The entire cast and crew was devastated to learn of Sam Wyche’s passing on Jan. 2, 2020.
Sam laced up his acting shoes in late summer 2019 to play one of our film’s most important supporting characters: the role of Dr. Kellerman, a transplant surgeon.
I first worked with Sam in 2014 on a film I made for the Expecting Goodness Film Festival in Spartanburg, SC, casting his as a bartender, aptly named “Sammy.” I also met Merritt Vann on that project, and that led to many more, including this one, with Merritt playing the lead and co-producing the project.
When Merritt and I were putting together this story, with organ donation being one of the topics in the script, I wanted to reach out to Sam, since the subject is literally one that was very close to his heart. Sam received a heart transplant a few years ago, just hours before doctors expected his heart to give out. Since then, he has become a major voice for organ donation awareness.
So, I made the phone call, expecting to leave a voicemail and see if he responded. I didn’t expect him to remember me. After all, he was a NFL legend who went on to run a line of sporting goods stores and continued to travel around the country, being a voice for professional sports, motivational speaking, and spreading the word about organ donation. To my surprise, he answered the phone and remembered me right away. So, I told him about the project we were working on, and he agreed to take the part on that first call.
Sam told me his mission in life since his transplant was to do whatever he could to help raise awareness about organ donation and how easy it is to become an organ donor, and he felt this role was a good fit for that.
He called me a few days later with another idea. He asked, at the end of the film, could he maybe say a little something as himself, not the character, about organ donation and tell a bit of his story. I loved the idea. I told him I had done something similar where a PSA ran parallel to the end credits in a human trafficking film I’d done a few years earlier. We had a brief conversation about what we could put together and then he had a few more ideas about getting a few other sports legends who’ve had organ donations to make brief cameos in the PSA. He said he would work on producing those segments. That part of the project was going to have to wait until after football season, however, because Sam had a grandson that was playing high school ball in Ohio last season and he said he wanted to be there for as many games as we could. That also meant we needed to get all of his scenes in the film shot before football season.
So, we got to work, scheduling his scenes for two days: One in July in Greenville, and the other in Columbia in early August.
On the two days Sam was on set, I’m pretty sure he was everyone’s favorite person to chat with in between takes and setups. He was friendly and could easily launch into any number of great stories from his life at any moment, each one just as compelling or funny as the last.
During our Greenville shoot, we had asked Sam to bring a few cherished items that we could use as decor and props in his character’s office for the scenes we were shooting that day. One of the things he brought was a football from Super Bowl XXIII, where he coached the Bengals as they fell to the 49ers by four points, giving up the lead in the final seconds of the game. I’m pretty sure everyone on set that day took a photo with Sam and that ball, myself included.
Sam had an interesting method for remembering his lines. He’d written them all out on pieces of cardboard that he kept off-camera and glanced at between takes. It worked for Marlon Brando, and it worked for Sam, too.
He even taught me a lesson that day.
We were filming in a small office and there were a lot of adjustments that had to be made before we launched into long takes. I was watching from a monitor in the room across the hall and then coming into the office to give notes before moving forward and filming the master shot in its entirety. Basically, the day started with a lot me calling “action” and then “cut” a few seconds or minutes in until we got the flow right.
I was tense. I always am when we first get rolling. I’ve got to find my rhythm in those first few shots just like the talent and the crew.
After one of the many “cuts” and a round of notes in those first few, Sam had a very concerned look on his face. I can sometimes ramble, stumble, or just plain sound like an idiot when trying to give notes in a hurry once the clock is ticking and everyone is in place, so I asked him if what I had been saying made since. Like the rest of us, it was taking Sam a few takes to get into rhythm, and while I hadn’t verbally said anything critical of his work on those first few takes, I guess I had been giving off some non-verbal signals to the contrary.
“I’m keeping an eye on your body language to gauge how good of a job I’m doing,” Sam said, “and I’m not sure I’m doing what you want.”
I assured him that he was doing fine and that I was just a little tense, and I genuinely meant what I said. But I never forgot what he said after that point either.
I realized after that interaction that, as a director, how I present myself to the cast and crew is just as important as the words I say to them. My mood is going to impact their mood. My unspoked rigidness may be keeping them from reaching their full potential flexibility in the scene.
Regardless of the situation, I always to try to be kind to everyone on set, because I’m grateful to be surrounded by people who are giving their time and talent to help me create a piece of art. But since that day on July, I’ve been a lot more conscious of what I’m not saying when giving instruction or notes to the talent and crew.
Thank you, Sam, for that lesson.
I’m smiling now at the memory of how Sam left the set that day in Greenville. He was concerned about his face that day, because he had a lot of fresh scars from recent skin cancer surgeries. But, he was very happy with the work our make-up artist, Kari, had done to cover up those scars that day, and when she offered to wipe off the makeup after the shoot, Sam turned down the offer. He said his daughter was coming into town to stay with them for a while and she was going to arrive that evening. He was looking forward to surprising her and his wife with his movie makeup. He had a big grin on his face when he revealed his plan.
I last spoke to Sam for the last time shortly before the holidays. He called me by accident, intending to call someone else and let that person know he was going to have to miss an event he was scheduled to speak at. He told me that his doctors had found more cancer and there would be more tests and likely more surgeries to come, but he didn’t want word of that to spread too far. The call ended with us saying we’d chat more early in 2020 about the PSA for the end of the film and make a plan to record the elements we would need. Football season would be over by then and hopefully he would be healthy by then.
I’m sorry we won’t get the chance now to have that call and finish that piece of the film. However, I am very grateful for the chance to work with you on this project and I know your scenes are going to be some of the best in the film.
The entire Rescued team was sad to hear the news today and, on behalf of everyone, we are all grateful for the time we got to spend with you on set and the stories you shared with us, like we were all old friends.
- Daljit Kalsi, writer/ director of “Rescued.”