Connie Benesch is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Hollywood, purveyor of trends, has embraced the lowly cockroach.

"Exterminators all around the country are killing cockroaches. In Hollywood, they round them up and make stars out of them," says Betty Denny Smith, director of the American Humane Assn.'s Los Angeles office, which monitors the safety of animals used in films and television shows, including insects. "The only place a roach is safe is on a movie set."

Some 30,000 real (and computer-generated) ones appeared in "The Craft," slipping through air vents, spilling into a house and crawling all over a girl. Fake roaches are exploded by poisonous gases in "The Rock." In next month's "The Fan," Robert De Niro's psychotic knife salesman hits a fake roach with one of his newest blades, while others are mounted on his bulletin board. Later this year and next, according to the AHA, roaches will skitter about in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!"; "Jerry McGuire," which stars Tom Cruise; "Men in Black," with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith; Mel Gibson's "187"; "L.A. Confidential," with Russell Crowe; and "Addicted to Love," starring Meg Ryan.

On Friday, when Warner Bros. releases "Joe's Apartment," written and directed by John Payson, roaches move center stage, even taking on heroic attributes. The film, which began life as an MTV short, is set in New York City and features a slew of amiable but intrusive singing, dancing, jabbering, carefree, do-gooder roaches (both real and computer generated), who insist on befriending and "helping" Joe (Jerry O'Connell) in all of his jams.

"I found working with roaches a lot easier than working with some actors," O'Connell jokes. "They were a lot less demanding."

O'Connell, who grew up in New York City having "a loving relationship" with the tiny urban dwellers, recalls, "I'd come home from school, and there'd be five or 10 of them on the couch singing, 'We Are Family.' "

So O'Connell says he had no qualms about getting physically close to the creatures for "Joe's Apartment." In one scene, some 30 live roaches slithered all over his face while he's supposedly unconscious. For another pivotal scene, a bunch of roaches fell onto him. On a third occasion, he put a spoon containing two live roaches into his mouth.

Why not just let a stand-in do all the intimate scenes with roaches? "How can I wimp out? I feel a great responsibility with this film," O'Connell says. "People squash first and ask questions later. This is going to change all that. I want to make people realize how loving and kind and cool and what a great friend a roach can be."

The actor says he abides roaches in his Greenwich Village apartment because he can't get into the "crunching sound" the way he used to.

"They're very interesting and charismatic animals when you get to know them," says Raymond A. Mendez, the Portal, Ariz.-based roach wrangler on "Joe's Apartment." "They're like hamsters. They become an organism you can relate to. When they turn around and look at you, it's a sense of contact."

Evidently, after filming begins on a movie featuring large numbers of roaches, some crew members who've been squeamish about working with the creatures begin to give them names and develop maternal or paternal instincts. Says wrangler Boone Narr, owner of the Castaic-based Boone's Animals for Hollywood, who worked on "The Craft" and "The Rock": "They get a little protective of them, saying, 'Oh, don't stomp on him. That's little Louie. He's one of the actors.' "

Adds O'Connell: "You'd see these huge 300-pound grips jumping on chairs, going, 'Get out of the way!' "

Ironically, much as Hollywood reveres roaches, even animal rights groups have reservations about guarding their lives. In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals declined the AHA's request to monitor cockroach action on "Joe's Apartment" while filming in Manhattan because roaches were "so far down on the animal scale."

In a letter, the ASPCA's representative fretted that "it would be a huge laughing matter . . . were its contributors to find out." Besides, the rep wrote, "like everybody else in New York City, we kill every cockroach we can get near."

For "Joe's Apartment," Mendez says he took every precaution to ensure the welfare of the roaches. For example, when arranging for temporary housing for roaches on movie sets, climate is an important consideration. Mendez set up a special room with a temperature in the 80s and 50% humidity. The 5,000 roaches lived in five 55-gallon white rubber containers with air vents. Each barrel was numbered so Mendez could make sure the roaches weren't overworked.

"The roaches were never stressed out," Mendez insists, despite the fact that he made little costumes for them, used carbon dioxide gas to put them asleep so he could put their outfits on, and fitted them with minuscule harnesses to control their movements. He says that the few who died did so of natural causes.

"In having gone over the animal action with the trainer," says the AHA's Smith, "it appears that the roaches were handled humanely and with their best interests and welfare in mind."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World