Yours truly, Harry Kollatz Jr., posing beside a Houdon bust of Benjamin Franklin at the French ambassador's house in Washington, shortly after learning I'd been cast as Franklin in "Legends & Lies: The Patriots" (photo by Amie Oliver)
I’m Harry Kollatz Jr., and you might know me from such television film classics as Tom Clancy’s “NetForce” (first appearing at 9:27 here), and “A Troublesome Property,” – directed by the renowned Charles Burnett.
Now you can see me as Benjamin Franklin in “Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Patriots,” a 12-part Fox News history drama series that begins its second season Sunday, June, 5, at 8 p.m. Yes, that Bill O’Reilly. No, I didn’t meet him, but became acquainted with a talented group of actors, technicians and artists whose dedication and energy made the production go.
The first nine installments air through the summer, followed by three more broadcast in December, including a Christmas special about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.
Ben rates an episode about him on June 19, “Benjamin Franklin: Inventing America,” and he’s also on July 3, “Independence Declared.” You can watch. I’ll be hiding behind a couch.
Shot on Location
The “Legends & Lies” experience took me for the first time to Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County and Old Salem and Halifax, North Carolina. I also trod the old floorboards of the Cole Digges House, the Preservation Virginia headquarters for, as the director jibed, a “Pacino-DeNiro” argument between Franklin and John Adams — played by Scott Wichmann.
Having Wichmann for an acting partner was like getting plugged direct into current. He makes you better.
During a cold-as-spite January morning at Henricus Historical Park, I portrayed the young French and Indian War soldier Franklin and hefted a musket in victory over my head while trying to find the camera that, like a baseball player missing a catch, I “lost in the sun.”
Henricus also substituted as Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge with fake snow cast about — the day before real snows blanketed the region. Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown posed as other places perhaps in a more effective way than my standing in for Ben.
Likewise, on another sharp cold morn, we descended upon Strawberry Hill (built in 1800), in Petersburg, where Franklin got busted for releasing the "Hutchinson Letters" and spat upon — and was able to hang out a little with the rather stunning Hilary Montgomery, who is playing Peggy Shippen, the wife of Benedict Arnold (Matthew Greenfield). Fuqua Farm in Chesterfield — a farmstead nestled just off the fast-and-furiousness of Hull Street Road — became our Revolutionary War battlefront and encampment site. They were our gracious hosts and hunted for a missing iPod that turns out got wedged between the seats of my car. Oops.
Many of these sites are reached on narrow country roads that, due to the filming schedule, we started by dawn’s early light. Though we live in an age of GPS, I don’t use it, or not well, and spent most of my time getting to location using maps printed from online and dead reckoning. I don’t recall arriving to set late, although I spent a great amount of time anxious about getting there while driving through predawn darkness.
Even when headed to the audition at the LionHeart FilmWorks studios in western Henrico, the Google Maps location brought me to where the studios were not. Two helpful office ladies in a commercial park sent me the right direction. I carried an 18th- century coat from my reenactment days and a pair of little round reader glasses from Bygones Vintage Clothing, because script type can be small.
I didn’t then know about Ben and me. What happened was, back in the summer, I’d gotten a call from director Kevin Hershberger. His particular expertise is in creating historical and especially military scenarios for period films. He’s made a substantial and award-winning career of bringing authenticity to feature productions such as the Civil War drama “Field of Lost Shoes.” Kevin told me about a Revolutionary War-era show pulling into town through Fox News and Warm Springs Productions as the second season of the “Legends & Lies” series. Theater colleagues of mine played Wild West figures in Season 1.
Kevin told me to consider auditioning, which I did, for five minutes, and then went on with my business. Come early September, he asked via email: You are coming to audition, right? Zing zang zoom: On the day before, I whipped together a résumé that I attached to headshots taken by the magazine’s creative director, Steve Hedberg and reprinted through FedEx/Kinko’s. I glanced at the slots: The only character suited to my age and not required to ride a horse was Massachusetts Royal Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.
I arrived at the former retail space used by LionHeart. Actors seated on random office furniture examined their “sides,” the portions of script for their character, some going through paces for themselves, lips moving, eyes darting up expressing fear or anger. An assistant director — who I later learned was Tony Sanchez, one of the indefatigable crew members — told me that the Hutchinson side was emailed to me. But I’d not gotten the script. Tony said, “We’ll give you something age appropriate.” And he handed me Benjamin Franklin.
I chuckled: No way this’ll work. But I took myself into a set room and mumbled Franklin’s line. Now, my bald pate with my longer grey hair seemed appropriate. The logistics of a haircut — involving me and my wife, Amie, getting into the same place with a pair of scissors — hadn’t worked in about two weeks.
The scene depicts Franklin’s return to the Colonies after 16 years in London and just after the Lexington and Concord battles make him suspect in the view of Adams and others. The red light of a camera shines. Cue lines are read to me. The room seems small and stuffy. At one point, standing by a window, Franklin says, “Mr. Adams, you say I don’t have the stomach for rebellion. Well, as you can see, I have the stomach for a great many things.” Take off the glasses, poke out my belly, raise a brow. Done. Too arch, I figured. On with my day.
Kevin liked my portrayal. Sam K. Dolan, a supervising producer for Warm Springs Productions, nodded and with enthusiasm asked if it was OK for him “to mess with my hair.” I blurted, “Whatever’s left of it, you can have at it.” I was processed through costuming. The delightful Amanda Powell measured me for 18th-century garments.
In a couple days, I got official word that I’d be attempting to fill Ben Franklin’s buckled shoes.
The importantly talented actor Coby Batty ended up as Governor Hutchinson.
Quiet on the Set
Big Dusty Dukatz’s wide-brimmed Australian drover hat sits on him like a crown of authority and it is. He keeps this ship running. Gets us from setup to setup with a guiding hand through a method part shepherding and part shooing. The scenes are started through a poetic series of commands.
Light’em up. Last looks everyone. Last looks. (Makeup, hair and costume crew members scurry in like Gothic elves, adjust, re-adjust, brush, pad, comb and — poof — are gone.)
Picture’s Up! … cries production assistant Nate Hoffman.
Settle in… orders Dusty, fists on hips.
Let’s go in while we’re hot … says Dusty. Settle in…
Now, Kevin orders.
Rolling sound, says someone.
Rollingrolling, Shannon Williams says as one word. I sometimes hear it in my sleep, even now. It means I must summon the Franklin.
Dusty, poised, listening to instructions on his headset, feels the room and the precise moment.
And …(intense whisper) ACTION!
The Actor’s Life for Me
As players have done since Shakespeare’s time, we changed into our period clothing in garages, attic rooms, and an abandoned school, sometimes behind furniture or a sheet or nothing. In Halifax, our headquarters was the abandoned hulk of a former school. The cafeteria/auditorium, crammed by piles of desks and bookcases, served as the clothing area. I wondered about the children who attended Andrew Jackson Elementary, and where they were now, and the nervous collections of youngsters lining up on what must have seemed to them a yawning enormous stage, speaking their lines in a staged version of a fairy tale, one a bird, another a flower, and whether any of them ended up doing this for a living. Because that’s how we get started on this course. We’re under lights, people applaud, and once that happens, you’re wired for public appreciation and there’s no turning back.
In Halifax, in an actual old print shop, came the scenes of Ben managing his business, inventing bifocals and the famous kite incident. This latter occurred at night during an engineered rainstorm and lightning. In real life, I wear actual (powerful) glasses, but the lenses supplied for me as Ben were clear. The script called for me to run across a dark room, darting between printing presses while holding a paper kite and land on a raised threshold. I couldn’t see well, nor did I wish to rip the kite nor could I get it wet from the fake tempest blowing by the doorway. We went through the run-with-kite sequence a few times. It had a near mad-scientist feel. If I look as though I don’t quite know where I’m going, it’s because I don’t quite know where I’m going.
Rules of the Game
Remember that while on set, whether facing a camera or ranks of lights, you are somewhere between a guest and a contractor, so thus always be polite and remember the physician’s oath: first, do no harm. You are wearing borrowed clothes and speaking words often written by people smarter than you, and this is definitely the case in historical dramas. You are entrusted with a certain fidelity. But if you need to scratch your nose, do so. They would’ve. At day’s end, don’t heap your clothes on the floor. Return them to the hangers. Haul them to the wardrobe truck. Even the shoes and socks. The production assistants in charge of such matters appreciate this and you never know if you might work with them again and on a bitterly cold morning, they can slip you foot warmers to slide in your period shoes where your toes would freeze. Finger to the lips. Our secret.
Exhibiting a happiness to be there spreads around. You are getting paid to play dress up and pretend. And it is also work.
You may spend hours waiting to go on. Study your lines. Bring a book. Actors’ memoirs get written this way. Lounging with colleagues between takes is both an education and entertaining. They come from all over and they’ve been in every manner of performance with people famous and not. I laughed so hard I cried on several occasions after stories I cannot now remember and the ones I can are unprintable. Actors are like Southern belles and you don’t ask their age. Nor do you ask, “So what’s your next show after this?” The profession is ballet-danced on the lip of a canyon. Everyone knows this and you needn’t remind them.
Do not assume where you’re going has a working indoor bathroom. Making a movie is kind of like attending a festival where you are both audience and performer. The code on “Legends & Lies” for the porta potty was “Ten-One.” As in, a walkie-talkie sputtering request “Where’s Doctor Franklin?” The reply: “Ah, Franklin’s Ten-One. He’s 90 percent and on set momentarily.” We had percentages of readiness. Sometimes, like Scotty estimating for Capt. Kirk the time needed to fix the warp drive, the numbers got fudged a little. A 100 percent meant you were in hair, makeup, clothes and ready for the set.
The Miracle Brush
Getting into hair and makeup can be enjoyable, though your mileage may vary. Being a guy, and one not prone to seek spa treatments, receiving the attentions of several women who wanted me to look good for public consumption suited me. Nicole Py and her crew put in my convincing hair extensions (though by shoot’s end, my hair was almost long enough to not use them) and aged and de-aged me according to the scene. Nicole said that some actors are peculiar about makeup. They think they need to pile it on for the camera. For those who are especially nervous, she has the “miracle brush” that she, with a determined expression, swipes around the face and this seems to satisfy the anxious ones. “It’s just powder,” she says.
Nicole, from Philadelphia and a fan of the real Franklin, supplied an important component for my first scene. We shot at Scotchtown, in the rain, but we were inside and what Nicole brought was a glass armonica. Franklin devised this instrument that is played by running dampened fingertips on a spinning series of glass ridges as you pump a treadle to keep the cylinder turning. This required me to do two things at once: pretend to pump the treadle (Nicole’s armonica plugged in) and play an instrument that I couldn’t.
The scene is Franklin’s announcement to his common-law wife Deborah (Eliza Kelly) and their daughter Sally (Diane Samuelson) that he needs to leave for England. He’ll be gone 16 years attempting to reconcile the Colonies and Great Britain. He leaves thinking himself as an Englishman and a member of the aristocracy in a great empire. He returns a rebel persuaded that no course remains but forced separation. Deborah dies in his absence. War erupts. Franklin returns to angry mobs throwing garbage at him. (In that scene, shot at Old Salem, I took an accidental hardboiled egg to the face. If my reaction makes it in, that’s not acting). But all this is in the future. I’m Franklin at my armonica seeking solace through music. The instrument by my actor’s fingers makes a sorrowful, cosmic whale-song that underscores the emotional distress of the scene. For everyone’s benefit, real armonica music will get dubbed in.
Later, Nicole carefully applied wax and painted age spots on me to transform me into the 81-year-old Franklin. After her application and the lighting, it was up to me to get old through my gait and stance.
Neither Rain Nor Sleet
The production covers the span of the Revolutionary War period up to the founding documents and the deaths of Thomas Jefferson (Samuel Dunning) and John Adams (Scott Wichmann). It’s a huge amount of territory to cover through a short shooting schedule. The HBO series “John Adams,” also filmed here, proceeded at a majestic pace and if they got through two scenes in a day, they were doing well. We barreled on through rain and snow. At Fuqua Farm, where as Franklin I visited the Continental Army on an inspection tour, we slogged back and forth through shoe-sucking mud until the ground looked like pudding.
I followed behind George Washington (Joel King, a stage and film actor), who, when in full Continental Army uniform, made everybody stand a little straighter. But he was great to work with and enjoyed quipping Monty Python.
I walked to Agecroft Hall from my house on a fair but nippy morning. No GPS necessary. We went dawn to dusk that day, and Franklin got plenty to say. Agecroft became England. I played the social Franklin at a formal gathering, flirted with ladies, and danced (sort of) with, as the script accurately described, a “Beautiful Woman” (Jesi Jensen).
What we do for art.
Ladies Man: Harry Kollatz Jr. as Ben Franklin posing with cast members at Agecroft Hall. Second from right is the "Beautiful Woman" Franklin dances with, Jesi Jensen. (photo courtesy Harry Kollatz)
Making a film, for whatever screen, is like those Imperial Walkers from “Star Wars” that are fearsome and intimidating in their awkward marching, but something tiny can take them crashing down. A missing hat, or the wrong colored coat, a prop that somebody thought was in place but isn’t, holds up the shoot.
And then there’s the acting part. One of the challenges in the fast-paced guerrilla filmmaking schedule were the “Actual Quotes” that the principals needed to speak directly into the camera as though taking the audience into confidence. (Think Frank Underwood doing his Richard III thing in breaking the fourth wall). These sentiments were excerpted from letters and diaries (yay archivists!), but were not intended to be spoken aloud. These quotes became syntactical swamps we needed get through and with perfection. A word dropped or out of place meant a cry of “cut” and “retake.” One afternoon, during a full-day Franklin shoot at Agecroft Hall, on camera with the lights blazing, I became mired beyond rescue in an observation about England’s greatest resource being her people. The chutes-and-ladders paragraph gave me trouble.
When this happens, the Earth stops spinning, sweat trickles, your heart beats an ominous rhumba in your ears and you want one of the surreal holes the Road Runner put out for Wile E. Coyote to fall through to open up beneath your feet. As I started, faltered, started, stumbled and repeated, I became frustrated and used sturdy Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms that Franklin may have never said. I became aware of the hundred people standing around waiting for me to get through this and of money bearing my character’s face flying out the window as I stammered my way around two parenthetical phrases that make sense when read, less when said. I had it down when standing alone in a corner muttering the words.
Months later, I found myself in London at 36 Craven St., the only original structure standing anywhere that Franklin lived in.
A disembodied voice of Franklin repeated that same line to me, causing an involuntary spasm by my left eye. Maybe it was jet lag. If you get over there, the Benjamin Franklin House is worth the tour and I was grateful that my tour’s spiritual guide was Philippa James.
I still don’t know if they got enough pieces from the quote to use.
Guess we’ll all see, won’t we?