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By Leslie Nipkow

Recently, in an effort to evolve, I picked up the DVD box set of Emergency! Season One, planning to conduct an anthropological investigation into the earliest stirrings in my, for want of a better word, pants. I pulled up a chair in front of the plasma, pressed play, and sat back to watch Emergency! The Pilot, all ninety minutes of it. Oh, Mantooth, must you continue to steal from me?

The show opens in the firehouse garage. The camera dollies past the shiny, unmanned trucks until we reach: the pole. Thick, long and slippery, we pan up, up, up (my, what a long pole you have), till we reach: the entrance to the inner sanctum. We pass upward and through to the bed, free weights conveniently located nearby in case the sleeping inhabitant wakes with deflated biceps. We move in close on the back of a handsome head, rumpled brown hair set off by tousled white sheets. He rolls over, and we meet: John Gage, sleeping fireman, as played by young Mantooth.

We linger in extreme closeup on John's features just long enough to imagine he's dreaming of us, and then we pan to the floor... and Johnny's pants. Not only is he slumbering fetchingly under his firehouse sheets, he's apparently naked from the waist down. Just as the image of a young pantsless fireboy takes hold -- the red lights go off.

Now I understand what Stanley Kowalski meant about him and Stella getting the "colored lights going." The producers have crafted an Emergency orgasm. Johnny's ready in an instant (he's wearing boxers). Within seconds, Mantooth and his fellows are sliding down that pole, driving helter-skelter through the streets of '70s LA, moving as one, hooking up their hoses, testing them for tightness, and whoosh! The money shot. The fire's hot, but Johnny's got this blaze under control.

No wonder I fell in lust with Boy Mantooth and his fire brigade. This was as subliminally pornographic as the Camel camel's cock-nose. At eleven, I barely knew the difference between television and reality. In fact, I confess that I have spent most of my life since trying to get into the TV where a congenital drama queen like myself truly belongs. And thanks to my PhD-worthy study of episodic drama from 1972 to the present, I may not be a woman in uniform, but I've played one on TV, many times.

January, 2000, NBC's Third Watch. I played Taylor, a demolition worker, half-buried in a building collapse. While defibrillation in the field was sadly unnecessary, I was dragged out of the rubble on a backboard. The power of thought had manifested itself; I had gone from watching a poor schmoe rescued on TV, to being the poor schmoe inside the TV.

This was not the glamorous experience I had hoped it would be. Between the beige jumpsuit, the work boots, and the carcinogenic stage dust, I felt like the ugly stepsister of a shipping container. I lay in a pile of fake rubble, dreading the moment of rescue, fearing emergency appeals for stunt doubles to lug me, the paralyzed behemoth, out the door.

TV stars don't lift. They run out of burning buildings carrying hatchets and medical kits, while faceless strongmen do the serious carrying. Third Watch had hired New York's famed Rescue One squad for the job. Mantooth cum fireman is hot, but a real New York firefighter up close and personal -- they don't make hoses long enough to extinguish that kind of heat. The best-looking one leaned close to my dust-covered ear, called me beautiful, wrote his phone number on an old Shell gas receipt and slipped it into the pocket of my coveralls, where it remained, forgotten, when I returned my costume to wardrobe. My fireman's digits were washed and spun back into pulp. Fireman interruptus.

Mantooth's career suffered a similar fate. I lost track of him until 1987, when I found him playing Clay Alden, scion of the whiter-than-Wonder Bread Alden dynasty, on the soap opera Loving. I, too, was now a working actor in New York City, hawking Subaru and Wisk, bartending, and doing plays in questionable neighborhoods for subway fare, or less.

Then I got the call. Mantooth's soap opera daughter, Tricia, was engaged to blue-collar truck driver Trucker, and I was hired to portray a tastefully dressed background blur at their wedding. The requested wardrobe: "attire suitable for a garden party." My destiny was at hand. Finally, that Shakti Gawain Creative Visualization tape had paid for itself. The only problem: my '80s wardrobe leaned decidedly in the direction of Desperately Seeking Susan. My instinctive response to a "garden party" invite would be to personify the garden with artfully ripped green tights, a Bakelite vegetable necklace, carrot-colored streaks in my hair and a vintage "I Heart DDT" t-shirt held together by safety pins. My go-to footwear was a pair of massive black combat boots; they went with everything. But I would not allow a temporary sartorial hiccup to mess with my future. I attacked my closet, unearthing an authentic flapper dress in coral, pairing it with white tights and tap shoes I had "borrowed" four years earlier from a summer stock production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I played the whore with gold lame stretch pants and no lines. When tap dancing was required, I bounced up and down, grinning and waving my arms like Shirley Temple gone to weed. A quick pass with the screwdriver and, taps off, I was good to go -- believable enough as a coral-colored blob, swilling ginger ale from a plastic champagne flute behind Mantooth, faux-father of the faux-bride.

But this was more than an extra gig, and I was more than "atmosphere." My child's intuition had been dead on. Randy and I were connected on a soul level. And now, our destiny was going to manifest on the physical plane. To step on set was to make an entrance into the rest of my life. What was a forgotten fan club kit in comparison to being recognized as a great, undiscovered talent? I would be the first soap extra in repurposed tap shoes to be promoted to daytime diva on the spot. And if Randy played his cards right, I might just pull a few of my old Sensuous Woman techniques out of my bag of tricks.

The morning of "the wedding," I handed the subway clerk $1.25 in laundry quarters, the dregs of my bank account. It was okay, though. Mantooth owed me that dollar. Allowing for thirteen years of inflation, he should be good for at least ten bucks. I'd let him slide in exchange for a multimillion dollar contract with an iron-clad out in the event Spielberg needed my services. At long last, Randy was going to resuscitate me or, at least, my wallet.

I arrived on set and was whisked through hair and makeup, which consisted of a perfunctory powder and an ozone-obliterating geyser of hairspray. I now had "soap hair" -- waterproof, fossilized, and preternaturally high.

A disembodied voice summoned "All wedding extras to the set." My footsteps echoed the pounding of my heart as I climbed the steps toward the soundstage. My inner life was about to meet itself in the flesh.

I reached the heavy door marked "Closed Set - Do Not Enter," and as if on cue, the hallway was bathed in swirling red emergency light signaling that taping was underway. I was caught up in some sort of dimension-shattering cosmic inevitability. All that was missing was the pole.

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