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Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use
Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

31 Things You Might Not Know About What’s Happening!!

Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use
Wikimedia Commons // Fair Use

In the summer of 1976, television super-producer Bud Yorkin—the man behind All in the Family and Sanford and Son—premiered his newest series, What’s Happening!! Geared toward the teen market, the series followed a trio of best friends: aspiring writer Roger (Raj), class clown Rerun, and painfully shy Dwayne, plus Raj’s wise-beyond-her-years little sister Dee. As they navigated school-age life in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, the problems they faced—girls, bullies, and homework—were issues familiar to any teen. But we enlisted the help of What’s Happening!! star Ernest Thomas (who played Roger) to share 31 things you might not know about the classic sitcom.

1. THE SHOW IS LOOSELY BASED ON THE 1975 FEATURE FILM COOLEY HIGH.

At least that was the original premise. And while Cooley High and What’s Happening!! do share some themes (namely: grades and girls), the film’s darker elements of drugs and crimes didn’t translate to a prime-time sitcom. So Cooley High morphed into What’s Happening!!

2. A COOLEY HIGH PILOT DOES EXIST.

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But the only similarity between it and What’s Happening!! is Ernest Thomas. “I was the only one left from the original pilot,” says Thomas. “It definitely had more of a serious tone, and that’s when they decided to do it differently.” A few members of Cooley High's original cast reprised their roles in the pilot, including Garrett Morris and Maurice Marshall. 

3. COOLEY HIGH WRITER ERIC MONTE WASN’T HAPPY WITH THE CREDIT HE RECEIVED.

Eric Monte—who IMDb credits as a writer on the entire What’s Happening!! series—sued ABC, CBS, Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin, and others for using his ideas for Good Times, The Jeffersons, and What's Happening!! without being properly credited. Though the numbers vary on the amount of the lawsuit (some put it at $300 million), Monte told the Los Angeles Times that he only ever received $1 million and some residuals.

4. THOMAS LEARNED ABOUT THE SERIES ON THE SET OF THE JEFFERSONS

It was Mary White—the agent of Isabel Sanford, who played Louise Jefferson—who encouraged Thomas to audition. “My first sitcom was The Jeffersons and she was loving what I was doing as a guest star. She came over and told me, ‘There’s a new pilot called Cooley High and I think you’d be perfect for it.’ I had an agent already, so I thanked her and told her I’d tell my agent. When I did, he got all upset, asking ‘Who in the hell is she to tell you about this show?’” But he landed an audition.

5. THOMAS WAS UP AGAINST 200 ACTORS FOR THE PART.

“They were looking at I would say at least 200 people,” Thomas recalls of the audition process, which lasted several weeks. “I auditioned for the role of ‘Preach’ Jackson in Cooley High, which became Roger Thomas in What’s Happening!! The days dragged on as Thomas awaited the final verdict. “Those sleepless nights were not cutting it at all," he says with a laugh. “I was so frustrated. It was like: Make a choice. I won’t be mad if it’s not me, because at least then I know!”

6. RERUN WAS WRITTEN AS A SKINNY WHITE KID.

Columbia Pictures Television via Sitcoms Online

In the original script, the character that became "Rerun" was written as a skinny white kid. When Fred Berry was informed of this after showing up for the audition, he insisted to the producers that, “I am a white skinny guy!” They liked Berry so much that the role was rewritten accordingly and his character given the name Freddie Stubbs.

7. “MAMA” MABEL KING HAD BEEN A BIG DEAL ON BROADWAY.

Columbia Pictures Television via Sitcoms Online

A year before taking on the role of Mabel “Mama” Thomas, actress Mabel King had played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway production of The Wiz, which earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination. Though Thomas had never met the actress before she was cast as his mother, he was familiar with her work. Very familiar. “I went to see her on Broadway in The Wiz about 15 times,” says Thomas. “I loved that musical. Who knew that she’d end up playing my mother? I was in awe!”

8. THE SHOW WAS AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

It was the first African-American teen sitcom to break into the Nielsen Top 30, which the show accomplished in the series’ first season in 1976

9. THE CAST BONDED IMMEDIATELY.

“It was literally heaven to me,” Thomas says of the chemistry that immediately formed between the cast. “There are people you meet and you feel like you’ve met them before, or have known them all of your life. That’s how I was with the entire cast. It was one of those Twilight moments; as soon as we touched hands, as soon as we saw each other, as soon as you entered the room, you just knew. Which is an experience I’ve just never had with an entire cast.”

10. HAYWOOD NELSON WAS THE ONLY ACTOR OF ACTUAL HIGH SCHOOL AGE.

Columbia Pictures Television via Sitcoms Online

Though the characters of Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne were all high school students, Haywood Nelson—who played Dwayne—was the only actual teenager of the trio. He was 16 when the show premiered, while Thomas was 26 and Berry was 25. 

11. RERUN AUDITIONED TO BE A PART OF HIS OWN DANCE GROUP.

In “My Three Tons,” the fourth episode of the show’s first season, Rerun auditions to be a part of the dance group The Rockets. The Rockets were played by real-life dance group The Lockers, of which Fred Berry was a founding member.

12. RAJ LED ERNEST THOMAS TO ROOTS.

The popularity of What’s Happening!! helped to raise Thomas’ acting profile, leading to a role—Kailubu—being written for him in the 1977 miniseries Roots.

13. NOT ALL OF THE ACTORS WERE THRILLED WITH THE SERIES’ DIRECTION.

Mabel King, in particular, believed that the show’s popularity offered the perfect opportunity to set some strong examples of black television characters. She didn’t like that she was a single mother working as a maid, and contended that the lack of strong family models on black sitcoms was “one of the biggest tragedies on television.” As such, King departed the show after just one season. “People have to do what they have to do at the moment,” says Thomas of King’s unfortunate early departure. Similar sentiments led to the eventual absence of parental characters on other African-American sitcoms, notably Good Times.

14. FRED BERRY WAS QUICKLY LABELED THE SHOW’S TROUBLEMAKER.

After What’s Happening!! became an unexpected hit, Fred Berry felt it was time to renegotiate his salary. “He could be trouble,” director Alan Rafkin said in his book, Cue the Bunny on the Rainbow, though he admitted that Berry also “received many of the show's big laughs.” But Berry’s widow, Essie, says that the actor was only interested in what was fair. “When he went back and asked for more money, they told him he could not be who is he is,” she told The Signal in 2006. “It would be hard to walk around knowing that you created a character and someone just took it away from you… When they paid him $5000 per episode, they paid a Caucasian man $8000 per episode.”

15. HAYWOOD NELSON IS THE ONLY ACTOR TO APPEAR IN EVERY EPISODE OF WHAT'S HAPPENING!!

Though Thomas admits that “Fred was very devilish” on the set, Berry convinced Thomas to join him in a walkout in order to negotiate higher salaries. This left Nelson to shoulder the second season’s sixth episode—“If I’m Elected”—all by his lonesome.

16. DANIELLE SPENCER WAS INVOLVED IN A SERIOUS CAR ACCIDENT DURING SEASON TWO.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly after production began on season two, Danielle Spencer—who played Roger's younger sister Dee Thomas—was seriously injured in an automobile mishap, which took the life of her stepfather. “In 1977, I was in a car accident, which led to spinal problems,” she told Jet Magazine earlier this year. “Ten years ago, I had surgery on my upper back that resulted in my being paralyzed from the waist down. After many years of rehabilitation at several places, I am still left with neurological damage to my spinal cord.” In order to accommodate the actress on the set, she was allowed to remain seated during many of her scenes in order to avoid any physical exertion. Her hair was also styled in such a way to cover up visible damage that had been done to her forehead in the crash.

17. THE SERIES’ CANCELLATION WAS THE RESULT OF YET ANOTHER DEMAND FOR MORE MONEY.

“After I had left the show," Alan Rafkin noted in his book, "there was a big contract dispute and I was told that Fred was the instigator behind the trouble that followed. He convinced Ernest and Haywood to join him in a strike for more money. Eventually, the producers simply had enough of the boys’ antics and they closed the series down.” But Thomas notes that, “There’s a mystery over that… I remember distinctly that they had a meeting and wanted the entire cast to meet with all of the producers. And they said, ‘Fred Berry tells us that you think we’re racist. So we don’t want you working for racists and we’re going to cancel the show.’ That’s what I remember… Fred was very happy, even at that meeting. He didn’t take it back and say, ‘No, they really didn’t say it, I was the one who said it.’ He said, ‘No, you know you all said it!’ So they thought he really was telling the truth.” The show’s final episode (in its original form) ran on April 28, 1979. 

18. FRED BERRY EVENTUALLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS ANTICS.

“Fred did apologize for all of that stuff toward the end of his life,” says Thomas. “Even when he passed away, people didn’t want me to go to the funeral. There are people who are still upset with me for going to his funeral. But to me, there’s a thing called forgiveness. When someone asks you for forgiveness, there’s no reason to keep something going. I went to the funeral because he expressed that he was sorry.”

19. RE-RUNS (NO PUN INTENDED) PROVED PROFITABLE.

Though What’s Happening!! had been a success during its network run, it proved just as popular in syndicated re-runs. In some markets, its ratings were even better the second time around.

20. FRED BERRY ACTUALLY CHANGED HIS NAME TO “RERUN.”

Yes, legally. Hey, it was the ’80s.

21. THE COSBY SHOW IS TO THANK FOR A WHAT’S HAPPENING!! REDUX.

Ernest Thomas had long believed that What’s Happening!! was ripe for revisiting. “I put together a proposal for the show, a treatment I wrote, and they said there was no audience for another What’s Happening!! So I kept trying to get signatures at that time, but everyone thought I had lost my mind,” Thomas recalls. But with the success of The Cosby Show, which premiered in 1984, producers were on the lookout for more sitcoms focused on African-American families, and the familiarity of What’s Happening!! seemed like a safe bet. So What’s Happening Now!! was born in 1985.

22. THE SHOW’S REVIVAL LEFT ERNEST THOMAS SPEECHLESS. LITERALLY.

“I got a call from my agent, and he asked me, ‘Ernie, are you sitting down? They changed their minds. They’re going to [bring back] What’s Happening and they’re going to do two seasons,” Thomas recalls of learning the news that the show was being revived. “It felt great. It was really emotional, in a good way. But I was so overwhelmed that I lost my voice. They sent me to the doctor who said, ‘There’s nothing wrong. It’s all psychological.’” 

23. MUHAMMAD ALI SAVED THE DAY.

Getty Images

Still voiceless as the cast and crew readied to shoot the pilot for What’s Happening Now!!, Thomas got a much-needed boost from Muhammad Ali. “My friend called Muhammad Ali, who had been traveling, and he came for the pilot. Him being there brought my voice back. That’s the truth. Of course, he just upstaged everyone. The producers and the audience were just blown away. There’s Muhammad Ali! Who cares about What’s Happening!!? That was an awesome day.”

24. MUHAMMAD ALI ISN’T THE SHOW’S ONLY FAMOUS FAN.

Thomas is still amazed by the number of famous people who have expressed being fans of the series. “Muhammad Ali totally threw me,” he says. “And Sidney Poitier. I did a film with him, Bill Cosby, and James Earl Jones called A Piece of the Action. I was on vacation from What’s Happening and just went to the audition with a friend. Sidney Poitier saw me and asked, ‘You don’t want to be in my film? Cause I know you. I watch your show.’ I was like, ‘Please—give me a break.’ And he did a scene from the show—he did my exact lines. Smokey Robinson, Dr. Maya Angelou, and President Jimmy Carter were also fans. And Tori Spelling. All the shows her father did, and she loves What’s Happening!!

25. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!! STARTED A TELEVISION TREND.

Recent television series revivals like Arrested Development and 24 owe a debt to What’s Happening!! It’s the first time a primetime series was revived with the original cast after cancellation. Its success led other producers to attempt this with shows like The New Leave It To Beaver and Mama’s Family.

26. FRED BERRY’S OLD HABITS WERE REVIVED WITH THE SERIES.

Shortly after What’s Happening Now!! debuted, Berry once again began demanding more money. He was subsequently fired before the end of the first season. The series itself—which saw Raj married—lasted just three seasons.

27. DANIELLE SPENCER IS NOW A VETERINARIAN IN VIRGINIA.

And she’s no stranger to television. “She works as a veterinarian consultant for one of the local television stations there,” says Thomas. “She also has her own clothing line, The Dani Collection.”

28. HAYWOOD NELSON IS STILL WORKING IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY.

“Haywood is back and forth between New York and Los Angeles,” says Thomas. “He was working behind the scenes on Dr. Oz at one point. Now he’s with Jimmy Fallon, I believe. He’s a genius at computers.”

29. PEOPLE HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN RAJ.

Thomas has continued to work steadily since the end of What’s Happening Now!! in 1988. In addition to playing Mr. Omar on Everybody Hates Chris, Thomas’ film career has included roles in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. Yet he’s still regularly recognized as Roger. “I could let my beard grow and have a hat on, and I’ll still get recognized,” says Thomas. “I don’t know if it’s something about my walk or what. I was walking down the street one day in shirt with a hood and a girl behind me asked ‘Raj?’ I turned around and asked, ‘How did you know?’ And she said, ‘Your butt.’ Apparently, I have a distinctive butt!”

30. YES, THE CAST STILL KEEPS IN TOUCH.

Though Mabel King, Shirley Hemphill, and Fred Berry have passed away, Thomas still keeps in touch with Spencer and Nelson. “Those two, they loved me from day one—he was 15 and she was nine and they just would not let go,” laughs Thomas. "And they are really two of my best friends." 

31. IF WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!! WERE PROPOSED TODAY, RAJ WOULD BE THERE.

But Thomas has been in the entertainment industry long enough to know that producers would want to skew younger. “I’d probably have some kid, Raj Jr.,” says Thomas, imagining what a modern-day revamp might look like. “I’m sure if they did it today, they’d be thinking, ‘Okay, we’re going to need a younger demographic! So basically we need someone who looks like you, only 19 years old—no offense. And you’re going to have a recurring role. You’re going to be like the Mabel King. But don’t make any waves, baby!’”

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Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling
Amazon
Amazon

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.

 

Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!
Funko

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
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While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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