by | Dec 5, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The first movie I ever saw was “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” My grandmother took me to a Saturday matinee. I remember Debbie Reynolds played a woman on a sinking ship — the Titanic — leading others to safety. I was riveted. But I never wanted to be in the movie. I just liked watching it.

Years later, my family saw “The Poseidon Adventure,” another sinking ship tale. We were riveted. My brother memorized every line. He walked around the house mimicking Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters. But he wanted to be an actor. I never did. I just liked watching it.

What I’m saying here is that there are people who see movies and wish they were in them, and there are people who simply go and come home. I always have been one of the latter.

So I am, in a way, as surprised as anyone to be associated with a movie. It is true, I wrote “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” but as a book, not a film. I didn’t have actors or scenery in mind. It’s hard enough to get the periods and commas in the right places.

The nuisances of filming

Here is how natural I am at movies. When Oprah Winfrey made a TV film of “Tuesdays With Morrie” she invited me to the soundstage where they were filming. I drove there in a rental car. I parked. I went to the door. I yanked it open.

Oh, I saw the flashing red light that was swirling above the entrance. I just didn’t know what it meant. I found out. I heard a chorus of moans, followed by a voice yelling “cut!” How was I supposed to know they were shooting? I saw a door. I opened it.

Earlier this year, when I met Jon Voight — who plays the lead role of Eddie in the movie version of “Five People” at 8 tonight on ABC — he asked me to read him the script in the voice of my old uncle, by whom the book was inspired.

“Jon, I’m not an actor.” I said.

“It’s fine,” he said, “go ahead.”

I read a few lines in a raspy voice.

“Keep going,” Voight said.

Another page. Another page. My throat was killing me. But Voight kept urging me on. Somewhere around the second act, I was thinking to myself, “What kind of guy are we working with here?”

The magic of movies

But the thing is, I’ve gotten quite an education through the making of this film. I learned, for example, that Voight — and a lot of actors — absorb all kinds of influences and make them their own, like trying on new jeans and then squatting until they fit perfectly.

I learned that when you say something three times in a book, to make it more poignant, you might only need to say it once in a movie, because the actor’s face would add the second and third emphasis.

I learned there’s a person on the set who made sure that gun the actor had in his left hand was not now in his right hand.

I learned you could make “rain” in movies with huge irrigation-like machines that “pour” in front and behind the actors, so that they stayed dry when you shoot.

I learned directors never sleep. I learned editors never sleep. I learned that when you didn’t have an ocean near your amusement park — as the book and script called for — you could go film an ocean across the country and “lay it in” behind your amusement park with computer graphics (try doing that on your keyboard!)

But mostly what I learned is that what matters most in a movie, in the end, is what matters most in a book: the story. And while my brother was learning how to make faces and do voices, I guess somehow in those darkened cinemas I was learning how to tell a tale. Not once during the making of “Five People” did I want to be in it. But like all those movies I saw as a kid, I enjoyed watching it.

I also know what the red light means.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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