Hundreds of 'tough guys' seek roles in prison miniseries
By KRIS B. MAMULA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Oct. 16, 2017
PITTSBURGH (AP) — They began lining up outside the loading dock an hour before the metal door clattered open, a bricklayer, retired boilermaker with beefy arms, a sideshow of tough guys who said friends had told them they had "the look."
Hundreds of movie extra hopefuls, many wearing ribbed tank tops and sporting that menacing, don't-mess-with-me glare, turned out on a recent Saturday morning for an open casting call for extras at the now-closed State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh in Woods Run. If chosen, they will have small parts in the Showtime miniseries, "Escape at Dannemora," which is based on a real-life prison escape in 2015.
"I have that look, yeah," said Nick Banes, a 50-year-old bricklayer from Woods Run, while waiting for his turn outside the loading dock to show his stuff. "I hear that a lot, all of my friends."
Bruce Curry("just like the spice, only twice as nice"), a 48-year-old home health aide who waited in line with Banes, was told by a patient that he, too, "had the look." ''Maybe I'll get lucky," Curry said about his chances for a movie part.
Retired prison guard John Kranak, 70, of Aliquippa figured he's a natural. On the job, he carried a "cut-down tool" to free inmates who had committed suicide by hanging and was assigned to the prison's restricted housing units for many years, a job that he said required periodic psychiatric evaluations and wasn't for everybody.
"You have to be fair and firm," said Kranak, a short, compact man who said he was stabbed once and assaulted six or seven times during an 18-year career in corrections. "I don't reward bad behavior."
But perhaps best qualified for a bit part in the movie was 47-year-old Allen Johnson, who said he spent 25 years behind bars, including 15 years at SCI Graterford, Pennsylvania's biggest maximum security prison. His criminal career started with an armed robbery at age 11.
"This was my life for many years," said Johnson, former inmate AS1746 and now a motivational speaker and music and video promoter. "Every position — I know them all. I can be the warden if you want me to be."
And "the look?"
"Menacing," he added, "that's what I do."
The Showtime miniseries, which is directed by Ben Stiller and stars Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano and Bonnie Hunt, starts filming in two weeks. Even some folks with previous acting experience showed up for a tryout, including 58-year-old Bernie Duffy of Mount Washington, a 6-foot-1, 267-pound retired boilermaker, who said his wife, Lisa, urged him to participate.
"I look at it this way: I'm not cutting grass. I have no honey-do list," he said about his reasons for attending the casting call. "Happy wife, happy life."
Still, Duffy said he had small parts in the thriller "Silence of the Lambs" and the made for television drama "Bump in the Night," both released in 1991.
The line snaking into a dim, cavernous room just inside the former prison moved quickly as young women from Nancy Mosser Casting sat at a long table, stared into laptops and went over application information with each would-be movie extra. Mr. Johnson's personal stats: height, 6 feet, 3 inches tall; weight, 255 pounds; waist, 44 inches; neck size, 18 inches.
"I have your shirt size as XXL," a young woman with a studied look and wearing glasses said to Johnson, without looking up.
"No: it's XXXL," he said.
"Can I get your picture now, sweetie," another young woman called to him.
Johnson stood at attention, holding a placard with his name written on it, like a mug shot. Then came "the look." A few clicks and the whole thing was over.
Johnson, a Chester, Pa., native and the son of a school janitor, said money was only a secondary reason for the robberies he committed. What mattered most to him was the prospect of outsmarting someone else, the game, the chase.
Before his final release from prison, a cellmate threatened Johnson with his life if he ever saw him incarcerated again. "I didn't think he was lying," Johnson said. "It's time to be a citizen."
He went home from prison in 2010 after a 15-year stretch for bank robbery, which ended with a few days at SCI Pittsburgh before he was transferred to a halfway house. Now, with his own story about escaping a life of crime, he hopes to return to prison as an extra in a jailbreak movie.
"So, I guess they'll call me," Johnson said, walking toward the exit door, which was filled with the sunlight of a warm fall day and a crowd of tough guys waiting to get in.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com