The U.S. Customs officer at LAX had three questions for David Politzer: What's your occupation? What were you doing in Mexico? And, what's in the box?
Politzer answered: "Physicist. Filming a movie. Fire hydrant."
The customs official accepted that. After all, Politzer, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, had been in Mexico to be in a movie.
But a fire hydrant as carry-on luggage?
"I think it's made of fiberglass," said Politzer, mischievously grinning at the canary-yellow hydrant sitting in a corner of his Caltech office. "It was given to me by the set designer."
Politzer, unlike the hydrant, was no stage prop. In the film, "Fat Man and Little Boy," he and several other real-life scientists create what Politzer calls "background verisimilitude."
Casting Director Nancy Foy said hundreds of scientists were interviewed, but Politzer "intrigued us because of his personality and he was able to speak easily about his work." Real scientists like Politzer, she said, give the film "a sense of reality."
Paul Newman and Dwight Schultz are the film's stars and portray Gen. Leslie R. Groves and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Groves and Oppenheimer helped develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.
Schultz, a well-known New York stage actor, also starred in the television series "A-Team" as "Howling Mad" Murdock. Director Roland Joffe co-wrote the film with Bruce Robinson. Joffe's previous films include "The Killing Fields," written by Robinson, and "The Mission."
Don Levy, director of production publicity for Paramount Pictures, said the film depicts the development of the atomic bomb and the relationship between Groves and Oppenheimer. "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" were the names given the two bombs dropped by the U.S. military on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.
The film is scheduled for release in the fall.
Politzer, 39, a resident of Altadena with his wife, Mary, and two sons, is eagerly awaiting the film's premiere. In the meantime, the easygoing and youthful professor has returned to his teaching routine.
The lean and boyish Politzer, wearing jeans, a sweater, wool socks and clogs, recently talked about his debut in pictures. His office features the usual clutter of academia: a wall of books, a chalkboard, a paper-stacked desk and well-used cocoa and tea tins, not to mention a jar of sea monkeys. But two banjos and the hydrant make it seem like home.
It all started early last May, when an astronomer friend from the Mt. Wilson observatory called to tell him a movie about the atomic bomb was being filmed and a casting director was looking for scientists.
Politzer, a native New Yorker who has taught at Caltech for 12 years, was interested.
Foy liked what she saw. She had Politzer go to Joffe's Beverly Hills home, where the two men discussed science, weapons and the atomic bomb. Two hours later the screenplay was delivered by messenger to Politzer's doorstep.
After reading the script, Politzer was very enthusiastic about the film. "He (Joffe) would portray scientists as real people, not bizarre or weird or mad," Politzer said. "The film focuses on human dilemmas."
Joffe later asked Politzer to play the role of Robert Serber, a scientist and Oppenheimer colleague. Foy said Politzer bears a strong resemblance to "a young Serber." Serber, now 79, remembers meeting Politzer about 10 years ago. At that time Serber was head of the physics department at Columbia University in New York City and had offered Politzer a job that he declined.
Serber, now retired in New York, describes the years at Los Alamos as the most stimulating of his life. "The place was always jumping with the greatest physicists in the world," he said.
Politzer, who would not have taken the role had it conflicted with his class schedule, was not teaching last fall term when filming began. In October he boarded a plane for his first visit to the film site in Durango, Mexico. In the course of the next three months he worked on the film for about two weeks.
When Politzer arrived at the Los Alamos set in Mexico, his first impression was that it looked just like the photographs he had seen in books. "It was huge, five streets filled with buildings, not backdrops, but complete buildings," he said.
At the crack of dawn every day, the cast was driven to the set, 40 minutes outside the rural town of Durango. In addition to Politzer and a biotechnology expert, there was a group from Stanford University composed of two graduate physics students, two graduate psychology students and a psychophysics professor. Several professional actors, Politzer said, would tap into this scientist pool for advice and background information. He remembered when Newman came up to him to talk about X-ray lasers and particle beam weapons.
In the film, Politzer has six lines, in which he describes the inner workings of the bomb to Newman. Politzer however, said that he doesn't know if the scene will be in the final edited version.
"He (Newman) could produce this intensity of a scene over and over again," Politzer said. "He told me to pretend that he was a student of mine."
Days on the set were long and often stretched out by delays between scenes, Politzer said. Filming would often continue until 6 or 7 at night. After work, Politzer would pull out his harmonica to join the cast and crew in impromptu jam sessions.
Last month Politzer returned to his permanent role as professor. He said it is unlikely that he will ever act again. Surprisingly, the film experience did not satisfy his scientific curiosity.
"I went into it wanting to see where the magic comes from. And it's like magicians," Politzer said with an impish smile. "Up close it's even more mystifying."