Down into the trenches with Hollywood prop master Steve Levine
When we go to the movies, we become engrossed in the story and see lots of things on the screen that we never really think about. This is where Steve Levine comes in. The Manhattan Beach resident spent nearly 40 years as a Hollywood prop master, and he worked on some memorable films such as “Airplane,” “Cocoon,” and “Apollo 13.”
But what the heck’s a prop master, and what exactly does he do?
To answer that question, Levine has penned an anecdotal memoir called “Hollywood from Below the Line: A Prop Master’s Perspective.” The “from the below the line” part refers to the fact that prop masters are among those people on a production team that are infrequently acknowledged, at least publicly, and then skipped over at awards time.
To put it simply, as Levine writes, “props are items actually handled or used in any way by the actors during the filming of a show (coffee mug, camera, gun, grocery bag, pen, football etc.).” Props also include food and animals, except perhaps animal stars in their own right: No one’s going to call Lassie a prop, unless they want a nip on the shins.
One should also bear in mind that a property master must be able to pull the right item out of the right hat at the right time. Intuition seems to be mandatory for this job as well, because he or she needs to please the director on the one hand and the “bean counters” on the other.
But let’s get started, and ask Steve Levine why he wrote his book.
You do what, exactly?
“Over the years, when I met new people,” he says, “the common question is, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I’m a prop master in the film industry.’ Most of those people didn’t know what that meant. They know what a cameraman is, they know what a wardrobe supervisor or a costume designer is, but when it comes to key grip, gaffer, head electrician, property master, mixer – a lot of them don’t know what that is.
“They would always say, ‘Well, that sounds really interesting and fun,’” Levine continues. “Then I would have to explain to them that, yeah, it can be interesting, but it’s not always fun. And this is why: You’re under a tremendous amount of stress constantly and you’re working with egos bigger than you can possibly imagine.
“And so it can be fun given the right circumstances, but it’s certainly not always fun. It’s very high-pressure.”
Levine is quick to offer up an example of what he means.
“Imagine an entire crew standing around the set and they’re ready to roll, and your prop’s not ready. Or, worse yet, maybe not right. Well, you can’t allow that to happen. They know how much it costs per minute to run that company – and it’s a lot of money. So you have to have the right thing, and right now.”
To his credit, unless he’s hiding it from us, Levine never had any major disasters on his hands, although he’d had some close calls. While working on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” some firearms that he’d brought to the set kept jamming in one scene, causing delays in shooting – shooting the scene, that is, not just the target or person. Although, rationally, the supplier should have ensured that the weapons were in working order, the director didn’t see it that way. “Apparently this one thing was so unforgivable,” Levine writes, “I would never hear from Joel Silver again.”
Anyway, after Steve Levine told people what he did for a living, they’d reply with something like, “Wow, you must have a million stories.”
A million’s a lot. Did you write some of them down over the years?
“No, everything was stored right here,” Levine says, pointing to his head, “but everything in the book is exactly how it happened. There is no creative license, there’s nothing fabricated. I had them all in my memory.”
And here’s the other reason for the book:
“I wrote it because I wanted people to understand what it is that we do, and I wanted credit for my prop brothers because we’re left off the red carpet.”
Which refers to the title, “Hollywood from Below the Line.”
“That’s exactly right,” Levine says. “The production designer gets credit from the Academy, [and] the set decorator goes right in with them. But they cut it off at us.” He pauses. “I always felt that this was very unfair. We’re not recognized by the Academy… and I wanted credit for guys like me that are toiling every day, particularly nowadays with less amount of help and less budget.”
Enough is enough
Steve Levine is now retired, a mere lad in his early 60s. His father, the late Allan Levine, was a property master as well, and founded The Hand Prop Room in 1973. That’s where you could go to rent props for your backyard version of “Spartacus,” and in fact you still can. The business, currently on Venice Blvd. in Los Angeles, is run by Steve’s son Derek. I guess this is their own version – hopefully not a sitcom – of “All in the Family.”
It was also Steve’s father who got him into the film business. He was 23 years old and the first picture he worked on was “The Last Tycoon,” starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Elia Kazan. His next two films were “10,” with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek, and then “Airplane,” which is still on many people’s list as one of the funniest films they’ve ever seen. I saw it when it was first released, and I’m still chuckling.
The years went by, and many more films and television shows followed. Gradually, the nature of the industry changed, and finally Levine began seeing the writing on the wall. This was probably about the time (2008-2009) when Levine was working on the TV show “True Blood.”
“The business had changed so much since when I had started,” he says. “It went from a creatively-based, creative industry to more of a budget-driven industry. It was a battle to get anything done that in the past would have been easier, like trying to get the appropriate amount of help you need on a project. Or when it comes to your equipment rental, or your salary, or overtime.
“Not only that, even being questioned on ‘Why did you spend this?’ ‘Why did you spend that?’ ‘Couldn’t you have gotten it for cheaper?’ And I was being asked these questions by people who basically were in kindergarten when I started. It became really frustrating. It took the joy out of it.”
Being away from home for long periods of time was another factor, and now he’s a grandparent who’d like to be around to dote on his grandkids.
“I had missed a lot of my own children growing up,” Levine says, “because when they were younger – like on ‘Cocoon’ – I could take them with me. But by the time they hit first grade, and I was traveling six, seven, up to nine months a year… My first wife wound up raising them a good amount of time by herself.”
Hitting 60 or thereabouts, and coming off of ‘True Blood” (and then “Glory Daze” and “House of Lies”), Levine found his work “more frustrating than enjoyable, compounded by the fact that I didn’t want to miss my grandkids growing up. On top of that, much of the industry has left California. They’re getting tax breaks all over the country, so a lot of production is not done out of Hollywood anymore.”
Levine looked at the jobs he was being offered, and shook his head. They involved being out of town for months at a time – sort of like the sailors who signed on with Magellan. “The universe was saying, ‘You know what? It’s time.’ I’m like a dinosaur. I did 20 feature films, large budget films. Years of television. The people who were hiring me had since retired. Now I’ve got young people that, if I send resumes out, they look at it and they say, ‘Jesus, this guy propped ‘Airplane;’ he’s got to be 75 years old!’ Well, the truth is, when I propped ‘Airplane’ I was 27. That was a big credit for me, and that’s what started the ball rolling.”
The good with the bad
“Hollywood from Below the Line” has a conversational tone and is easy to read. Levine seems to have been an amiable fellow and a true professional at the same time. There’s no maliciousness in the book, and he doesn’t seem to spill the beans on anyone, although he still harbors a small grudge against – of all people – Pamela Anderson, who stiffed him out of $350 after requesting a number of remote-controlled fart machines to be used as gift gags. Well, c’mon, Steve, that anecdote alone is worth the dough!
While Levine has good memories of working with Ron Howard (“I’m probably most proud of my work on ‘Apollo 13.’”), Tim Burton, Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens, and Michael Jackson, among others, his time on location for “Havana,” and specifically his encounters with its director, Sydney Pollack, did not turn out so well.
He’s not out to malign a famous director, he’s just recounting his own experience: “When you read about ‘Havana,’ you realize that Sydney treated other people differently. It just depends how high up on the social scale he thought you were. And so I exposed him. I don’t feel any pangs about doing that. They say there’s three sides to every story: Your side, his side, and the truth.”
Naturally, Levine wanted every film he worked on to be a smash hit. However, when “Havana” flopped, he didn’t lose any sleep over it.
On a couple of occasions a job came along and Levine took it, and then a week or two later an even more-appealing offer landed in his lap – except that now it was too late to accept. Two such offers were “Parenthood” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“But I’d already been hired on ‘50,’” he says. “‘50’ had a big cast [Richard Dreyfuss, Elliot Gould], with a well-known director [Mark Rydell]. I couldn’t leave. I mean, I could have. But you do that and you’re burning a bridge. If I would have walked away just because I got some other great deal, two weeks in…” Levine pauses. “I missed [out on] several films, but you don’t have the luxury of knowing. That was unfortunate. Not only did I lose ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and ‘Parenthood,’ I wound up with no job at all, until whatever my next job was.”
There were “creative differences” on the set or behind the scenes, and “50” was cancelled.
For the most part, Levine finished his book during the twilight of his career. He found an editor to shape it up a little, and eventually a publisher who said Yes, I’ll get it out in a month or so, and then proceeded to sit on it for a year. Levine reeled the manuscript back in, contemplated self-publishing, and then got an offer from Robert D. Reed Publishers in Oregon. Within a few weeks these folks made it available on Amazon as a download, and then earlier this month physical copies became available, including the one I’m glancing at right now. Its author won’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it’s an engrossing read and in the end it stands up for his buddies in the film industry: “My experience is working with all the guys that are in the trenches, 14 to 16 hours a day. And so I wanted our side of things heard.” Now they are, loud and clear.
Hollywood from Below the Line: A Prop Master’s Perspective is available, priced at $14.95 paper, from Robert D. Reed Publishers in Bandon, Oregon. They can be contacted at rdrpublishers.com. Steve Levine signs and discusses his book from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30, at Pages Bookstore, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 318-0900 or go to pagesabookstore.com.