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FILM CLIPS / A look inside Hollywood and the movies

HIGHCHAIR HIGH JINKS : Shake, Rattle and Pacifier

July 03, 1994|ROBERT LEVINE

Jimmy Wagner works with some of the most difficult actors in Hollywood.

Prone to temper tantrums and even crying fits, they work only when the mood hits them and they can't be mollified with money or fame. Their attention spans are short, and they insist on sleeping in the middle of the day.

Of course, Wagner has ways of controlling these actors, namely bubbles, toy whistles and a toy clown named JoJo.

Wagner is a "baby wrangler"--a children's director on his resume--and it's his job to help film directors work on sets with babies, many of whom are too young even to walk.

His most recent film, "Baby's Day Out," which opened Friday, is about 9-month-old Baby Bink's adventures in the big city after he escapes from a trio of klutzy kidnapers. Bink, played by identical twins Adam Robert Worton and Jacob Joseph Worton, is onscreen for much of the film, crawling through a department store, a zoo and a construction site.

But Adam and Jacob had to learn to crawl before they could act. After they were selected in a nationwide search for twins, Wagner worked with them for a month before filming began in Chicago.

"You always get twins because of the time factor," Wagner says during an interview at his home in Silver Lake. "Time is money, and the laws dictate how long the children can be at the studio and under the lights.

"When you're working with kids, it's Murphy's Law, but Murphy's Law is called Murphy's Baby's Law. If you think it won't work, it won't work and it will never work, and just when you think you got 'em, they'll fool you."

Wagner, a single 43-year-old with no children of his own, is one of the only baby wranglers on the West Coast. He loves his work, he says, and he seems to like bringing it home with him. A small set of drawers on wheels in his living room holds his collection of whistles, bells and other tools of the baby-calming trade, and there's a Mickey Mouse phone on a table in the hallway.

Born and raised in Chicago, Wagner still has a slight Chicago accent and talks enthusiastically about "da Bulls" and "da mayor." He moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to break into the film industry, starting out as a cameraman before becoming a prop master a few years later. In 1987, one of his friends, also a prop master, asked Wagner to help him handle the props for "Baby Boom" for two weeks in Vermont.

Wagner accepted, partly because he had never been to Vermont. It was a fateful visit.

"They brought the babies (into a scene) with no preparation," he says. "The baby looked around (and) become hysterical. The director was ripping his hair out.

"I went up to the baby and said ' Boo ,' which startled the baby . . . I ran away and the baby started crying again. I got bubbles (from the prop truck and) started blowing bubbles, and she was fascinated. I went around blowing bubbles out of camera range."

Wagner started working as a Hollywood baby wrangler that night, and he's worked consistently ever since, mostly on commercials and TV movies. He uses bubbles so often he named his business Bubbles Inc., and when all else fails, he brings in JoJo.

"JoJo was both our savior and the bane of our existence," says "Baby's Day Out" director Patrick Read Johnson, referring to the toy's annoying squeal. But "for the babies, he was pure magic. Jimmy has a very good insight into the way babies work."

Wagner used that insight to prepare the children for a scene that required them to fall asleep on a real-looking fake gorilla. "I said, here's the deal: The baby's in discovery mode and he loves everything he sees." Just to be safe though, Wagner held the babies while wearing the gorilla costume himself to make them comfortable.

And though Wagner's experience and education have prepared him for almost every situation, working on "Baby's Day Out" taught him another important lesson: Don't shake the stars.

"This is the second day I worked with them," Wagner says, pointing to a photo of himself in an album. "The reason I'm crying (in the picture) is I got the babies and went, 'Hi, how are ya?' (while lifting one of the twins above his head). He went 'Yaaahhh'-- he threw up all over. I never shook them again in the morning."

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