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Calling All Corpses: Dead Popular on Prime Time

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Calling All Corpses: Dead Popular on Prime Time

Pop Culture

Calling All Corpses: Dead Popular on Prime Time

Calling All Corpses: Dead Popular on Prime Time

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The number of corpses on prime time television is on the rise — and it presents a challege for TV's casting directors. Playing the part isn't easy. It requires more than just holding your breath and being able to stay still for a long time.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

What's the hottest thing on TV these days? Corpses and autopsies. It all started six years ago with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Now that the body count in primetime is on the rise, so is the need for people to play dead. And as reported Gloria Hillard found out, when it comes to the open-casket call, it takes more than being still and holding your breath.

Unidentified Man: Finally, we're rolling.

GLORIA HILLARD: While the cameras of "CSI: New York" were trained on a scene with two of the show's stars...

Unidentified Man: And background.

Unidentified Woman: And action.

HILLARD: On the other side of the soundstage, John Goodwin - who does special effects makeup for the show - was in the autopsy room, setting up the table for the actor he just finished working on.

Mr. JOHN GOODWIN: He's been lying for about four hours on our gurney in the makeup effects room. We have applied a false chest-piece to him.

Mr. JASON CARTER (Actor): Right now, it's pretty much a wrap for my character here. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of scraping noise)

HILLARD: Actor Jason Carter's character died from a drug overdose. His face is pale and swollen. And the prosthetic chest that will allow the show's coroner to perform his autopsy was peeking under his bathrobe. This is a first for the actor, he says, but he's been preparing.

Mr. CARTER: You kind of got to take yourself to a meditative state. You know? Because you're not supposed to really look like you're blinking or breathing. And they kind of watch you're breathing, that kind of thing.

HILLARD: Susan Bluestein, the casting director for the CBS show, "NCIS," says casting a principal actor who ends up dead, especially in a morgue scene, can be a challenge.

Ms. SUSAN BLUESTEIN (Casting Director, "NCIS"): I have to really get into it with agents. I have to be extremely specific about what people will have to do, because they have to lie for hours - sometimes with heavy prosthetics, sometimes completely naked. And these are things that actors really have to agree to do before they go in to audition for the part.

HILLARD: Those issues don't come up for Matthew Mungle's body stand-ins. His company, WM Productions, provides many of the fake bodies and gruesome crime scenes for the police procedural shows.

(Soundbite of drilling sound)

HILLARD: There's an odd chemical smell in the air. And as you can imagine, the place looks like a scene from one of your worst nightmares.

Mr. MATTHEW MUNGLE (WM Productions): This is for NCIS. It's a burnt body.

HILLARD: Ew.

Mr. MUNGLE: It was in a chimney. So, yeah, exactly. The writers come up with the ideas. Then it's up to us to bring their ideas to fruition.

HILLARD: It costs about $5,000 for a dead body here, but at Central Casting...

Unidentified Man #2: This is your first time registering with us?

Unidentified Man #3: Yes.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, right on. Welcome.

HILLARD: Here, there are hundreds of aspiring actors willing to do the job for a base pay of $136 a day, including lunch from craft services. Allen Kenamar(ph) casts extras - the people you see in the background of a shot - for "CSI: Miami".

Mr. ALLEN KENAMAR (Central Casting; Casts extras for "CSI: Miami"): More people submit to play a cadaver than any other thing. They think that is the ultimate, to play a cadaver on CSI. I tell them that there will be little or no clothing - the right areas will be covered. Let them know that it's going to be a long day and that a lot of makeup and a lot of blood and gore will be applied to them.

Unidentified Man #4: Come back, (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #5: Come on baby, what's next? Speak up.

HILLARD: Back on the set of "CSI: New York," three extras from Central Casting were getting some of that fake blood applied to them. Daniel Ferguson was not looking anything like his 8 by 10 glossy. He had a ghastly mortal head wound, and his skin was a silvery gray color.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIEL FERGUSON (Actor, "CSI: New York"): This is my second time playing a dead guy. I did it about eight weeks ago. And it was fun.

HILLARD: The autopsy room is the final scene of the day, and actor James Glenn(ph), pale and with neck bruises, was getting ready to take the autopsy table next to Ferguson's. He says, for an extra, playing a dead person is a great role because you're closer to the principal actors and director - not to mention, and forensic shows, chances are, you're going to get your close-up.

Mr. JAMES GLENN (Actor, "CSI: New York"): It is always a hope that somebody's going to see and say, that guy rocks. I want him to do this for me.

Unidentified Man #6: All right, here we go. Quiet everyone.

HILLARD: And they all did really well. No one moved or blinked or breathed.

Unidentified Woman: Print that, let's just do one more.

Unidentified Man #7: One more.

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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