M Casey hero050

I was born in the Lone Star state, a third generation Texan. My dad once told me “never ask a man where he is from—if he is from Texas, he will tell you, if not, there is no need to embarrass him by asking.”

As a kid, every summer I lived with my aunt and uncle in Abilene, Texas. My uncle built a Western Town where I worked as a gunfighter—it was my first introduction to show business. We fell off rooftops, reloaded our own blanks, fell off horses—didn’t know anything about stuntmen’s tricks, we just fell. I also tended bar in our upstairs club. I was making $50 a week plus room and board. My uncle said when I left town the bar finally started making money.

Back in California, I joined the Marine Corp . When I got out, my brother, a commercial producer at Leo Burnett, got me in the Screen Extras Guild. I worked on Hogans Heroes, Ben Casey, Gomer Pyle, and Planet of the Apes

I always loved photography. In high school I was the yearbook photographer and built a darkroom when I was sixteen. So I put a Leica camera in my pocket and snuck it onto the set. I took pictures of the extras and would print them that night, and the next day sell them. An IA still photographer caught me and threatened to throw me off the set but he thought my pictures were good and he let me go with a warning. So ended my first movie still shoot.

I didn’t like working as an extra that much, because you sat around and waited for hours and then worked for five minutes and then sat around for another couple or hours. I would stand behind the camera, trying to figure out what all those people were doing. I thought I wanted to be a camera man.

I started working for Encyclopedia Britannia Films doing educational and training films. The crew was the cameraman/director and me—the assistant cameraman, location scout, grip and gaffer. Cameraman Roger Smith got me a job at Televideo Productions. They had offices in Paris, London, Toronto, and LA. We did some big commercials. One was a million dollar plus commercial for Jax Beer that came from Dallas. The Producer was Donald Belasario who later went on to create JAG & the NCIS TV franchise. Back then it took up to 48 hours for black and white prints and longer for color. So you scouted with a pro 180 Polaroid that had f stops and shutter speeds with an electronic flash. The other way was to shoot 5247 ECN in your 35mm SLR and take it to a lab. They would process the negative, get a best light print, then cut and mount them into slides. That way you could show slides of the locations in one day.

By this time I was mostly location scouting and I think my salary went up from $25 to $100 a day. We did a commercial for Armour Texas Chili, and the scene was a cowboy chased by a posse—he gallops by a chuck wagon, grabs a bowl of chili and eats it on the run. They cast one of the Barrymores as the bad guy and he couldn’t ride. Someone said “Casey is from Texas. Put him in wardrobe for the long shots; we’ll sit Barrymore on the back of Casey’s convertible with the cameraman in the front seat and we’ll see the posse behind him chasing the car.” Just because I was from Texas they all assumed I could ride and luckily I could, so we shot it. It worked and I got paid $364 each spot, and I didn’t even have to fall off the horse. That was more money than I had ever made in my life!

We did a commercial for Sun Maid Raisins with a Halloween theme and Kathryn Crosby, Bing’s wife (Bing owned Sun Maid Raisins). It was a beautiful kitchen set on stage with lit pumpkins. I took stills of the shoot, and couple of days later I was showing the pictures to Frank Leonetti, the lighting director who worked with us quite a lot. I said, “Look what a good photographer I am.” He replied, “Yeah, kiddo, look who lit the set, Don Carsenson, he won an Academy Award for lighting. All you did was snap the shutter. Anyone can push a button, you have to learn how to paint with light.” It was a lesson I never forgot. Frank Leonetti and others over the years were kind enough to teach me how to light.

M Casey3The first TV movie I remember working on was Flatbed Annie and Sweetiepie: Lady Truckers, for producer Cyrus Yavneh. It starred Annie Potts and Kim Darby. I was the location assistant and John Lytle was the Location Manager. I had been doing commercials for $100 a day, so I agreed to work for $400 a week. John Lytle was making $250 a week, and he asked me why I was getting more than him. I replied that I wouldn’t work for less.

I did several shows for Cyrus, he was great to work for. One was The Cartier Affair starring Joan Collins and David Hasselhoff before his lifeguard show Baywatch. I was scouting the desert, trying to find a house with a nothing but a runway and a hill where they could spy on the bad guys. I was going down dirt roads in my ’82 Cadillac. Every once in a while I would hit a dry creek bed and floor it sliding through to the other side. It was getting near dark when I saw another creek bed. So I floored it and ended up buried to the frame. I saw a light in the distance and walked to an old house to use their phone, the man said, “Sonny the nearest phone is about seven miles from here.” He and his sons got some timbers and dug and planked my car out of the river bed. I told them why I was out there and the next day he showed me a house with the runway and a hill behind it.

We shot there, and after that incident I decided I needed a car phone which was a luxury at the time. I called around and found a used Harris 50 watt car phone for $1500. It was a phone like in your house with push buttons to dial a number. We were shooting in Bel Air and parked Hasselhoff and Collin’s trailers side by side. Joan Collins got out of her motor home and saw David’s was longer. She refused to work until they got her a motor home longer than his. She also found out he had a phone and again refused to work until she got a phone. Cyrus asked me if I knew where he could get a phone. I answered “right there in that Cadillac.” So I got my phone paid for on that show.

The first TV series I did was 240 Robert in 1979, starring a young Mark Harmon. It was about the LA Sheriff’s rescue teams. It was based in Malibu, where the permanent set was. We were out shooting seven out of seven days. It was rough even though one or two days was at the main set. I hired Steve Dawson as my assistant and we became good friends. He came over to Cagney& Lacy with me later on and he then moved up. We alternated shows for four years. He went on to do Terminator and Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis.

I worked on three Joe Dancer TV movies starring Robert Blake. One scene involved blowing up a boat on Lake Piru. The FX man got an old wooden Chris Craft boat that had been sitting out of the water for years. At the lake, the FX guy sprayed foam all over the inside and the bottom of the boat, rigged it full of explosives and put it in the water. I got a call about 1am that the boat was sinking. I called the UPM with the news. I then called for a crane to go lift the boat out of the water. At 3am I got a call that the crane had sunk. It had driven off the boat ramp in the dark and sunk in the mud. I found a 300 ton crane in Oxnard that came down and lifted the crane out of the mud and the boat out of the water. The next morning we rigged floats on the sides of the boat and blew it up. It cost about $10,000 for the cranes.

In 1981, Robert Blake called me to work on the TV movie Of Mice and Men. He said he liked my work on his Jo Dancer movies. He sent me to take pictures of Steinbeck country, but it was too crowded. I suggested we shoot it in Texas where there were fewer people, and the winter wheat would be ready. So we went to Dallas, I started scouting and drove in every widening circles for about 4000 miles. I found an old farm house on a hill with wheat growing to the river, and not a phone pole for miles. We built a bunk house, a wash area, put up a windmill, brought two 5-tons full of set dressing we rented from my uncle at old Abilene Town. Then I called my uncle Stuart Dixon in Matador, Texas. And he told me how to cut the wheat with a binder, make shooks and build hay wagons, and we got a working thresher and an old steam tractor and actually threshed the wheat. That show was fun to work on and went back to my family’s roots as farmers.

That year I also got on Cagney and Lacey for its first season and stayed there four years. Our production office is what is now Lacy Street Stages. It was in a brick warehouse downtown where we could use the front of the building exterior as the police station and the downstairs offices as the interior and in the warehouse part we build sets.

I got Richard Klotz in as my assistant and Steve Dawson had come aboard as the alternating manager. We shot all over town and never gridlocked the city or got shut down. Ralph Singleton was the UPM and after four years he walked into my office and said, “Casey, you have become a hack. You read the script and know what locations will work, so you scout for a day and find nothing, then you take them places you know they will buy. It isn’t a challenge for you anymore. You either need to get your enthusiasm back or get out of the business.” That was great advice and very true.
About that time Robert Blake called and wanted me to associate produce the pilot and series of a show called Hell Town. I knew I didn’t know much about what happened in post production, and it was a challenge, so I took Ralph’s advice and gave him notice. We did the pilot where I handled most of the locations, and then came the series. We had Academy Award winning editors and the Post Production Supervisor was Richard Belding. Richard was the editor on “Leave it to Beaver” and ran Universal Studios post production for about twenty years. He said, “I like you, I’m going to teach you everything I know about editing,” and he did. He said “A good editor can save a show and a bad editor can ruin it.” Helltown lasted 16 episodes. Our main location was an old church in East LA. It was an orphanage in the script, so I got all the kids on the block work permits and put them in the show. I started Jim Morris on that show as security, guarding cars and then he moved up and became a location assistant on my next show. Of course Jim went on to do bigger shows than I did, True Lies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Twister, before he retired from location managing and started JCL Barricade and Traffic Services.

The next show I brought to Texas as a location manager was the TV movie Pancho Barnes. Pancho was a famous woman pilot who did air races and later taught flying. We used a plane museum in Denton, Texas with hangars and a grass strip. Charlie Hillard, 3 time world aerobatic champion, was our chief pilot. I got to loop and roll in a biplane, fly in a glider, and drop flour bombs out of a B 25. In one scene Pancho was captured by banditos and we were shooting on a deserted beach near Lake Jackson, Texas. The only problem was the local oil companies were flying crews to some offshore oil rigs and they were in our shot. The director came to me and said “Its supposed to be in the 1920s. Stop the them”. I said, ”I’ll see what I can do”. I knew on a $6 million dollar budget I wasn’t going to be able to stop the oil crews or divert them. So I drove to town went into a bar, ate my lunch and asked the bartender “when do they stop flying crews to the rigs?” He said “about 3pm.” So I slowly drove back to set and walked up to the Director at 3pm and said “I got them stopped.” He was very happy.

img011In 1994, I did a feature called “Blue Sky” starring Tommy Lee Jones, and Jessica Lang, directed by Tony Richardson. I had two weeks to find a 1960 Army Base in the south. I took the production designer, booked flights and hit five states in six days. We went to Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. We would get up, meet the film commission, look, and catch a plane. We found the base in Selma, Alabama. The city owned it as an industrial complex, and the film commission said “Go and meet Mayor Joe Smitherman.” He had been Mayor here for twenty five years. “If he likes you, you can film here, if he doesn’t, get out of the state.” So we met, made a deal and Tony Richardson flew down and we started prepping.

We also needed a base set in Hawaii so the nearest place to double that was Florida. I found that Captiva Island would work. We also need an island with smoking palm trees and burned foliage to look like a nuclear test site. When Tony Richardson flew down and scouted by helicopter he saw an island past Captiva and said “I want to shoot there.” The UPM was having severe budget pains but Tony got his wish. I rented crew boats, barges, chase boats and ATV’s for the island. We had to bring in palm trees to set on fire because the state park did not want their trees burned. Tony wanted a clean frame line on the ocean horizon—no boats in the picture. Of course this was the way that all the local fishing and sport fishing boats went. So I bought fifty 5 gallon red plastic gas containers and put drag anchors on them. I donated money for the Coast Guard and had two Coast Guard Vessels stopping traffic that day and not letting them go past the floating cones. That was the first and last island I ever coned off!

Another feature I did was “Leap of Faith” starring Steve Martin, Liam Neeson and Debra Winger. I replaced another location manager who was hospitalized from food poisoning. One key location had not been found. We were shooting in Groom, Texas the driest part of the country and the scene was supposed to be about a drought. Of course, it started to rain. And rain. We had to paint lawns brown, we had a septic tank truck sucking out water from the ditches and vacant lots and put Fullers Earth on the streets so they would kick up dust in the driving shots. I rented a plane and found the house they were looking for in Tulia, Texas. We hired agronomists from Texas A & M to distress the crops and make the land look like a drought. I was out on the ground showing the crop duster what field to spray. He was using paraquat, a defoliant which used to be sprayed on cotton so the leaves would fall off making it easier to pick the cotton blooms off the plant. It is now outlawed. I got sprayed with some of it and had to throw away my clothes. If you absorb too much of it there is no antidote. My kin picked Texas cotton. Grandpa Casey and other relatives got Parkinson’s disease. Parkinsons got me about three years later. It is thought to be a genetic weakness with an herbicide or pesticide acting as an environmental trigger.
The last big film I did was Courage Under Fire in El Paso starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. I blew out two disks loading propane tanks to take to the crew at night. It was near Christmas and 10 degrees outside. I hobbled around for three days leaning on my car door doing my job until the paramedic had two teamsters grab me and take me to ER, so I got a back brace, crutches, pills and didn’t miss a day of work. We were filming copter landings at Red Sands which was doubling as the Iraq desert. The UPM called and said, “There is snow around the wrecked helicopter site and we shoot it tomorrow. Get rid of the snow. I don’t care what it costs.” So I called the owner of Indian Cliffs Ranch and asked him for all the men he could get. Then I called a propane place for twenty tanks and all their weed burners and asphalt torches. Then I called the local volunteer fire department and asked them to send me an engine and a 5000 gallon tanker. We melted the snow at the site with the burners and threw dirt on the snow away from the site. The fire department ran their hose though a high pressure pump and back into the tanker and it heated the water and they washed the snow off the cliffs in the background. By dark we were finished, I called the UPM and said “the snow is gone, you can shoot there tomorrow.” He said “How much did it cost”? I replied “You said you didn’t care how much it cost.” I guessed about $6000 to 8000 total, pointing out it was better than not shooting at a rate of $40,000 an hour.

My uncle W.N. Casey helped raise me and taught me two things, if a job is worth doing, do the best you can, and never ask someone to do anything you are not willing to do yourself. I became a Location Manager because I loved shooting pictures.  When I got in the motion picture business I wanted to be a cameraman. But being a PA and working my way up, I kept going to location scouting and some camera work.  By the time I got a break to get in the camera union, I would have had to work 90 days at $25 a day. I was already making a $100 a day in locations and had a wife and a two year old daughter. So I kept doing locations and was good at it. One has to know about history and architecture in order to get a look to fit the script. I have ADD and get bored but doing locations every day is different and a challenge.  One has to be a bit paranoid and think what could go wrong and think how to fix it before it does.  When I was a kid my aunt called me “what if.” “What if this or that?” Later it became “what if it rains,” “what if the actor is ill,” “what we will have to reshoot?”  You have to think on your feet: how do you melt the snow? how do you scout Texas, or rent a plane? I have had to build roads, shoot on trains, find airplanes, etc. It kept me challenged.  Although I moved up to associate producer and producer, I did not stay there. I was best as a location manager in the field. Since retiring, I have finished raising my son and helped two other boys through school.

Now as I get older, my Parkinson’s is getting worse. I have a blood cancer, have had three heart attacks, arthritis and stenosis but I’m still standing. I now have three grandkids. I fish, hunt, still love horse riding, do photography and play my trumpet. As a former Marine I play taps for free to any Vets, Police, Fire, or function. And I still wake up at five am and wonder if someone opened the gate to let the trucks in. Just remember always carry a set of bolt cutters in the trunk and a slim jim.