HOLLYWOOD—There’s one question David Combs has had to endure countless times in 38 years on countless movie sets, “What role are you playing?” With his jaunty rattan snap-brim that that would be at equally home at Santa Anita or on in
Paris, Combs cheerfully replies, “I’m a studio teacher.” Because of his unprepossessing actorish poise, at first blush it doesn’t compute, that David Combs is not an actor but one of the lesser fabled, though no less vital, members of the movie production team: the on-set teacher who looks after the well-being and mental calisthenics of the pint-sized people who proverbially steal the show.
Even though Combs is not an actor, the life of a studio teacher is not without drama. "Once we were on the set of a movie that shall remain nameless,” he recounts, “ and a famous child star, who shall remain nameless, was asked to remove his clothes to remain in underwear for a shot. His mother said no. 'My son is embarrassed, and I don't want him to do it.' The minute she hurried to the trailer to get her phone and call their agent, the producer immediately went to get the shot. I ran and stood right in front of the camera. The producer said, 'For you edification, Mr. Combs, this is art.' I replied, 'If this is art, you are a panderer.'"
Besides proving that articulate lingo, surgically applied, beats a crude curse any day, Combs remained forever in the mother's good graces. He reckons his bold ethical action got him 15 years of steady work, because the child actor went on to star in a long-running TV series. It's lucky this duel between producer and talent, good and not so good, happened to Combs as a newbie pedagogue.
"If this had happened years later,” Combs reflects, today more aware of this political and financial ramifications of taking such a stand. “I would have freaked out and worried about my job."
California there are around 100 unionized studio teachers licensed by the Division of Labor Standards, while an additional 300 independents supply needs outside the film industry, such as handling children who appear plays and musical productions. School age children are entitled to classes on schooldays. A five-year-old kindergartner, for example, can work up to three hours on a set; six to nine-years-old actors can work for up to four hours, and those from 9 to 16 years can work five. They receive three hours of education from the studio teacher. When school is out work hours increase to six hours for the 6-9 age bracket; seven hours for the 9-16 group.
When the members of I.A. Local 884 Studio Teachers/Welfare Workers get together the hot topic is overtime. Given the premium on work hours in an industry where the time required setting up a single shot could wipe out a child’s whole work day, you can imagine the Luciferian lengths to which productions go to wiggle around the law. This is bleakly illustrated by the 1982 helicopter ‘Twilight Zone’ crash that killed two children actors and Vic Morrow. The scene involving explosives and a low hovering helicopter was being shot past 2 a.m. and, a fireman was hired to be the studio teacher. He was on the other side of the hill ostensible to prevent the spread of a possible blaze.
The job of studio teacher has one cardinal rule, Combs stresses, and it is to protect the child. This mission extends to unusual areas. On this pristine Sunday morning, at a still dewy picnic table in
Griffith, you will see him nonchalantly spin the chamber of a .38 detective special revolver and asked, “Is there any ammunition on the set?”
“No ammunition,” confirms the blond Midwestern producer. For we are on a set it is standard procedure for the studio teacher to inspect any weapons to be used in a scene.
Becoming a studio teacher was unplanned. Combs segued from a production coordinator job to fill a studio teacher position, open thanks to a fortuitous firing. There were three children on a TV show, all taking different languages, Latin, Spanish and French. The polyglot Combs uniquely filled the bill. Because there were few other qualified contender, Combs was able to take advantage of a lengthy writers’ strike in the ‘70s, to obtain his teaching credential.
“This is about protecting the children,” Combs says. “It not about whether you’ll be hired again. It’s day to day with this job, the same with every job below the line.” Tomorrow will be a new day, a new set and, inevitably, an insecure actor may turn to David Combs and ask, “What role are you playing?”
Grady Miller can be reached at email@example.com