Hollywood North: An afternoon skulking around the set of "Nash Bridges"

All afternoon the $500,000 tour bus sat at 16th and South VanNess, looking terribly conspicuous.

Blatantly labeled "Star Trax Celebrity Coaches," and with two very grim looking fellows sitting outside on aluminum directors chairs -- alternately speaking into cellular phones and walkie-talkies -- it wasn't the kind of sight one expects in the Mission District.

One hour went by and nothing changed. Two hours and the only interesting moment has been when the grims got tired of the inquiring mind of a wino and stood up to shoo him away.

But when a black Lincoln Town Car swings around the corner, suddenly an army of handlers emerge from the coach and the grim fellows jump up to flank their boss.

Don Johnson steps out of the Lincoln in jeans and a blood red wool blazer and the busy little workers hustle him into the bus.

Just as suddenly it is quiet again for 30 minutes.

There's a lot of waiting around on the set of "Nash Bridges," Johnson's CBS cop show that takes place in San Francisco.

Any television show shooting on location is the same way. Eighty-five percent of the time is spent setting up cameras, checking lighting, watching replays, fixing make-up, corralling the gathering crowd ("No closer than the telephone pole!" a Napoleonesque SFPD officer scolded the encroaching Mission residents).

As the sky turns orange, the cameras start rolling at the behest of actor-turned-director Melanie Mayron, once the eccentric, spunky photographer on the 1980s series "thirtysomething."

The scene: Someone has been shot through their car windshield while exiting a car wash on VanNess.

Johnson leans into the car door to get a good look at the body and "Action!" is called with the snap of the clap board two feet from the star's face.

He stands, walks to the front of the car and examines the angle of the bullet hole. Determining it came from the residential hotel across the street, he steps around the police tape and a patrol car and crosses the street into the hotel. Not far behind are a Steady-Cam operator and a half dozen techies.

Back to first position.

Across the street, onlookers begin to fidget as a crew member congratulates them on being successfully quiet.

"There's always a dead guy in a car," someone in the crowd offers.

"I could play a dead guy," someone else responds.

Johnson is talking to Mayron about the next take. No one in the crowd recognizes her, but then she hardly looks like an actor or a director today. In a backwards baseball cap and sporting a rain slicker-yellow backpack throughout the night, she looks more like she stumbled onto the set on her way home from Everett Middle School, a few blocks away.

And is she chewing bubble gum?

The crew gets ready for a re-take, this time adding the dead body being loaded onto a stretcher as Johnson saunters across the street.

Duane, the crew guy encouraging quiet in the crowd is helped by a rather inebriated resident of the hotel.

"You heard the man! Shh. Back up you guys, away from the shot," he looks at a 10-year-old and tries to exude polite authority but is distracted by trying to stay upright. "You're in the shot, man."

The cameras roll again and Johnson crosses VanNess for the third time tonight. The Lincoln he arrived in, with his driver at the wheel, drives through the shot for effect.

When the take is over, the drunk congratulates the crowd. "Good job, everybody. Nice and quiet."

Later he retreats, embarrassed, into the hotel after stumbling into the camera's line during a take and ruining the shot.

Helping hold traffic for each take there are two motorcycle cops, who rest between takes under the light rigging, a 15 by 15-foot reflective cloth run up between two poles like the net behind a football goal post.

Surrounding them are several dollies of sound and lighting equipment off-loaded from the four tractor-trailers on the next block. Ten "Nash Bridges" director's chairs stand empty near by.

Two more policemen help private security guards maintain a perimeter.

The police presence is partially due on the neighborhood where they're shooting, confesses Duane.

"Normally we have one or two cops, but around here, it three or four."

Tonight the shoot goes off without a sign of the kind of activity that give the Mission a bad reputation (with the possible exception of the aforementioned drunk), and the security guards are pretty relaxed.

"One thing I'll say about 'Nash Bridges'," says one, describing the quantity of food on the set, "they sure do feed you well."

After another few takes, Johnson, Mayron and some of the crew move inside the hotel to shoot and the breakdown of the car wash set begins with the removal of magnetic SFPD decals from what turn out to be generic black and white police cars.

The onlookers go with their night and as the "Nash Bridges" crew start the packing up, still under the hot camera lighting.

The episode filmed this night, April 29, will air sometime in the fall, according to CBS media relations. The show will take a hiatus this summer.

This article appeared in SF Live, a San Francisco arts & entertainment monthly.

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