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‘Iron Will’: When Sled Dogs, Disney, and Kevin Spacey Descended on Duluth

An eyewitness account of the 1994 film from a guy who's (barely) in it.

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It’s ‘Iron Will,” a movie made in Duluth!

Thirty years ago, Disney’s Iron Will hit theaters. Thirty-one years ago, a Hollywood crew hit Duluth to film scenes for this (kinda) true story of a 1917 dogsled race from Winnipeg to St. Paul. 

As a super-talented Duluth actor, I was highly sought after to play the crucial role of "Spotlight Operator" in one of the film’s key scenes. (That is, they asked if I knew how to run a spotlight.) My short time on set left me with a lifetime of Hollywood Movie Memories: behind-the-scenes stories about famous actors, tales of sneaking onto the set, and my ultimate dismissal by a bona fide Hollywood director after three days of doing nothing but avoiding Kevin Spacey.

Pretty exciting stuff for a movie about sled dogs.

Hollywood Movie Memory #1: Famous Actors

The romantically named “Extras Holding Area” was a big room behind the opulent lobby of the former Hotel Duluth downtown. Out front, they were shooting a scene bustling with Duluthians who portrayed excited partygoers, along with professional actors who portrayed sled dog racers, reporters, and assorted 1917 bigwigs. Who were those professional actors, you ask? Let the name-dropping commence!

BRIAN COX: Today he’s celebrated as Logan Roy, but in 1993 he was hardly known by anyone in Duluth but me. Why? Because he was in one of my favorite movies but not a box office smash Manhunter (1986), which features the big screen debut of Dr. Hannibal Lecter—as portrayed by, you guessed it, Brian Cox. Cox’s performance doesn’t rely on shadowy dungeons and splashes of gore to create the iconic Lecter. All his scenes are shot in blinding white sterile light, and he still creeps your socks off. But here’s the sad thing: I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW BRIAN COX WAS IN IRON WILL UNTIL I WATCHED IT AT THE DULUTH PREMIERE! But even if I had known, I wouldn’t have approached him. He’d have eaten my liver after drowning me in Royian FUCKs.

DAVID OGDEN STIERS: The best-known actor in Iron Will at the time, thanks to his role as Charles Emerson Winchester in M*A*S*H, a show he had a reputation for never wanting to talk about. But my friend and fellow extra Bruce Ojard (who has more face time in Iron Will than the sled dogs) isn’t sure how he got it. He told me about the time an extra approached Stiers and asked what he’d been up to since M*A*S*H. Bruce froze, expecting an eruption, but instead Stiers calmly expounded on his many different projects. Another time, Stiers plopped down to sit with some extras in the back room, but after listening to one guy ramble on for a few minutes, popped back up, haughtily declaring “And to think that I VOLUNTARILY sat down here!” and left. Perhaps they should have asked about M*A*S*H

MACKENZIE ASTIN: The star of Iron Will and a great guy. He took time to chat with us each day, even though he was needed for every scene. When I screwed over Disney after my departure (stay tuned!), Astin gave me something that I still cherish. 

KEVIN SPACEY: The opposite of a great guy. I watched this future psycho from Seven from afar, which turned out to be a wise decision. I heard stories from others who worked on the movie longer than I did. Let’s just say that when news of Spacey’s behavior broke a few years back, I was not shocked by what was in that particular box.

Hollywood Movie Memory #2: Sneaking Around

I spent my first two days on set eating stale pretzels and wasting my life. I watched in envy as other extras came and went, marveling about how exciting it was to be acting in a big-time, big-budget Disney movie. But not for me.

The second day, I couldn’t take it anymore and wandered out onto the set to see some movie sausage being made: a long, continuous shot with elaborate blocking, intricate camera work, and detailed performances from Astin and Spacey. 

Later that same day, a production assistant lumbered in and yelled “Balcony scene people, places!” The guy motioned that I could go in so I bolted upstairs and muscled my way to the front of the group. We quickly learned a wildly inappropriate anti-German song from 1917, then filming commenced. My nuanced performance of the arm-waving xenophobe was so convincing, it’s featured in the film for an entire second and a half.

A group of men standing on a balconyDescription automatically generated

More than enough time for me to now honestly say…

“I’M IN A MOVIE WITH HANNIBAL LECTER, SUCKERS!”

Hollywood Movie Memory #3: Getting Fired

At the end of that second day, my big break arrived: The Spotlight Operator was called back for an extra, overtime day. The snacks were sure to be better, and the money... well, that was still going to be minimum wage, but at time and a half.

I only sat around bored for an hour before yet another production assistant ambled in, yelling “Spotlight Operator, let’s go!” He brought me to the middle of the main floor, then walked away, leaving me stranded in a sea of cables and a thick haze of smoke that a Hollywood fog machine had been belching out for three straight days. I stood there for about 10 minutes, unsure what to do but ready to bolt at a moment’s notice should Kevin Spacey approach. Finally, I glanced upward and froze. There it was! Up in another part of the balcony—my spotlight!

I dashed upstairs only to discover another person at my light. I could tell he wasn’t an actor because he was doing it all wrong: reading the paper and slurping coffee in a matter that hardly suggested 1917 Winnipeg. That’s when I realized this was a real spotlight operator who was part of the real crew. I asked where the Movie Spotlight was so I could go and prepare for my big scene. He glanced up mid-slurp, grunted “fuckifiknow,” then finished up that slurp with the professional gusto of a man backed by a Hollywood union.

Just then, a voice drifted up from below.

“Where’s our spotlight operator?”

I ran to the edge of the balcony and waved.

“Here, sir!”

“OK, hold on.”

After five tense minutes of holding on, the director of Iron Will, Charles Haid, emerged from the smoky haze, surrounded by 52 production assistants. He stared up at me. I waited. He stared some more. I sweated. More staring. I fidgeted. “What am I supposed to be doing?” I wondered to myself, not for the first time these past three days. “Should I pantomime running a spotlight? Should I improvise a monologue about being a 1917 Winnipegian Spotlight Operator?”

Haid gestured to one of the 87 production assistants (my god, they’re multiplying!), whispered something to them, then the entire circle oozed back into that thick Hollywood fog.

I glanced at the union spotlight guy. He shrugged, a nonverbal message I interpreted as “You’re a vital piece of this motion picture so stay right where you are,” but in all honesty probably meant “fuckifiknow.”

Another production assistant sidled up next to me.

“OK, you’re done for the day.”

I was flabbergasted.

“I’ve just been fired, haven’t I?”

“Yup! You can fire on out of here!”

An additional hour and a half of my time had been sucked away by Disney, and that seemed evil and icky to me. Not Kevin Spacey evil and icky, but still not right. I felt disrespected, and a little bit hurt.

Hollywood Movie Memory Extra: Brian’s Revenge

Before the Disney crew left town, I made them pay me for that hour and a half. They couldn’t believe I actually wanted the check, but I stood my ground and demanded that Mickey Mouse gimme that seven dollars and 46 cents. I made them process it, print it, and hand it over. Then I put it in my pocket and never cashed it.

The following year, I brought that check with me for the world premiere of Iron Will in Duluth. I met Mackenzie Astin at the after-party and told him my story. He thought it was hilarious, asked for the check, and on it, he wrote:

My screwing over of Disney.

That check, and this story, are the two best things I got out of working on a big-time, big-budget Disney movie.

Well, if you don’t count not ever meeting Kevin Spacey.

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