The summer of 1983, a big budget television film crew landed in Lawrence, Kansas. The Day After told the story of a Midwest community and the aftermath of a nuclear strike.
I was living in Lawrence and had been for the previous 20 years. When a film production comes to town, it’s a big deal. The film producer hired a local casting group to round up extras for many of the scenes. I had some time on my hands, so I signed up for a number of days. On one of those days, Tommy and I got made up as nuclear fallout survivors as some of the scenes that day took place over near the hospital. We showed up dressed in flannel and overalls, playing up the perception of the Midwest, as we followed instructions for what these scenes would consist of that day.
The makeup professionals applied a variety of shades of paints and shadings to our faces, hands and forearms. We were supposed to look like we have radiation burns and blisters.
Even though it was prohibited, we took cameras along with us that day. This was going to be a memorable day, so why not get some proof of it.
The Day After was produced by ABC Circle Films, a subsidiary of ABC Television. Written by Edward Hume, a writer of television police dramas like The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones and Cannon, all Quinn Martin productions. The film was directed by Nicholas Meyer, known for his involvement with several Star Trek films and the cult favorite, Time After Time. His direction of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is rated by many fans as the best of the Star Trek films. Meyer was a screenwriter, so he understood visual storytelling, which The Day After was.
What I remember about that day was that it was long. It takes a lot of time to send actors and extras through makeup and wardrobe. Camera setup and lighting are laborious tasks, but it is interesting how they build the tracks so the camera can dolly or roll along as the actors walk. We were on the periphery of movie magic.
At the hospital, actor Jason Robards played a doctor who must deal with the aftermath of the nuclear strike. Robards had a long stage and film career, playing gangsters, outlaws, a president, newspaper editors and many other commanding figures, with that deep, gravelly voice. Robards stayed away from the extras, he had his own trailer, we didn’t. The best we could do were some photos from afar.
Steve Guttenberg (Three Men and a Baby, Police Academy) had a featured role as a university student who becomes a key figure after the event. There is one scene I recall that took place down by the Kaw River, at the north entrance to the downtown. Guttenberg walks through a camp of survivors (photo below), he bares no signs of sickness or injury.
After the day’s shooting, Tommy and I headed out for night on the town, still in our wardrobe and makeup. That is one way to meet girls.
One other scene I was in featured anxious shoppers at the local grocery store hoarding food ahead of the event. Rusty’s IGA was used as the location. A bunch of us were given bags of products or grocery carts and on cue, we pushed our way out of the store into the parking lot, exemplifying how people were panic buying. It was almost as hairy as buying toilet paper during the pandemic. I can spot myself in a longshot as we exited the store. I made friends with a woman pushing a cart, who turned out to be a writer for the Topeka Capital-Journal; she was doing a feature from the perspective of an extra. She mentioned me in the article, not by name, but described me.
Watching the finished film was obviously different from other films because of the personal connection. I watched with my folks and proudly pointed out every scene I was in, a few nanosecond of screen time. Other friends appears in different crowd scenes, like in Allen Fieldhouse, which was a makeshift hospital.
After 37 years, my memory is a bit hazy in places, I am sure a few exciting memories have been forgotten. I think I have only seen the film once since it premiered. It is certainly not a film you watch for a good feeling. Perhaps I will see it again, just to relive old times.