Mayor O'Malley's star turn
Filming: The new John Travolta movie, 'Ladder 49,' includes a role custom-made for Baltimore's mayor.
By Doug Donovan
Sun Staff

May 30, 2003

Mayor Martin O'Malley got his big Hollywood break yesterday, but his first role in a feature film was not much of a stretch.

O'Malley portrayed the Mayor in the Touchstone Pictures drama Ladder 49, which stars John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix.

The scene shot yesterday portrayed a ceremony at the War Memorial Building on Gay Street and featured the mayor and 516 extras.

"I never came out of character," O'Malley said of a performance that garnered him membership in the Screen Actors Guild and a one-day paycheck of $650.

O'Malley will not keep the money the guild is required to pay him. Instead, he will donate it to the Baltimore City Fire Department's foundation.

Whether O'Malley's scene makes it to the big screen or winds up on the cutting room floor will depend on editing still months away. The film is scheduled to wrap in the city July 3.

"He took direction very well," said director Jay Russell, at the helm of his fourth and biggest feature film. "He's very comfortable in front of the camera."

But, Russell added with a wry grin, "He shouldn't give up his day job."

"He had his head buried in the script until I told him to do what I assume comes naturally to him and look at the crowd as he spoke," Russell said.

O'Malley acknowledged that playing himself was not easy, certainly not as simple as his turn as General Bullmoose in his high school's production of Li'l Abner.

"There's a lot of pressure," just like in his day job, O'Malley said. "I can't get away from it."

The War Memorial Building was transformed into City Hall by a thicket of booms, klieg lights and other assorted equipment. The scene takes place on medals day in February 2002. In it the mayor delivers awards to characters portrayed by Phoenix, known best for his role as a villainous Roman emperor in Gladiator, and actor Robert Patrick, who played the homicidal Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

"On the night of Christmas Eve, Baltimore firefighters Jack Morrison and Leonard Richter entered a blazing apartment block and saved a young girl's life, despite enormous danger to themselves," O'Malley delivered from a podium. "Normally, I'd present the medals, but today we've someone more important and certainly more beautiful. Jenny Buckley."

With that, the child playing the little girl saved by the firefighters joined the mayor as Phoenix and Patrick made their way from the audience to the stage.

The two stars were joined in the audience by 100 city firefighters and 125 volunteer firefighters. They came from all over the country, answering casting calls for two scenes this week which were advertised on the film's Web site.

Sitting behind O'Malley to his left were actors portraying his top brass, as well as three real members of the administration -- Deputy Mayor Jeanne Hitchcock (portraying herself), communications consultant Michael Cryor (portraying a deputy mayor) and Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. (also portraying himself). Beside Goodwin sat a grinning Travolta.

A city council portrayed by extras occupied the seats to O'Malley's right.

"I counted 18 of them," said O'Malley, referring to the shrinking of the city's council this year from 18 to 14 members.

"I told four that they would have to go," he said jokingly. "But they wouldn't leave. Maybe that's art imitating life."

During a break, O'Malley retired to his trailer-for-the-day to eat a brown-bag lunch and return calls for city business. Meanwhile, firefighters mingled in and around the War Memorial Building. Many expressed exasperation with the grueling schedule. Yesterday's scene took 12 hours and required three to four takes from 13 angles.

Lt. Mark Yant, a 16-year veteran of the department serving as the film's technical adviser, has worked some of the longest hours turning actors into firefighters and firefighters into actors.

"We work 12 to 14 hours a day for six days a week," Yant said. "They're very long hours. Just ask my wife."

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