I'M NOT A KNICKS FAN, BUT I PLAY ONE ON TV.
Clyde Baldo, a 52-year-old psychotherapist who changed his name from Roy to honor his favorite Knick, is a familiar name to those few fans who still follow Knicks basketball on MSG, the Madison Square Garden Network that has broadcast all 24 of the team’s tragic losses this season. In commercials promoting the worst Knicks squad in recent memory, Baldo confesses to a Knicks addiction that, in the context of current events, suggests a devotion that runs deeper than logic.
“I love going to the Garden, but if not, I watch the game on MSG. And I have a ritual. I turn off all the phones, because do not bother me when a Knick game is on. And I keep the remote in my right hand and if they’re losing I put it in my left hand. If they’re losing by more than 10 points, TV off. I go back to the game. If they’re winning again, right hand. You have to understand, my remote is the sixth man. By the end of the game, I feel like I’ve played. I’ve gotta go get in the shower.”
What’s not so familiar to fans—or, apparently, to the Knicks management, or the ad agency that created the 30-second spots—is that Baldo is an actor. He has appeared on “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the History Channel’s “Breaking Vegas” series, 11 movies, a cable Optimum Online commercial and over 40 plays.
And by the way, that story about how Baldo holds the remote? Not true.
This news may not shock skeptical Knick fans who’ve learned to deal daily with doubt. But the Knicks team itself was surprised to hear that their “real fans” had some experience in front of a camera, particularly since the ads are clearly intended to suggest otherwise. Of six “real fans” reached by the New York Press—there were 10 filmed in total—five happen to be actors.
“I do know that when asked for the casting call, we asked for non actors,” Knicks spokesman Jonathan Supranowitz said, talking on his cell phone from a hotel in San Antonio, where the Knicks would play the Spurs. He called the Press after learning of inquiries into the resumes of its “real fans.”
“We made that distinction, that we do not want actors, we want real fans. And I know none of them had SAG [Screen Actors Guild] cards, but we found out after the fact – maybe from you. I’m not sure how we found out that Clyde was a part-time actor.”
The advertising company that the Knicks hired to do the spots also seemed shocked by the news that its “real fans” were trained performers.
“I had no idea, because they were supposed to sign affidavits that they weren’t actors. We even asked them what they did for a living,” said Daniel Wolfe, creative director of Wolfe/Doyle Advertising. “They wouldn’t tell me they were actors, because if they were, I don’t think I would have put them in the spots. I wouldn’t put them in the spots…Hey, if Robert De Niro would have come in, or Spike Lee, I would have said, ‘Hey, you guys would be great, but we can’t use you.’ ‘Cause actors are acting, fans are fans and they come from the heart. I depend on the casting company to do that, because we’re worried about all the other stuff that we need to do.”
Wolfe/Doyle had outsourced the casting to a specialized casting company, called Impossible Casting for its ability to corral hard-to-find types (they got a “Page Six” shout-out in 2004 for finding a midget willing to pose naked for a magazine fashion shoot). Impossible Casting’s job was to find people—specifically, not actors—who were still excited about the Knicks going into the 2007-’08 season, despite the fact that they were coming off their fifth straight losing season record after an off-season fraught with drama. They also had to be articulate and charismatic in front of the camera, and have two days available for the audition and the shoot.
Lechner declined to say how much the participants were paid, but Steve Conoscenti, a 22-year-old Knicks fan who made the callback but was not selected in the end, said he was told the job would pay between $1,000 and $1,500, with no residuals. Those chosen also got a free ticket to the season opener against the Timberwolves, which the Knicks won.
In September, Impossible Casting put a posting for “ALL KNICKS FANS 15 to 80 years old” on Knicks chat rooms and blogs, MySpace and Craigslist. The call also went out to Actors Access, a website that publicizes casting calls, and to actors on Impossible Casting’s mailing list. Of the hundreds of hopefuls who responded in writing to the casting call, Impossible Casting called 40 or so back for an audition. Craig Lechner, owner of Impossible Casting, vetted each to be sure he or she was a Knick fan, and not a member of the Screen Actors Guild. (To become a SAG member, performers have to have worked for a SAG-affiliated company and pay a $2,211 initiation fee.)
While it’s true that none of those chosen were card-carrying SAG members at the time (one has since become a member), Clyde Baldo is not the only fan with a substantial acting resume.
There’s Jack Dempsey, the man Bostonians love to ridicule, whose commercial heckling Celtics fans was pulled after the Celtics beat the Knicks by 45 points. He found out about the casting call through Actors Access. Dempsey has acted on the soap opera “Guiding Light” and “Venus Rises,” a Sci-Fi channel takeoff on Star Trek called “Redshirt Blues,” and has had parts in four films and five plays. “I try to get as much work as I can, but like a lot of other New York actors, we have other jobs,” says Dempsey, 34. He pays his rent doing integrated ad sales marketing for a cable network.
Thomas F. Ray, 32, is a full-time actor, but he still gets nervous for every audition. He was sure he’d bungled this audition when he jumped up to re-enact Larry Johnson’s four-point play, forgetting that he’d just been wired with a microphone. “When I left, it was like... I don’t know: making a move on a girl that was totally inappropriate. I was like ‘Stupid! Stupid! Shouldn’t a did that!’”
The Knicks commercial was Ray’s biggest job to date. “I’ve taken a lot of classes. I started out taking acting classes in college, came down here and took a lot of improv classes. I’ve just basically been building myself up as I’ve been going along over the past nine years.” Shortly after doing the commercial, Ray became a SAG member.
Matt Berkowitz, 40, got a call in September from his old friend from SUNY Purchase film school, Craig Lechner, owner of Impossible Casting, about the audition. “I’m a filmmaker, I’m an actor, so I can do anything,” says Berkowitz. “You want me to be Italian? I’ll be Italian, just pay me.” He estimates that he has been an extra in about 20 feature films, and has done a Nokia commercial. Berkowitz plays up his Jewish Brooklyn roots in his spot, telling a story about how he called his rabbi when the Knicks were losing to see if there was any possibility of religious intervention. “I’m pretty funny, I’m a comedian, I write, I do a one-man show, I do a lot of that. So I can milk it a little, but it’s a true story.”
Berkowitz has been a Knick fan since he shared a bedroom with his Knicks-crazed big brother as a kid, but he would have jumped at any opportunity to be on TV. “Any commercial is good for your visibility,” says Berkowitz. “When I did the last Spider-Man, I did background stuff, but you know what? You get paid, and that’s another thing to add to your resume. I did commercials for urinary incontinence, you know?”
But the folks at Impossible Casting disagree with Berkowitz’s description of himself. “He’s not an actor!” objects Lechner.
“Matt Berkowitz has done no acting. Friend from college doth not an actor make!... I was in My Fair Lady in high school. Does that make me an actor?”
Joshua Sankey is what casting agents refer to as a “character” actor. He’s got a double chin, receding hairline, and he’s not even wearing any Knicks gear in his commercial. His spot is not shot in the studio, like most of the others. He’s just standing on the sidewalk in front of Madison Square Garden, talking for a few seconds about how he pulled Eddie Curry’s socks out of a Dumpster.
But Sankey’s acting career won’t depend on the Knicks commercial for a jumpstart. He’s a stand-up comedian with a show coming up at The Duplex in the West Village. He’s the “regular guy” checking out a hot chic in a bikini in a billboard for New York Sports Club and the fat guy in a bathtub on a billboard for Cirque du Soleil’s new show, Zumanity, that’s plastered all over Vegas. He’s in the upcoming Kevin Smith movie, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and he’s been in dozens of commercials, including one for the NFL Network, for which he plays an ardent Jets fan.
While most of the actors in the spots have been taking grief for representing one of the worst teams in the NBA, they’re also taking calls from agents and long-forgotten contacts.
“It’s very, very amazing how many people out of nowhere call you,” says Ray. “People you don’t think have your number. They call you and say ‘Hey, I just saw you on TV!’... With the Knicks commercial I’ve been going to a lot more auditions.”
Oddly enough, the Knicks’ sorry season may be garnering more publicity for these actors than might otherwise have been the case. As Impossible Casting’s Lechner wrote in an email: “All this hoopla about the commercials is all because the Knicks are having such a bad year. We’ve been in business 15 years and I’ve never seen such a commotion about some promos.”
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