One-on-One with Charlie Picerni (Part I)
TM: How did you get started in the business?
CP: Well, my brother came out to California years ago to become an actor on “The Untouchables
TM: You meant the TV show, “The Untouchables”?
CP: The original TV show. I was in New York at the time. Paul is about 15 years older than I am. I had just about finished high school. Our father passed away when I was about three years old. My mother worked to support her five kids, so I had to help. I didn’t do anything bad because I had so much respect for my mother that I didn’t want to get involved with that kind of stuff. You know I just – the whole neighborhood knew her because they knew her son and her first son was an actor and they had respect for her. And I knew that and I didn’t want to hurt her because I loved her so much and she looked after me, besides my three sisters that I had. And I did bad things, but I won’t say criminal type things, you know? I worked for a guy because he knew my first wife and her family, so I picked up numbers and I worked in the horse room and I figured out bets and I was making money with them. In those days, I was making $500 a week with it. This was in 1960. So he was taking care of me and I knew it wasn’t the right way to go. He was a good guy, but he went that way, you know. Always working like that – and I knew that because I got into a couple of little jams. But he’d take me to the Copacabana, and I finally said “you know what, I’ve got to go.” My mother finally pushed me. I had to do construction work and I hated that. I drove trucks – I did everything. And when I came out here and fortunately, my mother pushed me so hard and the first six months I was here, she had a breast operation and six months after that she died. So she never really saw what I accomplished and I accomplished quite a bit in my career.
I was just knocking around doing construction work and working various jobs and [my brother] Paul said they had just gotten started on “The Untouchables” around one year – he said, “Why don’t you come out to California and you take a shot out there?” I said, “What would I do”? He said, “You can stand in for me and maybe do stunt work,” which I knew nothing about. But I was a pretty active kid in New York and I was pretty coordinated. At that time, I had just gotten married, had a little baby about three months old.
TM:What year was this?
CP: This was 1961.
TM: How old were you?
CP: 23, 24. I was young, very young. Anyway, I said okay. My son was born March 29, 1961, and I went to the construction place and I quit, telling them, “If I’m going to do this the rest of my life, it’s not going to work out.” So I left for California on my own July 4th and got in the Guild and I started working on “The Untouchables” on July 6th. I just went out to take a shot to see what it was going to be like.
TM: How did you get in the Guild?
CP: My brother got me in. At that time, it was pretty easy because Paul was the second lead on the show, and I got in the Screen Actors Guild. “The Untouchables” was kind of an action-oriented show, so I picked up a lot – I learned a lot and I just observed and I liked it and never went back. I just came out here to see what it would be like and I stayed here and they syndicated “The Untouchables.”
TM: What kind of money did you make doing stunt work?
CP: I remember telling my brother, “If I make $10,000 a year for the rest of my life, I’ll be happy.” And I made $10,000 the first year and $11,000 the second year and the third year was rough. Then I started knocking around in the business and making friends, meeting a lot of people and every time I did a stunt, the extras would go out and brag about me because I was one of their people. So I went back to New York and I did a show with a friend I had met, Harry Guardino, an actor. After that show, “The Reporter,” we did 13 episodes, where I did stunt work and various things and then I came back here again in 1965, and I started to work a lot. I met a friend of mine on “The Untouchables” who was very close to me, Victor Paul, and Vic at that time was doing “Batman” and different shows and I worked with him and then I made my way up.
Then I started coordinating and then through the years I did little features, but mostly, the first 27 years of my career was in television, and in 1975 I was pretty established at it and I worked on a pilot called “Starsky & Hutch.” I met the actor on it and I doubled him, besides doing an acting part. I did a lot of acting parts in those days. Small things, dialogue and other stuff. And Paul Michael Glaser really liked me and I did “Starsky & Hutch.” I coordinated that.
TM: What do you mean you coordinated that?
CP:?Stunt coordinated it — did all the action on it. And then on the second year — we did four years on the show. Around the second season, I got my second unit director’s card and I started doing all the action sequences, directing. So, I started moving up. By then I was doing “Kojak” and “Magnum P.I.” and all the T.V. shows. I was stunt coordinator and second unit director. And I met some great people… Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg and Duke Vincent, who was then Aaron’s number one guy. He was a great guy and he started me off directing. On “Starsky & Hutch,” I directed the last season of the show.
And then I had a big interview for “Die Hard” – I wanted to get into features. “Die Hard” 1 had all the biggest stunt guys in town interviewing and I went in and I met John McTiernan… John was a terrific guy and I really communicated great with him. He was kind of to himself with the crew, but with him I got along great. I got the show. John and I talked about the characters, about what I thought about the action scenes, because I really got into the story – I always got into the stories.
Look for Part Two in next week’s paper…