King of Extras Arthur Tovey Is Hollywood's Best-Known Unknown

updated 09/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/24/1984 01:00AM

Mary Tyler Moore paid her dues as an extra. So did O.J. Simpson. And Arthur Tovey. The difference, of course, is that after 60 years Tovey is still part of the furniture, one of those nameless, faceless, voiceless actors who provide the human background before which stars strut and fret. Tovey, 79, says he doesn't mind the anonymity a bit. "I've never envied the big people," he says. "In the little strata I've been in, there have always been interesting people and things to do. You don't have to keep up with the Joneses. I have a simple life and simple pleasures."

Well, maybe not as simple as all that. After all, Tovey has spent an entire career rubbing elbows—if not trading dialogue—with Hollywood's great and near great. Over the years he has appeared in Rocky (as a reporter), The Sting (as a bank manager), Funny Girl (as a partygoer) and To Kill a Mocking-bird (as a juryman). Not to mention The Red Badge of Courage (as a soldier), Jailhouse Rock (as a record store owner) and My Fair Lady (as a singer)—plus a full roster of television shows and so many commercials he has simply lost count.

It has given him a unique vantage point for assessing the mighty. Paul Newman, he says, is "very aloof on the set." Alfred Hitchcock "wouldn't give you the time of day unless you were somebody, and then he'd give you a nod." Bing Crosby was "very introverted—but you've got to give the devil his due; he had wonderful stage presence." As for John Huston: "He's a fun guy. He'll start a crap game on the lunch hour." And Cecil B. De Mille? "He was a tyrant, but very nice and friendly off the set." Once, during the filming of The Pride of the Yankees, Tovey even encountered Babe Ruth. "I'm a New Yorker and a Yankee fan," he says, "so we talked about players, batting averages and the time he tore off his fingernail running after a fly ball."

Occasionally, Tovey has risen above being part of the scenery. "In Gone With the Wind," he recalls fondly, "I doubled for Leslie Howard. I did it again in Intermezzo. I played a butler in that, and in The List of Adrian Messenger I instructed Kirk Douglas in how to play the piano." More recently he worked in the not-yet-released Mickey & Maude. "In that one," he says, "Dudley Moore is stealing a car and I'm a guard, and I'm yelling at him, 'Hey, come back here!' That upped my pay to a pretty good check."

A onetime musician and ad salesman, Tovey says he got into movies by a process of elimination. "I'd tried everything else," he explains. "Being an extra just seemed to work out." Though the pay has improved—with overtime, extras in TV and movies earn an average of $150 a day—and extras are better fed than they were, he laments the decline of good times on the set. "It's not as much fun as it was 60 years ago, not a bit," he says sadly. "We used to go from picture to picture and get to know everyone real well. But television turned the whole thing around. It's such a quick business now. They don't have time for the pranks, the jokes and the socializing."

A lifelong bachelor, Tovey lives alone in a modest ranch house near the Hollywood studios. His advice to would-be extras on the way up? "Keep sharp, build a wardrobe, be on your toes and have a good phone service. A lot of people look down on this type of work and think it's beneath them. They don't know how often they've been seen in the projection room, where someone will say, 'We could use that fellow.' Youth doesn't know that."

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