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If only there were an Academy Award for best stunt hand

In one episode of "Seinfeld," hapless George Costanza was hired as a stunt hand for a movie. Predictably, things went awry and poor George's hand never made a cinematic debut. In the days leading up to the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, my own hand fared far better performing a tiny but stellar role in a documentary about the great Washington Post editorial cartoonist, Herblock.

Last week, I got a call out of the blue asking if I had time to be a technical advisor for a film about the man whose pen name was derived from the simple mashing together of his first and last names, Herb Block. I was told the movie was being directed by Michael Stevens and produced by his father, George Stevens Jr.

Besides an interview in which I would give my assessment of Herblock's impact on the jugular art of political cartoons, I would have two key duties: first, creating a charcoal sketch of Kaiser Wilhelm II to represent a sidewalk drawing the 9-year-old Herb drew in 1917, and second, to be the sketching hand of a much older Herb 82 years later.

I was happy to do it, not only because I love a new experience in general and I love the movies in particular, but because I recognized the Stevens name. George and Michael are the second and third generations in a family line of accomplished film directors that began with two-time Oscar winner George Stevens Sr., director of the legendary movies "Giant," "Shane" and "A Place in the Sun."

George Jr., distinguished himself as founder of the American Film Institute and has won a long list of awards, including this year’s Oscar for lifetime achievement. Michael has his own successful directing career well underway with numerous awards and film credits to his name.

The documentary is being funded by the Herblock Foundation, an entity that was formed after Herblock's death and financed by the $60 million the modest-living cartoonist had amassed through five decades of accumulating stock in the Washington Post Co. The man worked right up to his final days on Earth, never married, never learned to drive a car and indulged himself primarily in cheap, humorous knickknacks that helped fill up his notoriously cluttered office.

Borrowing boxes of the actual stuff taken from Herblock’s lair at the Post, Michael Stevens re-created the office inside a nondescript studio in Hollywood. That is where I showed up on Tuesday morning.

My first task was to draw the Kaiser on a slab of fake concrete that would double for a sidewalk outside the Chicago townhouse where Herblock grew up. It was an interesting challenge. I first had to look at photos of the much-vilified German leader to decide how he should be caricatured. Then I had to pull away from my own drawing style, consider Herblock’s more spare, angular line and imagine how that might have begun to show in the drawing of a talented child artist.

After a few sketches, I decided I just had to go for it, knowing once the charcoal was on the faux concrete there would be no second chance. 

Luckily, the drawing pleased the director. The tough work done, I spent the rest of the day being a technical advisor, which mostly meant I stood around observing the movie magic and eating the free food. 

On Wednesday, my right hand got its moment in front of the camera. Veteran actor Alan Mandell had been hired to portray Herblock and, in his scenes, he sat at the desk in the reconstructed office, talking and doodling.

My hand was needed for the doodle close-ups. The trick was that my hand needed to look like the aged hand of the actor, so I was sent to the makeup specialist, Lindsey Bergfalk. For close to an hour, she worked to make my hand look like that of a 91-year-old man. My biggest sacrifice: having my forearm shaved. (I know it will grow back -- at least it did last summer when I singed it off lighting a barbecue grill.)

Then, it was lights, camera, action -- a few close-ups of my hand doodling away, a quick sketch of Bill Clinton in his underwear in what I hope was a Herblock-like style and I was done.

Anyone interested in seeing a photographic account of my turn as a stunt hand should visit my Facebook page. (Feel free to follow my page and join my nearly 19,000 followers and friends who receive direct links to my newest cartoons and columns, as well as occasional off-the-wall reports from the rest of my life.) 

For those of you who complain when I stray off topic, tomorrow I'll be back to the semi-serious job of political commentary. Having been the hand of Herblock, if only for a few moments, I am inspired to make the most of this privileged position I have. Herblock believed journalists -- including political cartoonists -- were called to be nothing less than the vigilant defenders of liberty. That seems like a job worth doing well.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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