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Thursday, October 17 2013 00:02

Throwback Thursday: That time I went to Prison... #tbt

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If you're reading this, it is my duty to make it known that you are reading a historic blog. Despite it being a common feature throughout the vast realm of cyberspace, I have never done a "Throwback Thursday." This is my first... and it's about that time when I went to PRISON. Actually, if we're being honest, I should admit that I've been to prison more than once.

acting whitesirtI'll be 37 this month, and in that time, I've had some adventures. There have been good ones, great ones, and yes... some pretty bad ones. Interestingly, enough, many of my greatest adventures took place during a single decade - the 2000's. With the gracious support of my wife, I made my presence known from coast-to-coast, planting a flag in the name of "rock" from Los Angeles to New York, all while keeping my home base right here on The Third Coast near Chicago. I found myself on television... on the big screen... on the radio... in newspapers... in magazines... in comic books... in record stores... and on stage. There's some tales to tell, but this one starts in 2004. I'd quit my last "normal" job in September of that year. By December, just about five years before becoming "The Rock Father,"  I was wearing "prison blues" and roaming "the yard" in Joliet. 

prisonyearSee, I'd sorta fallen into "the acting thing" by accident (I'd dabbled in the past), and was starting to do more work here locally. So, when word came in that FOX was doing a pilot for a crazy, action-packed show called PRISON BREAK, I wanted in on the action. Being December in Chicago, not much was going on, and everyone wanted in on that gig. I ended up getting booked on the pilot as an inmate extra. It wasn't glamorous, but it was a lot of fun... despite standing outside in sub-zero (albeit snowless) temperatures for a week under the direction of Brett Ratner (RUSH HOUR, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND). There I was, roaming the grounds walked by "Joliet" Jake Blues before me in THE BLUES BROTHERS. It was both odd, and inspiring.

About six months would pass, and no one really knew what was up with "that 'PRISON' show." In the meantime, I'd actually ended up working for one day along with my friend, the late Justin Mentell (BOSTON LEGAL), as extras on another jail-centric project called LET'S GO TO PRISON with Will Arnett and Dax Shepard... if only to make a few bucks and have a some free food. Then I got a call that PRISON BREAK had been ordered to series, and they wanted me as a "featured" inmate. It was the weirdest Monday-Friday gig I'd ever have.

prisonsky

I was in the midst of trying to get my feature project off the ground, and really needed to make some money in-between, so I found myself making the 70+ mile one-way commute to the old Joliet Prison from my then-home in Gurnee, Illinois every day. Sometimes we'd start with a 6am call time, wrap after midnight, and I'd have just enough time to drive home, sleep for a couple of hours, and then get right back on the road. It was weird, and this wasn't even a real production job... it was a lot of time sitting around doing nothing in full inmate garb. But meeting some cool people, and making connections.

It was also a fascinating social experiment, in that the guys playing inmates and the guys playing "C.O.'s" (Correction's Officers) sorta stayed separated... even at meal time.

Not satisfied with simply being "featured," I (along with practically every local actor in Chicago that fit the bill) took a stab at the now-iconic role of Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell, who was originally written as a burly, long-haired hillbilly. I had the long hair, and the size, but the role rightfully went to the excellent Robert Knepper, who turned out to be one of the nicest people I'd ever meet while working in the film & television realm.

psychwardI used to smoke... a lot. I quit in 2011 for my girls (which I've blogged about), but on the set of PRISON BREAK, I was a smoke stack. I think it was during filming of the second episode when I guy I'd never met came up and asked to bum a smoke. He was playing T-Bag, and that led to my discussing that everyone local (myself included) took a shot at it. Foolishly, I asked "Is this your first major show?," to which Knepper very modestly explained that he'd just-wrapped CARNIVALE on HBO. What I didn't realize until I went home that night is that I'd seen the guy in TONS of stuff (like PHANTOMS with Ben Affleck, yo!). Over the course of filming the first four or five episodes, I'd spent quite a bit of time shooting the breeze with Mr. Knepper, and he was the first person EVER to actually return the favor of the smokes he'd bummed, showing up to set one day and handing me a few fresh packs with a "thank you."

There were some interesting moments while filming PRISON BREAK both at the old prison, and on the cell block that had been constructed on a stage at Chicago Studio City, but none more drastic than the day I took part in a stunt that involved live pyrotechnics... and ended up in the emergency room.

On the very last take of the "riot" scene of the episode, "Riots, Drills, and the Devil," live smoke canisters were used during a piece were I was one of several guys used to run across the cell blocks and dodge them. Problem is, these live "bombs" burn hot (like a firework) and one that was supposed to land on level three hit the roof and ricocheted down to level two and managed to hit me squarely in the back of the head, burning my long, dyed-black hair. I reached back around to my head, which had gone from hurting to numb, and my hand instantly removed a large clump of hair. After a trip to the hospital, I emerged an hour later with second-degree burns on my scalp, and got bumped up to "hazard pay." I was back on set in the morning.

I took a break from the show to work on other things, but returned by request for two "Psych Ward" episodes later in the first season, when the character of "Haywire" (GRIMM's Silas Weir Mitchell) was introduced. There I sat, alongside star Wentworth Miller, in a white jumpsuit pretending to be disturbed. There were some good times... hanging with Peter Stormare (FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and his dog... meeting Robin Tunney from THE CRAFT & EMPIRE RECORDS... seeing Brett Ratner fire a dude. Pretty sweet. I mean, it was a good way to spend a few months.

And that's the time I went to "Prison." Look closely at that Season One DVD, and you can find me... lurking.  Somewhere I have more pictures, but they were taken with a format called "film" and need to be scanned.

Before I was "The Rock Father," I was just another struggling Chicago actor trying to pay my rent. But really, my wife had that covered.

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James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. He is the Owner, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of THE ROCK FATHER™ Magazine. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade of publishing The Rock Father™ Magazine, he joined Adventure Media and Events as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider — a destination for all things pop culture, and The Toy Insider — the leading consumer guide for toys and games. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 27 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

Zahn and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, CBS, GCTN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Reuters, BusinessWire, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

Learn more here

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