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Smart people worked hard on Conan’s ‘stupid’ bridge stunts

WHEN COWS FLY: A replicMrs. O’Leary’sbovine sails over Chicago River stunt thaired Tuesday “Conan.”

WHEN COWS FLY: A replica of Mrs. O’Leary’sbovine sails over the Chicago River in a stunt that aired Tuesday on “Conan.”

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Updated: July 15, 2012 3:35PM

‘It’s time to up the ante.”

And with that, Conan O’Brien introduced the third installment of a locally shot comedy bit that’s become a crowd favorite: launching bizarre Chicago-themed stuff over the State Street drawbridge.

On Wednesday, during the TBS late-night star’s third taping of four planned at the Chicago Theatre, it was Laurence Tureaud’s turn. You might know him better as Mr. T — the locally born guy who kicked Rocky’s butt (the first time, anyway) onscreen and starred as Sgt. Bosco “B.A.” Baracus on “The A-Team.”

Fortunately, this version was a fake. Sporting glittery bling and T’s trademark mohawk, the oversized likeness was tucked into a bright-yellow muscle car convertible, shot up a steep incline via carefully rigged pulley system and flung from one side of the bridge to the other.

Although Fake T was tossed from his obliterated vehicle upon crash-landing, his voyage marked another success (three of five, if you’re keeping score) for a sight gag that took some major planning to pull off in mere hours one recent morning. A dummy of an “obese Wisconsin tourist,” wearing a foam cheese hat and strapped into a sit-down scooter, fared even less well; cheers erupted when the chubby Cheesehead dropped into the drink.

A couple of weeks prior to liftoff, O’Brien’s experts — including field producer Jason Chillemi and special-effects man Eric Allard (who also crafted the giant Conan Bobblehead) — contacted, met with and revealed detailed plans for their proposed tomfoolery to various city officials. Those involved, at a show-footed cost of roughly $15,000, included members of the fire department and police marine unit, city transportation engineers and 13 street cops. The area alderman, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and nearby residents got a heads-up as well.

From 6 to 10 a.m. Sunday, just a day before O’Brien’s Chicago residency began, the bridge was blocked off at both ends and its perimeter tightly guarded lest pedestrians and cars slip through. Police boats patrolled the waterway below. Firehoses were ready to cool the bridge’s heat-expanded iron and steel so as to prevent jamming — and thus headaches caused by traffic problems later. (A bit of squirting was required.)

Initially, officials “did have some concerns” about the stunts themselves, says Chicago Film Office director Rich Moskal. But they were soon allayed. Objects to be launched were light and so was the four-wheeled cart upon which they’d ride. Max weight wouldn’t exceed a couple hundred pounds.

Allard’s pulley system worked this way: A truck attached to a cable rigged to the carts drove in the opposite direction (its speed, according to Chillemi, depended on payload weight and bridge incline, which topped out at 45 degrees). Upon reaching the bridge’s lip the cable released, essentially catapulting the cart and its contents.

“Once we did the first two, we got into a routine and were able to bang them out,” Chillemi says.

Five cameras — one roaming, one each at points of takeoff and landing and two more on a neighboring bridge and a police boat — captured all the action.

And even failures were considered successes. While a giant bratwurst, a replica of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and Mr. T made it over the chasm, a miniature of the Daley Center Picasso sculpture was less fortunate; it landed just short, broke apart and fell into the river below. All of the pieces were fished out save for an attached mini camera — one of several such devices whose delicacy rendered them largely useless. It now sleeps with the fishes. And whatever else lurks down there.

“We knew that no matter how it ended, it was just going to be cool and fun to see,” Chillemi says.

Moskal thinks so, too. But he says not all of his city colleagues were enamored with the concept. Then stuff started flying.

“Even the sternest, most humorless public safety officials who saw it couldn’t help but laugh.”

Not only have the “Conan” segments set a high (and yet low) bar for Chicago showbiz shenanigans — in 15 years with the Film Office, Moskal recalls no instances of things being launched over an open drawbridge — they also may well mark the most ridiculous use of a bridge in the city’s history. Catch the finale Thursday at 10 p.m. on TBS — or on jumbo screens at the Chicago Theatre if you happen to be on hand.

“There was definitely a precedent for doing things on bridges,” Moskal says, referencing scenes from such Chicago-shot films as “Transformers” and “The Dark Knight,” “but never anything, quite frankly, as stupid as this. And I mean that in the best [sense].

“We all agreed that this is one of the stupidest things ever done, but to its credit that’s what made it so cool.”


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