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Sinai transforms into D.C. airport in movie fantasy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Most of us have seen Washington's National Airport, many of us have been to National Airport and not a few of us have used National Airport, and one thing is for certain. Baltimore's Sinai Hospital is no National Airport.

But an unlikely transformation began early yesterday, with a Hollywood film crew's set designers descending like locusts on the front entrance of the Pimlico hospital, changing the length of its sheltered promenade into the familiar white granite portico of the airport.

American Airline logos, skycap counters and luggage racks were splayed across the pavement, and signs advertising Sinai and its various buildings were papered over with billboards noting taxi stands, bus stops and Washington Metro routes. A pictorial history of Sinai on display in a front hallway, visible from the street, became a pictorial history of aviation and travel.

The general impression was convincing, the details less so. A contentious passer-by noted that a sign declaring "Gates 31-48, domestic arrivals" was inaccurate. National has only domestic flights, he explained. Dulles is Washington's international airport.

"Hey, it's only a movie," a set worker shrugged.

That it is. And by early afternoon, more than 200 hospital staff, patients and local residents were on hand at Sinai to watch the filming of a single scene from a Disney Studio feature film. The crowd took particular delight in the presence of a tall, dark and rather handsome actor by the name of Murray or Murphy or something of the sort.

"ED-DEE! ED-DEE!" screamed children from behind the barricades.

"Mr. Murphy, an autograph please," wailed a hospital cafeteria worker.

"YO, EDDIE. SLIDE OVER THIS WAY, MAN," a teen-age fan yelled.

"Step back," Officer Marty Seltzer told the crowd. "You've got to clear this area and step behind the barricades."

He motioned twice with his arm, a gesture that to this critic recalled a young Charlton Heston, boldly parting the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments." The onlookers gave way like good Israelites, too, retreating politely across the lawn.

But alas, the Baltimore patrolman's creditable performance was ignored by the hordes of Hollywood professionals on hand in Northwest Baltimore. Instead, the plot of this particular film -- titled "Distinguished Gentleman" -- centers on this Murphy fellow, who has apparently achieved some cinematic status. The story line has him as a small-time con artist newly elected to Congress, and yesterday's scene had the new congressman landing at National, then being whisked away by cab.

By the time Mr. Murphy arrived in midafternoon, the hospital looked the part, and medical staffers walking into the building could be heard to lamely joke that they were late for a flight.

"We've been working on it since 6 a.m. . . ," said Michael Sabo, 22, a Finksburg resident and local set designer who labored earnestly over the baggage area in a manner strangely reminiscent of Harrison Ford in the barn-building scene in "Witness."

"We got all these pillars in first," noted Mr. Sabo, gesturing at two dozen plywood mock-ups evenly spaced across Sinai's promenade, each painted to match the hospital's surrounding marble. Each pillar was carefully streaked with black paint, diluted to simulate the surrounding stone.

By late afternoon, the stage was fully set for melodrama, which yesterday was limited to a small group of actors standing at the rear of a Washington cab, loading luggage, then walking around to the cab doors and engaging each other briefly in conversation. Over and over and over again.

"Aren't they going to do anything different?" wailed one young fan after the eighth consecutive take. "It's boring."

If the plot seemed a trifle thin to onlookers, there was nothing but love of craft in the hearts and minds of more than 200 Baltimore- and Washington-area extras who were being paid $99 a day to help create the illusion of airport action.

"I'm going to be wheeling the cart up around this way as if I'm looking for a customer," explained Joel Holman, 62, of Glen Burnie, as he prepared for an understated portrayal of an airport skycap.

Mr. Holman, whose handling of the baggage nonetheless brings to mind the great Bogart pack mules in the Sierra Madre, says he has done this sort of thing many times. His work adorns the background of such films as "The Accidental Tourist," "He Said, She Said" and "Avalon."

Even closer to the action was Mitter Bakhshi, 40, a Gaithersburg resident and Washington cabbie, whose role presented him with the opportunity to actually drive the Diamond Cab in which Mr. Murphy was filmed leaving the hospital -- er, airport.

"I was told I would speak, but I don't know if that will happen," said Mr. Bakhshi, a 12-year veteran with Diamond whose film career began in midshift with the squawk of a dispatcher asking, "Cab 416, you wanna be in a movie?"

As shooting developed, Mr. Bakhshi's role seemed limited to a nod of the head and some on-camera walking as he helped Mr. Murphy and two other actors load luggage and get into his cab. The dialogue calls for the cabbie to proceed to Washington's Hays-Adams hotel.

"From here, it would be a very good fare," laughed Mr. Bakhshi, who, with his dark, brooding good looks, seems to reprise De Niro's role in "Taxi Driver," but with more warmth. "Actually, I would make about the same in fares today if I was driving, but this is more fun."

As for the aforementioned Murphy fellow, he seemed polite enough, but somewhat aloof during his brief visit to Sinai. The actor spent much of his time at the hospital inside a customized bus, waiting out delays, then waving silently to fans as he walked to and from the set -- much as he did Friday in a similar shoot outside the Baltimore courthouse downtown.

Two exchange students from the Russian city of Odessa, who are visiting the hospital as part of their tour, hoped to give several handmade gifts from Odessa to the actor, but that scenario seemed an unlikely one to Mr. Murphy's publicists, who accepted the gifts.

"He is very popular in our city," said Svetlana Sukihanova, 17, of School No. 119 in Odessa, who remembered enjoying Mr. Murphy in such films as "The Policeman of Beverly Hills" and "Garmlemski Nochi," which translates to "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Harlem Nights."

"And also, the one that is called '48 Hours Twice,' " said her companion, Arthur HD, 17, coming quite close to "Another 48 Hours."

Despite the absence of any real interaction with the star, the crowd stayed patient and deferential, going silent when set personnel repeately announced that the cameras were rolling and quiet was necessary.

Officials with Hollywood Pictures, a Disney subsidiary, elected to use the front of Sinai on a whim, according to hospital spokesman Paul Umansky, who served as a liaison for the filming. The Maryland Film Commission told the moviemakers about an underground tunnel at the hospital that resembled one at the U.S. Capitol.

The filmmakers found that location problematic, but on leaving the hospital, they noticed that the promenade showed a crude resemblance to National's portico -- which cannot be used as a film site because of traffic concerns.

For a modest fee, the hospital agreed to allow the one-day shoot, provided that hospital business was not interrupted. The filmmakers complied fully, even installing a new wheelchair ramp so that women in labor could be wheeled to a side entrance.

But it was the bustle of hundreds of extras -- some driving airport buses and cabs, some pretending to be embarking passengers, some directing traffic as airport police -- that gave the scene some realism.

"Everything is important to how the film looks," said Bill Godsey, 40, a Sparrows Point resident who spent yesterday as a passenger walking repeatedly between two airport buses. Dapper in a trench coat, Mr. Godsey vaguely recalled the quiet dignity of Paul Heinreid at the final airport scene in "Casablanca."

Asked for his ultimate destination as an airline passenger, Mr. Godsey shrugged.

"No," he said, smiling, "it's not method acting."

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