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Occupy Chuck

(It’s customary in the media (and I guess a blog is technically part of the “media,” isn’t it?) to add our own “Auld Lang Syne” item to the list of things that went away during Millennium 2.011. Here’s a bubbly-raising post dedicated to an underappreciated television show that wrapped for good a couple of weeks ago.)

Imagine growing up loving – and I mean lovingGilligan’s Island. (Knowing no better, this was an affliction that many of us in Indiana once succumbed to, having spent countless after- school hours watching WGN reruns.)

Now imagine what it would have been like to have spent part of your working days as a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, occasionally dipping your toe into the lagoon.

Welcome to our world, sort of, or at least a portion of it, anyway.

For the past several months, both Kimi and I have seen our own worlds collide with the fictional setting of our all-time favorite television show, Chuck.

We both work on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where I give tours and she works in the studio protection group. Both of our roles call for us to interact directly with the shows on a regular basis. I lead three tours a day through the sets and Kimi works with the productions during filming as part of her set watch duties.

We can’t call ourselves long-term fans of Chuck. As a matter of fact, we had never even seen it until a few months ago when I started this tour-giving gig. I thought I’d better sample some of the programs made on the lot to know what I was showing off to the paying customers and borrowed the first season on DVD from a friend. After the first few moments of the pilot episode, Kimi and I uttered a collective “dammit,” knowing that until we had powered through every season, our sleep would be sacrificed nightly to feed our newfound “just-one-more-episode-of-Chuck” habit. We were hooked.

The humor, quirkiness, and infectious joy that Zachary Levi – the loveable nerd-turned-spy Chuck – and the rest of the cast brought to the screen immediately won us over. Although our addiction was new, it was strong.

The following mornings I would get to lead tours to the set of Chuck’s apartment on Stage 4, the fantastic “Buy More” set on Stage 17, and every so often to “the Castle” set on Stage 10.

A visit to the apartment set provided the added benefit of me getting to say hello to WB’s smallest celebrity: a cat named Smokey, who lived in the courtyard fountain when the stage wasn’t in use. (Smokey has another home next door on the set of Ellen and occasionally appears on the show.)

Sometimes, when the touring crowds were slight, I would stage sit at Chuck’s apartment for a few hours at a time, taking in the details of the sets. Someone must have taught Smokey how to high-five, because I was able to bond with the near-feral feline to the point that she would sometimes go paw-a-mano with me.

One thing you learn quickly in Hollywood is that if the star of the show is nice, niceness will permeate the entire production. (Sadly, the alternative is equally true.)

Since Zac Levi is the friendliest guy in Hollywood, the sets of Chuck were the most approachable on the entire lot. Comparable, in our experience, to the former sets of The West Wing, which because of the kindness and warmth of Martin Sheen, were congenial throughout.

I was never a Chuck insider – far from it. Smokey was the only member of the cast or crew with whom I was on a first-name basis.

Much of my interaction with the cast took place when I was leading a tram full of tour guests. We encountered Zac on several occasions, often atop a skateboard, wheeling himself from one soundstage to another between scenes. He would always say hello and offer a wave, no matter how busy he was. During one of these meetings he introduced himself to our tour group, apologizing because WB’s lot didn’t have 3D gorillas or thrill rides like Universal Studios, instead only having “schmucks like me.”

There were other Chuck cast moments, like the time I watched Joshua Gomez, who plays Chuck’s hapless best friend Morgan, practice karate moves on the apartment set. A couple of days later I got a shy wave and Australian-accented hello from Yvonne Strahovski. Another time, I turned the corner to see the entire cast walk by in bathrobes.

Kimi’s encounters with the cast were more substantial since she spent many hours with them during tapings over the past season. On once such night, the show was taping inside the parking structure just across from the lot on Forest Lawn Drive. It was the final night of shooting for an episode that Zac was directing. During a break, she asked him if he was having fun being the boss.

“Well …?” he replied with a knotted face suggesting that “fun” wasn’t the word he would have used. Then he smiled and commented that it was pretty stressful, but that he had a lot of support. Later that evening, he surprised everyone by personally renting two gourmet food trucks, which were made available to everyone on the crew, including Kimi. A sign was placed on both of the trucks which read, “Thanks for all your hard work. It’s gonna be great! – Zac.”

Despite having a rabid core of fans, the show never reached higher than #65 for a season, since for most of its run it was up against Monday Night Football. This season it was relegated to Friday night, which is where shows go to die, so everyone knew that it would soon be coming to an end.

In the weeks leading up to the final days of shooting, a visit to the sets was like seeing a friend who was terminally ill with no chance of recovery. Towards the end, even Smokey seemed to sense something was up and could often be found camped out on Chuck’s bed in an “Occupy Chuck” movement of one.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the cast because they were out on location for most of their final week. But Kimi did. She was walking past Zac’s trailer on their last day on the lot when he stepped outside. She extended her hand, telling him he would truly be missed at Warner Bros., and that it had been an honor working with him. She added that what he had brought to us was nothing short of magic.

Instead of simply shaking her hand, he embraced her, thanked her … and fought back tears. He apologized and explained that she had caught him at an emotional moment. When Kimi joined him in tears, they both laughed, and he wished her “a beautiful day.”

According to a young friend of ours at WB who spoke recently to Zac about his plans, his next stop is Broadway. NY’s gain is LA’s loss, most likely a temporary one, since anyone who has watched Chuck over the past five seasons, or has had the honor to meet Zac personally, champions this guy and hopes he makes it to his rightful place at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

I’m sure the rest of the cast will be okay too. Adam Baldwin consistently finds himself in fantastic, albeit short-lived shows (Firefly); and sweet and shapely Yvonne Strahovski, who recently appeared on the cover of a Maxim magazine, will have no trouble making rent.

The lot is quickly moving on. These days I pass by Stages 4, 10 and 17 and see the dumpsters outside filled with former Chuck sets. Three times a day I still see one of the Nerd Herders parked in the Transportation Museum and Smokey has moved back in full-time with Ellen.

A few months ago we were down in Studio City at the studio where Gilligan’s Island was filmed. The lagoon had been drained years earlier and replaced with a parking lot.

I know something will soon occupy Chuck’s former digs, and I imagine one day guests on my tours will see a line added to the brass plaques that don the sides of its former stages that reads “Chuck 2007 – 2011.”

Kimi and I will miss the cast and crew of Chuck, but we’ll be forever grateful to have been a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, and occasionally dipping our toes into the proverbial lagoon.

Kimi and I would like to thank the 86,511 “Deadwrite’s Dailies” readers who stopped by for a visit in 2011.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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