The film started important discussions about faith, the JFK High graduate said.
WARREN -- Tom Shaker's acting career has taken him from the Mahoning Valley to Italy, and recently he found himself on the same high school stage he performed on more than 30 years earlier.
Shaker, 52, a 1970 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, scored his first lead role in the kindergarten version of "Frosty the Snowman." Since then, he has never looked back.
Shaker returned this week to the JFK stage where he shared several behind-the-scenes moments and anecdotes about his role in the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of the Christ." About 50 alumni and others braved inclement weather to attend the presentation Wednesday.
When in Rome
The Niles native moved to Rome in September 2000 and landed the part of Eyepatch in "The Passion." The actor, teacher and musician recently finished working on "Rome," an HBO miniseries due to be released next September.
Shaker told his audience that Gibson put up $25 million of his own money to fund "The Passion" and that he sought several experts' advice in making the film as authentic as possible by capturing the essence of Christ's life, betrayal and crucifixion.
One of the biggest challenges for the producer/director, however, was to distribute the project; Gibson received several rejections because of its graphic and alleged anti-Semitic content until New Line Cinema bought it "and the thing grossed $400 million," Shaker said.
Despite the money, Shaker continued, it was Gibson's staunch Catholic faith and a desire to share it that drove him to make the movie. Shaker added that the role and experiences of taking part in the film affected him similarly.
"For me, the impact was that it got people talking about their faith," he said. "It's not about who's right or wrong, who's better than who. It's about one race: The human race."
Months of work
Shaker said "The Passion," shot entirely in Italy, took about three months to film. Many segments were filmed in Rome's Cinecitta studios, but the crucifixion scenes were shot in Matera, a second century seaside village in southern Italy.
For Shaker, those three months starting in December 2002 meant many 12-hour workdays five days a week starting at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Some people have various misconceptions about "the business of show business," and what goes into film making, Shaker said, adding that about 10 percent is actual shooting and the rest consists of editing and other postproduction work.
"There's nothing exotic about making a film. It's hard work, tedious and boring, and a million things can go wrong," Shaker said.
Shaker praised the people who worked on the editing and continuity aspects of "The Passion." Some scenes were done near an airport and the crew had to stop filming several times so the sounds of planes flying overhead would not make their way into the movie.
Shaker said, he found Gibson "a man of extreme faith with no delusions of grandeur," and that he and the other members of the cast and crew were easy to work with. The experience of taking part in such an intense film caused several people on the set to convert to God, Shaker pointed out.
"It was the best film set I was ever on in terms of being organized and being treated with respect," Shaker said, adding that he enjoyed sitting with Gibson and watching various outtakes and the final cut.
Shaker, the fifth of eight children of former Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge Mitchell Shaker and the late Mary Katherine Christopher Shaker, is also a member of the Screen Actors Guild. During his four years at Kent State University, Shaker produced numerous theatrical works.
He went to the University of Akron's law school in the mid-1970s, but dropped out and opted for a career in the arts. Shaker received his master's degree in directing from the University of Michigan.
Shaker also finds time to teach English at Link Campus, a branch of the University of Malta. When he's not acting or teaching, Shaker performs and tours with his jazz group, Tom and the Jazz Cats.
He's also working on "Kissa Grandpa," a project about his grandfather Nicola Cristafaro's immigration from Italy to a farm near Conneaut in search of a better life.