Body Heat turns 40: Extras recall how Lake Worth sizzled during making of the film noir classic
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
BEFORE YELLING “Action!” the director yelled “And…”
“And” was the cue for Rochelle Koff and dozens of other extras to start walking in different directions on Lake Avenue in downtown Lake Worth.
“Action,” after a pause to let the background start moving, was the cue for a little-known actor named William Hurt to stroll east on the north sidewalk and cross the street toward his fictional law office.
Following behind Hurt, Koff did her best to walk as natural as possible. But the 27-year-old extra was determined to make it on the big screen.
She decided to improvise. She signaled to the woman walking beside her to pick up their pace.
The closer they got to Hurt, the better their chances of ending up in the movie.
At least that’s what she assumed.
“We almost bumped into him,’’ Koff, one of about 2,000 people who answered a casting call for extras in late 1980, recalled with a laugh. “We kept trying to stay close to him, to get in the scene, and they kept telling us to get back.’’
As fate would have it, Koff wound up on the cutting room floor and the movie she came close to appearing in, a steamy low-budget thriller called Body Heat, wound up a film noir classic.
Released 40 years ago on Aug. 27, 1981, Body Heat helped launch the careers of Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke. It also put the Hollywood spotlight on little Lake Worth (now Lake Worth Beach after voters in 2019 changed the city’s name).
The city's downtown plays a role in the film as the fictional town of Miranda Beach, where sultry femme fatale Matty Walker (Turner) seduces none-too-bright lawyer Ned Racine (Hurt) into murdering her wealthy husband (Richard Crenna)
Exterior scenes were also shot in two other Palm Beach County towns, Hypoluxo and Delray Beach, and at Hollywood Beach in Broward County.
But downtown Lake Worth was the setting in early December 1980 for memorable scenes that required hundreds of extras.
Each was paid $30 to $35 a day, mostly for numerous takes strolling down the sidewalk or making casual background small-talk in a fictional diner. Some dressed in blue Miranda Beach Police uniforms.
And when the movie hit the screens 40 years ago this month, locals who’d scored background roles clamored to theaters to see if they'd made it on the big screen.
“It was my 15 minutes of fame,’’ Ron Exline, a city councilman at the time, said with a laugh, recalling his brief (not even 15 seconds) cameo as a real estate agent shaking hands with a couple as Hurt strolls across Lake Avenue.
Lake Worth was not director Lawrence Kasdan’s first choice for the movie’s fictional setting.
At the time an acclaimed screenwriter known for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kasdan was making his directorial debut with Body Heat. He wanted to film it in New Jersey.
But an actor’s strike delayed production until December; snow and frigid temps along the Jersey shore just wouldn’t work for a script that called for steamy, summer weather.
Kasdan, a native of Miami, sent his location scouts to Florida, where they were won over by the small-town charm of downtown Lake Worth.
“I remember they asked permission to shoot it and we did everything we could to cooperate with them with open arms,’’ Dennis Dorsey, Lake Worth’s mayor at the time, recalled in an interview in May, three months before he passed away.
Because the filming took place the first week in December, the city had to delay putting up its Christmas tree, at the time a popular annual fixture in front of Lake Worth City Hall.
A Christmas tree in front of the fictional “Miranda Beach City Hall,” for a movie taking place in the summer, was out of the question. (It finally went up on Dec. 11, a few days after the movie crews packed up and left town.)
Even the parking lot behind City Hall was used, to park film trailers and equipment.
But not everyone in town kowtowed to the production crew’s demands.
“They called me and said, ‘We’re really interested in leasing the Lettuce Patch as an operating restaurant because it’ll save us money from having to build a fictional restaurant,’’’ recalled Mark Foley, who owned the popular diner at the northwest corner of M Street and Lucerne Avenue.
Worried about closing for a few days during his busiest season of the year, Foley said no.
“I said, ‘I'd love to do it. It'd be exciting. But I just can't afford it. I have customers and they come in everyday, from First Federal (Bank), First National, Southern Bell, they were all big customers. I just can't do it.’’’
Kasdan suggested that Lettuce Patch regulars could be extras. Forty years later, Foley laughs when recalling his reply to the director: “No one will want to be in a film nobody knows about.’’
Stella’s Diner, as the movie restaurant was called, was brought to life in an empty storefront on the east side of Dixie Highway between Lake and Lucerne avenues, with windows looking out to City Hall.
Foley still wound up contributing to the movie. He was among the extras who played background diners.
That’s him in the photograph below, he says. He's the guy with glasses at the against the wall dining with another extra in a white shirt. The table in the foreground is occupied by Detective Oscar Grace (Hills Street Blues actor J.A. Preston), Racine (Hurt) and assistant district attorney Peter Lowenstein (Danson).
Today, Stella’s is occupied by the law offices of Gonzalez & Cartwright at 813 Lucerne Avenue. On a walking tour this summer, Foley pointed to the window where he says he was sitting more than 40 years ago in the second of the movie’s three restaurant scenes.
Most of the extras answered a casting call ad that appeared in South Florida newspapers in early November — “Now is your chance to be in the movies”.
They lined up around the block for auditions at the Lake Worth Playhouse and in Hollywood, Fla., most with no idea what the movie was about. Out of about 2,000, a few hundred were chosen.
The film crews arrived at the end of November and blocked off sections of Lake and Lucerne for shots on a few days in early December.
The late Rosalyn Kotick, a former box-office manager at the Lake Worth Playhouse, appeared in a scene with Hurt as he walked along a downtown street. Kotick's scene, which lasted all of a couple of seconds, took nearly three days to film.
She was able to joke with Hurt about the long process.
"I said, 'It must be you. I know I'm doing my part right,'' Kotick said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post in 2000, 17 years before she passed away.
Another Lake Worth Playhouse member, Ruth Strahan of Boynton Beach, scored a small role as “Betty,” the maid for Turner’s character.
She was treated like Hollywood royalty and given her own dressing room. She appeared in four scenes and had one speaking line. But two scenes, including the one with her line, wound up on the cutting room floor.
“What tickled me most is my name was in the credits at the end,’’ she told The Palm Beach Post in 1983. “That’s my Hollywood career complete, I’m sure.’’
Rochelle Koff was invited by the casting director to be an extra because of her role as a reporter; the producers had called the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, figuring they might be able to drum up some publicity for their low-budget movie.
“It sounded like fun,’’ said Koff, who filed stories about the film crew coming to Lake Worth, including a first-person account of her experience as an extra.
When she showed up for her one-day shoot, she said, it was early in the morning and the weather was cold.
“I was wearing long jeans and a long sleeve shirt. I don't think anyone knew this was supposed to be in a hot setting,’’ she said.
But when word got around about the movie’s “hot setting,” many extras detoured to Fountain's Department Store a few blocks away where they “lined up to buy shorts and T-shirts so they could get a better chance of making it into the movie,’’ Koff recalled.
She remembers the production assistants spraying the actors and extras with water “to make it look like we were perspiring.’’
Hurt “did turn around once or twice and we all laughed about getting sprayed with the water. He was pleasant,’’ she said.
“It was interesting to watch the whole process and how long and painstaking everything is to get everything right. We walked up and down that street I don't know how many times.’’
Despite her best improvisational efforts, Koff said she suspected she wouldn’t make it into the film.
“When they had him cross the street diagonally and had us keep going straight, I thought maybe we wouldn’t be in the scene when he turned the corner. We just barely got cut out,’’ she said, laughing.
“It was really a lot of fun, even though we were waiting and standing around. It was the sense of being a part of a movie. We didn't know what kind of movie but just a sense of having a few minutes of being famous. Or in my case almost famous.’’
Gloria Allen, at the time an aspiring actor from West Palm Beach, scored a role as an extra with help from her agent. She wound up appearing in the background of two scenes.
“I walked down Lake Avenue as William Hurt crossed the street and strode past me for something like 13 takes. I wore a pink striped dress, even though the rules said to wear nothing that stands out. I wanted to be able to find myself when the movie came out,’’ said Allen, who now lives in Vero Beach.
Years later, she sold that dress at a yard sale. She said she made sure to tell browsing customers "'‘I wore that in Body Heat!' Maybe I got an extra quarter for it!’’
Allen also took advantage of her day with the film crew and extras.
“I sold ‘World’s Finest Chocolate’ bars to the crew for my son who was in Catholic school,’’ she said with a laugh.
C.J. Walker, a photographer for The Palm Beach Post in 1980, was assigned to shoot the film crews. He captured a shot of Hurt on the sidewalk right after his character, lawyer Racine, passes his secretary (under "Ruth E's" in the window), who tells him she is on her way to lunch.
“I remember going and being pissed that Kathleen Turner wasn't there,’’ he said with a laugh.
“They blocked the eastbound street (Lake Avenue). They used one of the small buildings as his office. All he did was a few times walk across the street to his office. It was pretty exciting,’’ Walker said with a tone that suggested it wasn't really all that exciting.
“I’d never seen the filming of a movie. Just watching the crew standing around, there were certainly a lot more people involved in that than newspaper people covering a story.’’
The old Fountain's Department Store on Lake Avenue downtown had a brief cameo.
Kathy Dougherty was working in visual merchandising at Fountain's when her boss passed on a request from the film crews: They wanted the outside storefront to look like a travel agency.
"We gathered up posters from local travel agencies and did the windows,'' she said.
"It was in the movie, just one fast shot of the windows. You could miss it if you blinked.''
At Caters Furniture on Lake Avenue between U.S. 1 and J. Street, employee James Lynch was allowed to leave work early so he could be an extra.
His role? Sitting on a bus bench as Hurt crossed Lake Avenue to enter L'Anjou, a French restaurant now occupied Los Panchos.
"My only direction was to not look at the camera,'' recalled Lynch, who was 21 at the time. "Sadly, I ended up on the cutting floor.''
In Body Heat, Danson played a quirky character who performed quirky dance moves while exiting Stella’s or waiting outside to talk to Racine.
Foley remembers standing near the director and watching Danson practice across the street in a parking lot in the 800 block of Lucerne Avenue.
“Ted Danson kept doing these spins, rehearsing. He was bouncing around. I said, ‘What is he doing? He looks kind of goofy,’’’ Foley recalled.
Kasdan, referring to the cast, replied: “They’re unique.’’
Foley asked if any of them have ever been in a movie.
“No,’’ Kasdan replied, “but they’re all going to be big stars?’’
"How do you know that?" Foley asked.
“I know it. You’ll see,’’ Kasdan replied.
While Body Heat was being made, Danson was offered the role of Sam Malone on a new sitcom called Cheers. (There’s a great scene in the pilot episode where the gang around the bar debates the “sweatiest movie of all time.’’ When Cliff suggests “Body Heat,” the camera focuses for a moment on Malone, who offers a subtle grin.)
Hurt, who had been in Altered States when he was cast in Body Heat, would win the Best Actor Oscar in 1985 for Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
Turner, a soap opera actress, would go on to win Golden Globes awards for Romancing The Stone and Prizzi’s Honor and an Oscar nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married.
Kasdan would go on to receive Oscar nominations as a producer and screenplay writer for The Accidental Tourist for Best Original Screenplay for both The Big Chill and Grand Canyon.
As for the movie itself, Body Heat grossed $24 million, not too shabby for a movie made on a $9 million budget.
After the movie hit the screens, many viewers were taken back by the sex scenes.
"The town fathers were shocked when this steamy, soft porn picture was released the following August," Lynch said. "But I loved it.''
Lake Worth would be featured in the 1984 Paul Newman movie Harry & Son. But the city’s role in Body Heat is still a topic of conversation for longtime residents who fondly recall how the town sizzled when film crews showed up on those cold days in December 1980.
“It was exciting for Lake Worth,’’ said Foley, who would go on to become a city councilman and U.S. congressman.
“For a small town kid who grew up in this time and witnessed this live production of a Hollywood blockbuster, even though none of us really believed that at the time, then when it hit the screens. It became such a unique touchstone movie. It just hit a nerve with people.’’
Body Heat — A Brief Tour of the South Florida filming spots
DOWNTOWN LAKE WORTH BEACH
The fictional Stella’s Coffee Shop is the setting of three scenes shot in an abandoned building at 813 Lucerne Ave. Today, it’s the law offices of Gonzalez & Cartwright.
The 800 block of Lake Avenue is shown in a scene when William Hurt walks west along the north sidewalk just east of U.S. 1 (you can see City Hall in the background) before he crosses toward the south side of the street to his law office.
At 717 Lake Ave. is the old French restaurant L'Anjou (Los Panchos today). Hurt is seen entering the restaurant, where he runs into Matty and her husband. The interior scenes were shot elsewhere. The late Gilbert Cela, who owned the restaurant at the time, hosted a meal for some of the cast and crew. Hurt also popped in for a glass of white wine during a break.
Remember those tinkling chimes cuing Matty and Ned’s first steamy love scene? The old Scotia Plantation, on the Intracoastal Waterway south of Hypoluxo Road at 7688 U.S. 1, served as exterior shots of the affluent home of Matty and her husband Edmund.
The film crews built the boat house and spruced up the veranda, but the inside of the house was shot on sound stages in Los Angeles, including the memorable scene where Hurt hurls a chair through a picture window as he’s about to make love with Matty, according to The Palm Beach Post.
The house was destroyed by a fire in 1999.
There’s a brief scene near the end of the movie where police are stuck behind a bridge while they’re trying to catch up to Ned and Matty. It was the George Bush Boulevard bridge.
Ned first sees Matty at a band shell and seaside boardwalk in Hollywood Beach, about 50 miles south of Lake Worth Beach.
Special thanks to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County for the three photographs from its Gundersdorff Collection.
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