Umbrella-toting pedestrians fought the rain yesterday on South 21st Street, across from two orange cranes looming over a brownstone at Delancey Place.
Then they stopped, turned around, and retraced their routes.
Again and again.
A production company was shooting a television pilot for NBC inside the house on the corner. As technicians on the cranes shined lights through the windows, the actor Jimmy Smits was emoting for a one-hour untitled drama, in which he plays a Supreme Court justice named Garza who returns to private practice so he can pursue cases involving constitutional law.
The shoot has given more than 100 film-industry locals jobs for about three weeks. Work began in Bensalem, where prop masters set up a cemetery (fake tombstones) as well as a "forensic farm," where scientists could observe the rate of decomposition (fake bodies). Last week, rooms in City Hall were used for courtroom scenes. The mansion at 21st and Delancey, which is on the market for $5.3 million, will be used through this week.
The production is a collaboration of Universal Media Studios, owned by NBC, and Conaco, Conan O'Brien's production company. John Eisendrath (Alias, Felicity, Beverly Hills 90210) wrote it.
Filming is expected to wrap April 8 - shortly before the city hosts a two-month shoot of the big-budget drama The Dark Fields, starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.
Because the cameras could also glimpse the street outside, producers retained background actors to walk on cue. Most are paid the standard union rate of $133.90 a day and all the energy bars and pigs-in-blankets they can eat from a table set up in the house's garage.
John C. Kendall, one of the extras on the job yesterday, said he had had lots of work recently. He also played a police commissioner in a scene depicting a funeral service.
"I'd rather be a working actor than a famous actor," said Andy Sinatra, also a background player, borrowing a common thespian refrain. Sinatra, a retired Social Security Administration employee, is in his fourth year as an extra; he showed up on screen for three seconds as an assistant police commissioner in the recent thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Sharon Pinkenson, who heads the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, called the decision to shoot the pilot here "an important opportunity for the future growth of the local film industry. There is no better way to build crew experience than through a network television series. My greatest hope is that [it] gets picked up for a series and that the show will stay in Philadelphia."
Philadelphia previously hosted production of the ABC Kim Delaney series Philly, the CBS David Morse series Hack, and a season of MTV's The Real World.
Producers did not respond to messages about the likelihood of Philadelphia's getting the work if the series is green-lighted.
The 2000 block of Delancey - a leafy collection of stately 19th-century rowhouses - is arguably the city's most-filmed residential block, showing up in blockbusters such as The Sixth Sense and Trading Places and in smaller independents such as The Answer Man. Last year, James L. Brooks filmed scenes there from his Reese Witherspoon comedy How Do You Know, as did the Neil Patrick Harris comedy The Best and the Brightest. Both are pegged for release this year.
"They seem to love this block," said Steve Sysko, a set dresser waiting under one of several tents on 21st Street. "I'm sure there's probably people who'd rather not wake up at 5 a.m. from a film crew, but they seem to be accepting."
As it has been for previous productions, parking along three blocks of 21st and a block of Pine Street have been cordoned off for a week.
Ken Myers, also an extra, took off from his optician's practice. He said he caught the acting bug in 2005 when his daughter Jennifer, now 13, asked him to accompany her to the set of Invincible, the football movie starring Mark Wahlberg. She got a small role; he didn't. Myers has since had bit parts in movies such as Shooter, The Verdict, The Happening, Law Abiding Citizen, and The Last Airbender, and even a New York-shot film, The Girlfriend Experience, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Though the on-set experience can be boring - waiting in the rain under a tent comes to mind - the opportunity to meet stars and directors can be intoxicating. "It's something I wish I had done when I was younger," Myers said.