The Time I Worked for Joe Pytka

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Joe Pytka is often described as the most talented, most prolific, most influential commercial director of All Time (even with the severe ding for “Space Jam” subtracted from his scorecard). The depth and breadth of Pytka’s work is nothing short of incredible and advertising agencies line up to kiss his butt ALL DAY LONG. And Your Pal Drew worked for Mr. Pytka for a couple of days back in the late 1990’s. Of course it was an adventure….

My friend Joe Connolly (hereafter referred to as “JoeProps”) received a call from Producer Gina Cascino about working a commercial for Delta Airlines, a commercial that would run during the Atlanta Olympic Games. It was being shot in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and probably a few more cities that escape me.

It was also a Pytka commercial.

My greatest advantage of working in film is that I really, honestly, don’t know who most of the actors are when they show up on set. An advantage of working outside of the LA system is that you don’t know who the important Producers and Directors are and therefore you don’t worry about it. You just nudge them out of the way on set and get your job done. Unfortunately for the person who was coordinating the Delta commercial back in LA, they knew all too well who Joe Pytka was and they were a bit panicky about making sure that they had crews ready and standing-by to to go work in every one of the shoot cities.

Unfortunately (for them) it seems that they overbooked people. A LOT of people. We received word that most of the local crews hired to work the Chicago segment of the commercial weren’t even needed, but as they’d been called in to work, Production had them sit in a Starbuck’s during filming, just in case they were needed. Of course when we heard that story we became terribly worried that the company was going to release us from the job. Fortunately they did not, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to watch Joe Pytka in action.

The morning of the commercial we showed up to set at the Four Seasons on 14th Street and met the Propmaster (whose name eludes me), helping him to rig up a taxi cab for the first shot. Sometime during the rehearsal of that first shot Pytka became annoyed with one of the LA guys (who turned out to be the Lead Man for Set Dec). Pytka started dressing the guy down, yelling “I don’t f***ing need you here!!! What are you doing here!!??? Get on a plane and go back to Los Angeles!!!!” In the world of moviemaking we refer to any Director who is extremely expressive (in a vocal manner) as a “screamer”.

Joe Pytka is a Screamer’s Screamer.

The Propmaster turned to us and said “I need you guys to hide. Don’t let Pytka see you.”

Since Pytka and the shooting crew were crowded up around the valet dropoff JoeProps and I snuck out toward the street and sat down on a ground in front of a decorative marble wall – the street was 12 feet in front of us, cars whizzing back and forth. We hung out and talked about shows we’d worked on, television, local gossip, anything we could think of to kill time. It was nice and it lasted, oh, say about ten minutes.

As we sat shooting the bridge, we were suddenly startled by this white haired guy lunging into view right beside us. He was walking backwards with his hands held up in front of him, fingers extended to form a rudimentary rectangular film frame; a sure sign of a Director!

Of course it was Pytka. The guy who screamed at people and sent them home.

Without a second’s hesitation I leapt to my feet, snatched a rag out of my back pocket, bent over and started polishing the marble wall – walking away from Pytka the entire time, hunched over in a workman-like manner. When the wall ended I stooped lower and began polished the concrete sidewalk (all the time I was easing farther and farther from the guy). I took a half-hearted swipe at a parked police motorcycle (to the shock of the officer standing beside it) and turned the corner, running for the little 14 foot long prop/set-dec truck they’d rented for the show.

I was counting my lucky stars that I’d managed to escape Pytka. JoeProps was a few seconds behind me, laughing like crazy at our narrow escape.

Somehow we made it out of there and moved on down to our next location: Hartsfield International Airport. Again, we were fairly unnecessary. The Propmaster gave me a handful of cash and sent me down to the main terminal shops to see if I could locate any Olympic pennants or decorative gear to put in the hands of our extras, so I headed off wearing my complete tool belt, replete with leatherman and a serrated flip-open Spyderco knife (this was before I started carrying throwing knives on my utility belt). It was a hot day and I was feeling a little flush, but I thankfully moved up and down through the secure areas of the airport unimpeded by security, with my arsenal of sharp knives… a sure sign this happened in the 90’s.

When I got back to the Delta terminal there was a long, boring wait for the camera setup. The heat was getting to me and I felt a little nauseated. Since we weren’t needed JoeProps and I went a bay or two back from the main action and sat in some seats facing a bank of payphones. In a couple of minutes we had our pocket change out and were trying to throw our quarters INTO the slots of the payphones from our chairs like free shots in basketball… doing it from about eight feet away. It shouldn’t have come as a shock when Pytka backed up past us again, just like he had earlier that morning, and I SWEAR that he looked over at us, catching one of us in mid-toss.

I also swear that he took a beat, gave us a sly look and turned back to the shot, leaving us to our game of payphone hoops.

To this day I always remember Joe Pytka as both a big bully and a cool guy with a sense of humor.

By the time I got home the fatigue, the nausea and the itchy spots were perfect clues to the fact that I’d been spreading the Chicken Pox to the world all day long. Joe Pytka and Chicken Pox, forever wedded in my mind.

This post was updated on April 4, 2007. Nothing fancy, nothing removed… just cleaned up some sloppy writing… not all though, wouldn’t want you to get bored or anything! Updated again on November 27, 2014 after a scolding comment by Raven – the change was to move the tags from a previous tag-handling plug-in into WordPress’ (now) built-in tagging system; no text has been changed.

7 thoughts on “The Time I Worked for Joe Pytka

    1. Drewprops Post author

      LOL – I will completely own the cowardice of that younger version of myself. As a kid who was still “getting into the business” I tried to keep my head down and not be noticed by the big scary director who was yelling at his art director. The grown version of myself would completely enjoy hanging out with Joe and hear his (probably endless) funny stories… I bet he’s a HOOT, and I would hope that he would enjoy this story in the spirit it was told, as it’s in no way mean-spirited. Tell him to give me a holler, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

      Reply
    2. private... he can find me.

      u my friend have never been on a joe pytka commercial as i me and this guy have, hed make people wear paper bags with faces on them for petes sake. Yes, its a bit much to run away, but just stay out of sight and look busy. Is the best advise i can give, also hide ur walkie talkie.

      Reply
  1. Alex Santana

    I also worked for Pytka back in the late 70s and early 80s too. Most of what is written here seems so familiar. He is bully, a crude guy, but the ad folks loved him because he was the cameraman and director so they got a twofer. I worked with JP in LA, and the ad folks came from NY and Dallas as I recall.

    He would make script girls cry and I remember one time we were doing a Lone Star Beer ad. The campaign was about this “armadillo” that was not seen, yet it was breaking open the Lone Star Beer trucks. I was there when JP told this art guy to make a sign that said something like “Dallas 175 miles”. I remember it well because I was trying to figure out where in Texas this was.

    When the art guy, who was a newbie on a JP shoot and very scared, asked me what I thought about the sign which looked great since it was weathered looking and even had a few bullet dents in it. But when JP came over,he started to scream and rant…and said…I told you to make the sign Dallas 350 miles! I said no way…I was there when you told him 175 because I was thinking where it would be. It was not 350 miles…he said I was fired…something that happened on every shoot…fine, but you were wrong. My thought at the time was that someone from Lone Star or the production company wanted the site of the truck mauling to be further away from Dallas, but no one told the poor art guy who now had to scramble to change the sign so we could shoot!

    JP was also the director on many of the Messy Marvin ads for Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup that featured Peter Billingsley who was afraid of JP because of his screaming. Peter and I would toss the football during downtimes and he told me that JP was “not a nice guy”. He later became famous for playing Ralphie in the Christmas movie, Christmas Story played ad nauseum during the holidays.

    He may be creative and talented, but he is one mean dude…must be his Pittsburgh raising and his desire to be a Steeler QB!

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  2. Tina Helmuth

    I worked for Joe for 8 years…and everything here is true of him, but he was always a very fair man. My favorite story about him, was when he came in wanting us to find a song that he had heard somewhere during some shoot. He told us all that we would be fired if we didn’t find it — clues…a guy with a gravelly voice singing to a girl about a bridge. Said he was somewhere in Wyoming when it happened. Each day he would come in and complain asking us where it was, and the continual loom of being fired. We bought every Leon Russell ever made, and looked for other gravelly male singers as well as calling every tiny radio station in all of Wyoming. 2 weeks later, one of the PA’s had been talking to everyone he could think of — finally — success….we presented him with the song…it was correct — Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush singing Don’t Give Up — but the kicker…….he never heard it on the radio, it was on a tape in his car :) You gotta love the man!!

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  3. Ted Sebastian

    I worked with Pytka and sometimes his (no talent) brother John from the early 80’s until 1992. For whatever reason, he respected me, never went off on me like others and paid a lot of my mortgage in W LA off. He gave me a chance to prove myself once and I knew if I failed I was dead. But it went great, he even asked me to help him to shoot an idea he had for a Prudential spot while we were waiting for the other set to be lit and ready. Me and him filmed the spot with one actor alone and three months later I got a major check in the mail for it. I remember Austin, Tommy (the Animal) grip, Billy, Matty and all the guys. A call from Joe always meant an interesting job and big paycheck. I was an art director and sometimes prop master and I when I started with him I heard he studied art and oil painting, so I knew he liked texture, that’s why we always had so much smoke on the set. And that’s how I knew to think one step ahead of what he was going to ask for. But playing basketball with him was a different experience. Those were my favorite days in the film industry and I’m proud to say I survived Pytka shoots unscathed. His brother John though, a totally untalented and abusive creep. He paid well but I couldn’t even stand the sight of him.

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  4. 1 Rod for U

    I worked at The Culver Studios where Pytka shot most of his commercials in the mid 90’s. I remember walking into the set with my co worker to check on the production crew, when out of nowhere Joe ripped the shirt off my friend and almost pulverized him. His mistake, he wore a “Propaganda” Production Tee shirt. Scared the bejesus out me! Joe is a piece of work.

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