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Me and Ellen, Though She Doesn't Remember

08/20/2013 11:32 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

The other day, the wonderful Mark Evanier told a story here on his equally wonderful blog (which Time magazine just called the #17 Best Blog on the Internet - but five years ago I called the fourth best...) about seeing Ellen Degeneres perform at a small nightclub right in 1986 before she got her big break on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

For a brief moment, I thought a fissure had opened up in the earth, and that I was going to be able to top Mark. But you can sleep well, the earth is safe. I had an encounter with Ms. Degeneres before she was particularly known, as well, but it wasn't until the next year. However it was behind-the-scenes, so at least it counts for something. And though she'd been on The Tonight Show just a few months earlier, no one had a clue who she was.

It happened while filming the movie, The Seventh Sign, in 1987. That was back in my wayward days when I was doing publicity and was the unit publicist on the film with Demi Moore in her first-starring. I like to think it was the impressive unit publicity that pushed her to the top. Though my unit publicity was never all that impressive. Her husband in the film was played by Michael Biehn, and the terrific Jurgen Prochow was the mysterious border. (Jurgen's most famous role was as the submarine captain in the German film, Das Boot. But he's probably best-known to American audiences as the rebel leader who terrorists are trying to break out of prison in Air Force One. It's a small role, but I suspect he did it as a favor for the director Wolfgang Peterson who had done Das Boot. But I digress...)

I should also note, as long as we're into digressions that the original title of the film was The Boarder. But the producers were openly talking about changing the name. So, I turned in a list of possibilities -- but all were ignored. Several years later, I was going through my notes and came upon that list. One of the titles on it was "Seventh Sign." I'm still waiting for my thank you note and check. But I digress...

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One day we were filming on the soundstage, in a laboratory where Demi Moore's character, Abby, worked. She was going to be visited by her friend, a tiny one-day role to be played some tiny unknown day-player. In this case, it was an unknown actress named Ellen Degeneres.

You must understand, in all my years of working on movies, I think I only remember the name of one "non-celebrity" day-player. And it's Ellen Degeneres. (I remember one other --- but that's because she was the wife of actor Alfred Molina. But I never can exactly remember her name. Jill something. Hold on. Okay, I just checked it out now -- Jill Gascoine. Very nice and a very good actress. Of all things, it was for the movie BASEketball, directed by David Zucker. But I digress...) I simply don't remember the names of day players. And I don't think most people on movie sets do. But I remember Ellen Degeneres. Part of that is because she had a unique name. A lot is because the next year I saw her on a summer-replacement comedy show that featured up-and-coming comics. I think was called Catch a Rising Star, or something like that. And I thought, "Hey, that's that funny day player from The Seventh Sign!" So I started paying attention to her career.

Mostly, it's because she was so funny behind-the scenes. Because she certainly wasn't funny in the movie. No one was. It was a dead-serious film. The perfect movie for Ellen Degeneres to make her movie debut, of course.

She was just a hoot, being herself, cracking everyone up around her, just chatting. It wasn't so much that she was "on" (a little bit perhaps), but mainly she was pretty low-key, nothing pushy like "Hey, I got something funny for ya. Listen to me!" Just quietly chatting and being funny, with really witty asides. A lot of comics are funny on stage, but quiet in life. I can't swear to what Ellen Degeneres is like today. But I suspect it's pretty similar to what she was then. It seemed just who she was. Anyone who watches her TV talk show and wonders, "Gee, I wonder if she's really that funny when the camera isn't on," I have to answer, yeah, she is. At the very least, she sure was then.

But even that isn't why I specifically remember her. It's because she said something that was so funny during rehearsal -- a deadly-serious script, as I said -- that I actually quoted her in the production notes I was writing for the press kit.

Okay, another "now you must understand" -- in all my years doing publicity, I never once mentioned, let alone quoted a day player in a press kit. You must understand: you just didn't do that. The only people you quoted were people the press might be remotely interested in seeing a quote from. In no way does that ever include a day player, and most especially not an unknown day player.

Alas, I still have never "officially" quoted a day player in a press kit. The scene was cut out of the movie, which is why if you've seen it, you haven't seen Ellen Degeneres. She's there on the cutting room floor. And as much as I wanted to keep the quote in (because it related to the shooting style of director Carl Schultz), I just couldn't figure out a way to quote an unknown day player who was cut from the movie.

That directorial style, by the way, is that Carl loved using smoke as a filter for the camera. Loved, loved, loved it, to the degree that mouth filters for the crew were a regular part of the wardrobe when we were on the soundstage. Smoke filling up a soundstage is great for a movie. It's just hell on the lungs, and makes you smell like cook-out by the end of the day.

In the scene, Demi Moore was working at her lab at a university. The movie was very mysterious, so that was additionally why director Schultz always had them crank up the smoke machine. And so billow upon billows of smoke once again began filling up the soundstage. He checked with the director of photography, got the okay that the clouds of smoke were settled, and then called for "Action" on the rehearsal.

Ellen Degeneres walked into the scene, came up to Demi Moore -- and then suddenly stopped short and gave an odd, unexpected looked around the room for the briefest moment. And quickly asked, "Doesn't anybody around here ever dust??!"

The entire crew broke into hysterics. (No, that line wasn't in the screenplay...) And once again, you must understand, crews almost never laugh. They've seen it all, heard it all, they're not always even paying close attention to the acting because they have a job to do, and also they know they'll see the scene repeated endlessly. But not only was the line so funny on its own, but it was an emotional release to an entire crew that had been living through weeks of billowing smoke. And so, they all burst into laughter.

That's why I quoted her. Because it was the perfect way to describe Carl Schultz's directing style and use of smoke. And that's why I most remember her. And then I saw her later on the summer TV show. And thought of her again when I realized many months later that I'd have to cut her out of the press kit.

I had no idea who Ellen Degeneres was. I just knew that she was very funny behind-the-scenes and had one hilarious ad-lib on camera.

By the way, years later our paths crossed again, though she doesn't know that either. It came about when I had a couple of dates with a nice, young actress who the next year would play Ellen's love interest when Ellen famously came out during her TV sitcom, Ellen. So, oddly, we were competing for the same young woman. Mine lasted two dates (one interrupted). Ellen's lasted eight episodes. Then cancelled.

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Robert J. Elisberg's new novel The Wild Roses, a comic adventure in the spirit of The Three Musketeers but with three women, just reached #70 on Amazon's Kindle Bestseller List for women's fiction. His other writing can be found at Elisberg Industries.

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