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August 1, 2014

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Twinkling among the stars

In Hollywood, it's all about who you know.

Bob Formica would be the first to attest to the old cliche -- he built a 20-year career on it.

During that time, the Las Vegan had small parts and performed stunts in television shows and films, and oversaw the technical end of some operations on the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park's back lot tour.

He palled around with Paul Newman while working on 1971's auto racing flick "Once Upon a Wheel," and built friendships with comedic actor Jonathan Winters and the late "Dragnet" star Jack Webb.

"He was straight and narrow, but he had a tremendous sense of humor, a very dry sense of humor," Formica says of Webb. "You'd really have to listen to him the first time around because he wouldn't repeat it."

On television, Formica has had bit parts on the sitcoms "Archie Bunker's Place" and "CPO Sharkey," starring Don Rickles.

"It's just connections," Formica, now the entertainment manager at Boulder Station hotel-casino, says.

"The only way I got the jobs was because of people I knew. Stunt coordinators would bring me the parts, and friends of mine who were directors and assistant directors on shows," he explains. "They'd say, 'Hey, we've got a part coming up. Do you want to come in for a shot?' ... So I'd come in, do a little part and leave.

"I either played cops or gangsters; I don't know what it was," he says, chalking the typecasting up to his dark, Italian looks.

But in 1979's "The Onion Field," starring James Woods, Formica played a jury foreman. The scene, supposedly set during the dog days of summer, was actually filmed in the dead of winter in a California onion field.

"My shirt sleeves were rolled up and you couldn't breathe" because his breath would create a fog that would appear on camera, he recalls. "So you're wiping your brow off and you're freezing to death."

The stunt work he's done has been of a relatively tame variety, mostly involving car chases and fight scenes. "Nothing heavy," Formica says. "I think the furthest I've ever jumped was maybe two stories, and I was scared then."

But for all of the help he's received from show business acquaintances, entertainment is a Formica family affair.

Originally from New York, Formica is one of seven children born to a music conductor/professor father, Robert, who led symphonies in Rome as a teen, and a political activist mother, Josephine, who once made an unsuccessful bid for the New York Legislature. Also, his oldest sister is a professional singer and bass player.

After graduating from high school, Formica joined the Air Force and, while stationed in Puerto Rico, went to work in programming and on-air capacities for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network Services.

Following his military stint, he headed for Los Angeles to attend college, earning a degree in telecommunications, and studied at an acting academy there.

Brushes with stardom

His foray behind the scenes came when he landed a part-time job during college -- courtesy of classmate Don Martin -- working as a video cameraman at Universal Studios.

Martin, who supervises the explosives and weaponry used in the movie theme park's attractions, brought Formica aboard in the early '70s. The two later co-owned a small video production company.

Martin says when he and his crew were conceiving ideas for the theme park's live-action stunt shows, Formica "would definitely have his hands in it and his knowledge to get the best camera angles and lighting and all of that stuff."

Besides the job at Universal, Formica also drove a truck part-time, delivering freight on a route which included other Southern California motion picture studios.

One delivery, to the Warner Bros. lot, had him unloading goods at Frank Sinatra's private bungalow there.

"When I walked in the door, the whole Rat Pack was there," he says. The bunch's legendary antics ensued when Formica presented a bill in need of a signature.

"About that time, Dean Martin reached up and grabbed the bill ... and they started passing it," he says. "So finally, I just walked over and I grabbed it out of their hands and said, 'Come on, you guys, quit messing around. I've got freight to deliver,' and they all started laughing.

"So Sinatra grabbed it and said, 'Let me sign it.' That was my first encounter with him."

The next came several years later, when the Chairman of the Board performed at the Universal Amphitheater. Formica recalls: "I walked up to him and said, 'You don't remember me ... I'm the guy who used to deliver your freight,' and he said, 'Now I remember you,' and that was it.' "

Still, Formica contends he has not been jaded by his celebrity encounters. "I get to the point a lot of times where I'm not impressed with people's titles," he says. "I respect them and all of that, and I respect the amount of work it took to get them there."

Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head, for example. Formica worked with her on a couple of occasions.

"You respected her because of what she was, but she was a real salty type of person," he says, "and she told you the way it was, and if she thought you were an S.O.B., she'd tell you that you were an S.O.B."

Jim Winburn is an independent film producer/director who also worked with Formica at Universal. He says Formica has a certain flair in dealing with stars.

"No matter how big a celebrity they are, or how small they were, he treated them as if they were really, truly the best professional that was in the area at that time," Winburn says. "You don't find too much of that in Hollywood."

Check's in the mail

Despite his training in the entertainment industry, Formica's career path took an unusual turn after college graduation: He joined the Burbank, Calif., police department.

"I needed a job," he explains. "I wanted to get out onto the streets and see what was going on in the world."

But after three years, another job at Universal beckoned him back. As show captain, Formica oversaw production and performances of the theme park's live-action stunt shows, including "Airport '77," "Adam-12" and "Star Trek." Over the years, he also worked as a technical director, a stage manager and a stunt coordinator.

"Everyday was an adventure," he says of his time at Universal, "because you never knew what you were going to come up with."

Meanwhile, he continued taking occasional acting jobs, amassing about about 20 films and 50 television shows to his credit.

Occasional residual checks (money paid to him when a program he appeared in reruns) continue to trickle in, most with sums so small -- between 10 and 24 cents -- that Formica doesn't bother to cash them.

Instead, he displays them in his small Boulder Station office. (A gold plaque on the door proclaims the space is the "Entertainment Capital of the Universe").

The walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of him with celebrities -- Newman, Winters, Rickles, Woods -- and poster boards autographed by most of the acts that have performed at the hotel since it opened in 1994.

Formica shows the residual checks to people who approach him seeking advice on how to break into show business. "I say, 'Well, let me show you how acting pays off.' I want to make sure that they're aware of what they're getting into.

"What I mainly tell them is just to be prepared ... to take the bumps and the lumps of the business," he says. "You can go to any acting school or study as long as you want, (but) you're gonna get one shot and you'd better make that shot good your first time out because if you blow it ... your face gets known around town and a lot of (industry professionals) won't touch you."

Formica just tried to make his shots as authentic as possible, especially when portraying police or military officers, for which he drew off of his real life experiences.

"Every time I played a cop, I made sure that I was correct, that the procedures were right," he says.

His costumes, however, were out of his control. Once, while playing a SWAT team member, he was forced to wear the wardrobe department's leftovers: Boots that were several sizes too big.

"They were huge," Formica recalls. "I had to run up these stairs and I was tripping, I couldn't negotiate them. They looked like clown shoes. You just learn to roll with punches like that."

It was all good training for his current job, overseeing all aspects of performances at Boulder Station's Railhead venue. Formica took the position in 1994, after his job at Universal Studios was eliminated.

"I watch the technical end of (the performances), plus the creative end of it. I make sure the managers and the artists are happy," he explains.

On occasion, that includes filling some performers' unusual requests -- from having a certain kind of candy to a particular brand of towels in their dressing room.

"Stuff like that seems hard to fathom, but I've worked around it, I understand where they're coming from," Formica says. "I tell them, 'I know what's going on on your side, the artistic side ... because I've been there; I've walked both sides.'

"I understand how all the tension is created; I understand their stress. I'm always here to listen because if they've got any problems, then I want to know what they are."

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