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Former extra enjoying role with Phillies08/06/2007 12:30 PM ET
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe you remember the scene in "Die Hard 2," where Bruce Willis' character, John McClane, proves to a Washington, D.C., police captain that the alleged good guys were bad guys because they used blanks in a staged shootout with other bad guys. McClane does this unconventionally, firing a round from one of the guns used in the skirmish in the precinct, to the surprise of Capt. Carmine Lorenzo, played by Dennis Franz, and the movie extras who played three horrified officers. One of those extras went on to bigger roles, becoming the Phillies' third-base coach. Or perhaps you've seen The Brady Bunch episode where Greg Brady is injured playing football and heads to the locker room in pain. The uncredited extra pretending to be Greg's teammate is Hollywood nobody Steve Smith, or as they say in the industry, "atmosphere." If there was a television show or movie in the '70s, '80s and very early '90s, there's a chance Smith, who is also the Phillies' fielding instructor, is in there somewhere. He might be a police officer or fireman -- parts he got often because his father owned uniforms and a fire truck. He might be an athlete, businessman, mailman, cowboy, balloon salesman or window washer. He could be the guy sitting at a corner table having lunch, while the movie's star is in the moment with a co-star, or the guy waiting for a bus. He could be playing cards (in "The Sting") or working on a S.W.A.T. team. He's never had a line in any role, and is typically on screen for fewer than five seconds. But what a way to earn extra money while attending college and playing baseball. "I was 18 and looked 13," Smith said. "In the business, you would need a teacher there if you're under 18, so I got a lot of work [playing teenagers]. While I was going to college, that was my job. When I signed [to play baseball], I always needed a winter job. I did a lot of sports stuff, and a lot of everything, really." "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family." "Police Story," "Emergency," "Here's Lucy," "Ironside," "Love, American Story." Like many who break into show business, Smith had a connection that helped him get started. Smith played Little League Baseball with future movie star Kurt Russell, whose father Bing Russell (Deputy Clem Foster on "Bonanza"), owned the team. Kurt Russell started his film career at age 10, and soon after, he brought Smith in. The two also kept playing baseball, with Russell reaching as high as Double-A with the then-California Angels, the El Paso Sun Kings. Russell's playing career ended with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. While Smith used the income from being an extra to buy a house, his first car and other essentials while striving to forge a baseball career, Russell went on to star in films such as "Escape from New York," "Backdraft," "Tombstone" and "Poseidon." "I know he'd trade it all in for one day in the Major Leagues," Smith said, insisting that Russell lives vicariously through his nephew, former Major Leaguer Matt Franco. Smith wouldn't trade in his nearly 30 years in baseball as a Minor League infielder, coach and manager. Acting was always just fun for him, his older brother and his father.
"S.W.A.T.," "Mr. Baseball," "Dr. Kildare," "White Shadow.""Hill Street Blues," "The Sting," "The Rockford Files." Smith lists throwing bottles at the chicken-wire fence during the "Rawhide" scene of "The Blues Brothers" among his favorites, along with a Miller Lite commercial for a series called "The American Way." He played a catcher and earned about $18,000 for a day's work, or $2,000 more than he made managing that season. "They showed it all the time on the Game of the Week," Smith said. "I remember managing and taking my wallet out every time I saw it, because it was more money. Every two weeks, I got a check. It was unbelievable." Countering that is a near-miss, like when Smith was once hired for a Reebok commercial with then-White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. As the first-base coach, Smith's role was to high-five Thomas after a home run. This presented a problem, since Thomas doesn't high-five the first-base coach, and wanted the commercial to be realistic. The director cut Smith from the spot, showing the cruelness of the entertainment world. "I was just doing the right thing," Thomas said. "That's what we do in Major League Baseball. You don't high-five the first-base coach. You don't want those commercials showing things that we don't do on the field. In a beer league softball game, you'd high-five everybody, not in Major League Baseball. He should've been at third." When the Blue Jays came to Philadelphia in June, Smith jokingly reminded Thomas about the lost income the he might have received in residuals. "I ended up getting nothing other than a day's pay," Smith said. "Every time I see him I say, '20 grand,' because he wouldn't give me a high five. In a commercial, you're an actor at that point." Should another opportunity arise, Thomas promises to make good. "I'll find a place for him," he said. Smith has screwed up, too, something he can laugh about now. Filming "V," Smith played one of about 10-15 soldiers who were supposed to be at attention when a flying saucer descends. "We shot this about 10 times, and the next day, they found one of the soldiers wasn't at attention. It was me," Smith said. "They had to shoot the whole thing again. I was probably the worst extra in the business." Now, he's enjoying life coaching third base and telling stories of his acting prowess. Players howled while looking at Smith's headshots, especially a shot of him in a Padres uniform, circa 1984. More than one remarked that he looked like Steve Garvey. Though Smith says he's retired from working as an extra, he'll gladly make an appearance -- maybe even with lines -- when Chris Coste's autobiography is made into a movie. Hearing this, the Phillies catcher said "absolutely," assuming he can get the casting director's ear. "Sure," Coste said, pausing for dramatic effect. He laughed before getting out his punch line: "I need someone to play my grandfather."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.