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Life in the Background : Survival: A once-homeless screen extra keeps body and soul together by portraying the kind of character he used to be.

February 25, 1994|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUN VALLEY — Corky Parks left the streets two decades ago, but even now the streets have not left Corky Parks.

*

They linger in his sleep and in his thoughts and even at the television and movie sets where he makes his living. Although he lives on the fringe of a glamorous world, memories of cold pavement and empty days both haunt him and keep his feet on the ground.

Without these memories, Parks, 44, wonders where he would be.

Parks is a Hollywood extra, one of the nameless faces that flit through the backgrounds of films and TV shows. The pay: $65 a day. The work: irregular at best.

His vocation is oddly poetic, considering that Parks was once a societal extra, one of the nameless faces that flitted through the background of daily life in Downtown Los Angeles. The pay: whatever he could scrounge or beg. The work: surviving.

For three years in the early 1970s, a young, homeless Parks slept under cardboard in Skid Row alleys, foraged for food in trash dumpsters and amused himself by watching scavenging rats.

Twenty years later, Parks rents a room in Sun Valley. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and regularly portrays for the cameras the sort of character he was--a bum--or those he could easily have become--winos, thieves, dirt bags.

Parks is not rich. But when it rains, he stays dry. And when he is hungry, he eats.

Few aspire to his current station, but it suits Parks, comfortable in an uneasy way. He is no hero, just an ordinary person surviving as best he can.

Yet traces of the street remain. His bed is the same battered piece of foam that once padded him from the pavement. The lining of his jacket is an old blanket stitched into place. His few possessions are stashed in plastic grocery bags.

It is force of habit more than anything else. A few things have changed, however. On the street, cleanliness is rarely achieved and never sustained. Once he left, Parks became almost compulsive about his cleanliness and personal hygiene. Even the engine of his '68 Ford is clean to the touch.

To Parks, everything has changed and nothing has changed.

"I'm still just surviving," said Parks, whose gentle eyes are framed by a face made harsh by life. "How I do it has changed, but nothing else has."

As a kid growing up in Winnetka, Parks did not aspire to become an extra. In fact, he aspired to very little. "I ran away quite a bit. I had a few jobs, but nothing I was real excited about. I couldn't find anything I was interested in."

So he spent his early 20s drifting and ultimately ran aground on Skid Row. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Parks, who said he was reclusive and insecure as a child and teen-ager.

"If it wasn't for the streets, I don't know where I'd be. The streets taught me to respect myself. I figure I'd either be dead or in jail. I didn't have the strength to rob someone and I didn't have the desire to hurt someone."

For more than three years, Parks wandered Downtown streets. Then one morning he found his calling. Or, rather, it found him and damn near ran him over.

At first, he thought the growling engine was a trash truck, but they were usually more careful, accustomed to dodging snoozing winos in Skid Row alleyways. He felt the edge of his cardboard shelter crumple under the weight of heavy wheels and scrambled out to see a truck from a Hollywood studio. It had come to Skid Row for a day of filming.

With nothing better to do, Parks watched the filming--especially intrigued by the crowd of extras shipped in to portray street people. "They looked like the kind of people who were hanging around and who I should know. But I had never seen any of them before."

And so he watched with interest as the morning wore on and the alley filled with the smell of brewing coffee. Lunch came and the cinematic street people lined up at a lavish catering table.

It all looked pretty good to Parks.

He picked up the names of casting agencies by eavesdropping. A few days later, he walked from Downtown to Hollywood, intent on finding work as an extra.

At one office he picked up an application from a clerk who was repelled by Parks' swollen face, stained skin and overwhelming body odor. But as he was leaving, another man came out of the office and asked him: "Can you work tomorrow?"

"I looked behind me and then pointed at myself," Parks recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, you.' "

The next day, Parks worked for the first time in years. He doesn't remember the show or the movie, but he remembers the lunch table. "I ate my head off and a few weeks later I picked up my first check. It was the first check I'd seen in a long time."

Over the next several weeks, he registered at more agencies and found more work, stashing the money he earned in the cracked mortar of a brick building. He tried to stay clean, but not too clean because he was in demand portraying street people.

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