianne Moore and Hugh Grant - I played a truck driver for two days. It was fun and I still get residual checks!"
Then on the last year of Mash, Bankins shakes his head, "a huge fire broke out at Malibu Ranch, where we were shooting. The assistant directors insisted we finish our schedule that day anyway. The crew thought 'Oh, no!' We evacuated - and a good thing we did. Because when we returned, everything was gone. The sets had burned to the ground, even the metal in the electric cables had melted into the soil.
And I remember on Young Guns, sometimes we'd go out to a bar after wrap with Charlie Sheen - that guy was absolutely a babe magnet! Girls always started flirting with him, and then their dates would get mad."
Grumpier Old Men, Bankins recalls, "is full of memories. Walter Mathau never laughed if you told him a joke, but five minutes later, he'd be telling it to someone else, and breaking up. Jack Lemmon was such a sweet human being. He made so little of himself - between takes he'd just sit quietly off in a corner and play with his dog. And Sophia Loren - oh, my! Every morning she'd come and kiss me on each cheek and say 'Hello, Peter'. And I'd dreamed of that woman all through my adolescence!"
What do you enjoy most about the work?
"The job is always new. There are always new problems, things you haven't done before, and you have to invent new solutions. On foreign locations, for instance, you always have to go out and find stuff - and so you get to see unlikely little places and connect with people you wouldn't have met otherwise. It's serious and exciting at the same time!"
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