An American actor in Prague, Part 3: Defenestration, dinosaurs and Hollywoodland
We were 20 miles outside of Prague working inside a majestic and decaying old mansion overlooking the 14th century town of Králův Dvůr (Kings Court). The tranquil neighborhood had been home to steel and textile magnates a hundred plus years ago.
I had been cast as a trial judge for The Poisoner's Handbook, a docu-drama recounting the adventures of America’s first forensic scientists.
The program would air on the Public Broadcasting System, one of America's most trusted institutions and home to such iconic programs as Masterpiece Theatre and Sesame Street.
We were filming in a sunken living room doubling as an early American courthouse and several of my English-speaking colleagues had also been cast as lawyers, detectives and witnesses. The many familiar faces made the production feel more akin to a community playhouse than a national television shoot.
As the cameras rolled, there I sat, presiding over a packed courtroom, gavel in hand, puffing a cigar while vintage flashbulbs popped from the press box and the lawyers chewed up the scenery.
As we paused between takes, I shuffled some paperwork and came across something interesting, an invoice for a company called History for Hire, a respected prop-house located in North Hollywood, California.
I was familiar with the company and noticed that $500 worth of small-scale props had been rented and hauled halfway across the globe for the day's shoot. Their warehouse, located a mere 10-minute drive from my old Hollywood apartment (sans traffic), was a bemusing reminder of how close yet how far I was from home. All of a sudden the gavel in my hand felt a little different.
Czech actress Katerina Vecker was cast as the notorious serial killer Fanny Creighton who had managed to use arsenic to repeatedly poison members of her family, defeating multiple prosecutions over the years. I spoke with Vecker about her preparation for the role;
“Getting to know Mary Frances Creighton was its own kind of poison,” she said. “Researching this woman’s story most certainly got under my skin.”
Shooting with a slew of American buddies allowed for some snarky moments on the set and at one point the actor in my witness box, who had been flown in from New York to play the lead, leaned over and asked: “So why did you all move here?”
It’s a question expatriates are often asked. Why did we abandoned our mother ships, our homelands, our families, or inversely, why did we choose this place, Czechia, to establish our own?
Prague is intrinsically a dramatic place. When I hung my hat here in 2011, I had never heard of the word “defenestration” before. When someone told me what it meant, I thought they were kidding.
The Latin root “fenestra” means “window” but the big surprise was learning it was coined right here in Prague over four centuries ago.
Two bloody and protracted wars were triggered as the direct result of The Prague Defenestrations.
DEFENISTRATION: the act of throwing a thing or especially a person out of a window. (The defenestration of the commissioners of Prague).
Whether the United States tossed me out, or I did the tossing, either way, I landed in a new world.
Prague is a considerably peaceful place with scant violent crime and a steady stream of traditional celebrations among its many vast parks, squares and gathering spots. It’s a wonderfully pedestrian city with ancient and evocative infrastructure ripe for exploration and a terrific public transit system that includes trams, subways and even motorboats.
As I write, from a quite hillside with sweeping views of the city in an area called Anděl, which translates to “Angel,” living in a world-class city smack in the middle of Europe with affordable flights to a vast array of cultures ... it would be impossible to move back to the Los Angeles without defenestrating all over myself again.
Dinosaurs And Mineral Water
An hour west of Prague is a picturesque spa town one must see to believe. Founded in 1370 and named Karlovy Vary after the King of Bohemia and former Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the city is the epitome of quaint.
Celebrated for its natural hot springs and spa treatments, Carlsbad, the city’s English name, is filled with enchanting storybook architecture, steaming geysers and a diversity of ornate fountains scattered throughout the town, burbling nonstop with the curative mineral liquid.
Historic luxury hotels and mountainside funiculars reach into the surrounding forests, the likes of which inspired Wes Anderson’s latest opus The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt, Goethe and Sigmund Freud have all joined many modern-day filmmakers as distinguished guests of the fabled town.
The city hosts the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the oldest in the world, and despite almost fizzling out during the communist era the celebration has endured to become one of Europe’s more highly regarded festivals.
The atmosphere is at once sophisticated and folksy, delivering old-school, red carpet glamour while sustaining itself as a true film lover’s paradise, complete with many attendees bringing backpacks and camping out under the stars.
Beyond the films themselves; celebrity panel discussions, award presentations and lavish parties in historic locations keep participants busy. One of my favorite activities was renting bicycles between screenings, exploring the many hidden gems throughout the town.
After my first visit to Carlsbad I returned to Prague by train and was treated to a mesmerizing experience. Crisp country air filled my cabin while the golden hour saturated the landscape with a dreamlike glow. I became transformed into a passenger aboard a miniature electric train set as a surreal picture-show unfurled before my eyes.
For an hour I hung my head out of the window and watched in awe as the warm light beamed through dense forests and sparkled on meandering rivers. We crossed bridges, passed church steeples, ancient village squares and factories all frozen in time. It was a spectacular view of the Czech countryside and had taken me by surprise.
Back in Prague exploring the medieval part of town where the waterwheels slowly churn inside the Čertovka (Devils Channel) I stumbled upon another fascinating filmic discovery.
Just under the Charles Bridge in Malá Strana one can find a richly appointed museum commemorating special effects pioneer Karel Zeman, aka the ‘Czech Méliès’, known for his innovative adventure films that combined live-action with animation.
The museum is filled with interactive exhibits, film clips and details of Zeman’s artistry, which emulated the rich fairytale illustrations of popular engravers from the 19th century.
Locals know his classic Cesta do Pravěku (Trip into Prehistory) a Czechoslovak children’s science-fiction feature repeated on television for decades. The documentary nature of the film, featuring stop-motion dinosaurs spliced together with live-action human observers had never been seen before. Spielberg and Zeman would have gotten along just fine.
I grew up in a showbiz family and one of my first jobs was operating klieg lights in front of movie premiers in the late 1970s.
My godfather was Lewis Milestone who won two Academy Awards for best director, one of them received at the very first ceremony back in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, long before it was televised.
As a teenager I’ll never forget the day he showed me his Oscar for All Quite on the Western Front, which would later mysteriously disappear for over a decade before eventually being recovered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
My grandfather was veteran golden-age actor Gordon Oliver, whose vast resume includes the classics Jezebel and The Spiral Staircase. He later produced several hit television shows in the 1950s such as Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky.
One of my favorite activities with him shortly before he died was reading him his fan mail and helping him return autographed headshots, many of the requests coming from Europe.
My dad, Ted Sr., appeared in several television and film productions, including the first season of The Twilight Zone and the original Oceans 11 caper featuring the Rat Pack.
My stepfather, Clifford David, also a veteran actor and singer, starred in films alongside Laurence Olivier, Paul Newman and Keanu Reeves as well as several hit Broadway musicals and would regularly alarm my friends with his bizarre vocal exercises echoing through the house.
He starred in many popular television dramas including Bonanza, Ironside and The Mod Squad. A favorite was an episode of The Big Valley cast as a cowboy with an evil twin brother, playing both parts of course.
Dad would return from the studio, his face glowing with make-up, and bring home the coolest gifts. One day he brought us autographed headshots from the entire cast of Charlie’s Angels another day from The Mary Tyler Moore Show both of which he guest starred in.
Instead of telling the family about his day, he’d simply take us to work. One day I returned from the Planet of the Apes set with my own prosthetic latex ape mask direct from the shows make-up department.
My mom produced documentaries, published books and managed a vineyard in northern California while raising a family of five in, then, sleepy Santa Monica, California.
Growing up in the 1970s, my brothers and I managed to get into some serious mischief. We often jumped the fence at Los Angeles International Airport roaming the runways, plugging our ears as the passenger jets screamed by. We generally enjoyed breaching security perimeters as a challenge and often snuck into construction sites and deserted historic buildings.
One night in the early 1980s as we were salvaging an old gargoyle from the condemned Garden Court apartments on Hollywood Boulevard, we came face to face with an irate security guard complete with a snarling dog in one hand and a pointed handgun in the other. Regardless, we came back hours later and quickly rescued the circa 1917 relic from its unceremonious location in a trash heap.
However, the Holy Grail was the film studios, the dream factories, cities unto themselves with an endless array to discover. We would crash sound stages, peek inside trailers, and prowl through the prop, costume and picture car departments. We’d eat in the commissary and wander through the backlots marveling at the fabricated cities and simulated suburbias. MGM, Fox, Warner Brothers and Zoetrope were all easy to sneak into. Paramount and Universal were a bit trickier but I still knew how. Today they all require your firstborn. I can’t imagine why.
The adventures of my youth gave way to eventual jobs working at the studios, filming commercials and doing extra work. I always sought out the elderly bit players and ‘background artists’ who would spin yarns about their brushes with fame.
A Magic Place
I landed in Prague straight from downtown Hollywood where I’d lived and kept offices in Raymond Chandler Square. I wandered this beguiling city in a daze and hit my first casting while still jet lagged.
I quickly met an eclectic group of industry professionals and kept at it. My six-month round-trip ticket was quickly forgotten and now it’s hard to believe three years have passed.
Having the opportunity to work in Europe as an actor, meeting filmmakers from around the globe and enjoying the rich cultures surrounding the industry has been pure joy. Who knew departing my beloved Tinseltown would lead to such remarkable adventures. Some of the most fascinating structures, residences, neighborhoods and yes, people I’ve encountered to date have been during my work as an actor in Prague.
By the way, it's still easy to sneak into Barrandov, just tell the guard you're delivering a package to the Dřevák.
Born and raised in southern California, Ted lived and worked in downtown Hollywood for two decades before moving to Prague in 2011. He produced, shot, edited and composed music for his own television documentaries and has developed several luxury real-estate properties across Los Angeles. Ted is a longtime member of the performance guilds SAG-AFTRA and ASCAP.