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‘Chicago Fire’ prop master sets stage for realistic TV

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Updated: October 25, 2013 6:07AM

Billy D’ Ambra keeps two bodies, one clothed, one naked, in a storage compartment beneath the tractor trailer he hauls around town.

They routinely get battered and thrown off buildings. Don’t worry, they’re plastic.

He’s also got foam oxygen tanks, rubber axes and fake hypodermic needles — all the stuff you need to make a TV show about firefighters look real.

But it’s the on-the-spot requests for things the prop master doesn’t have that can bleed a budget as filming comes to a grinding halt until he comes up with a solution.

D’ Ambra, who’s been setting scenes on season two of NBC’s “Chicago Fire” at different locations around town, had to scramble a few days ago, when the director said he needed something resembling orange soda in a cup that wouldn’t make a mess when it was tossed out a Mercedes window.

“I looked around and I was like, ‘What the h--- am I gonna do here?’ I saw an orange sand bag left at a construction site on the street and emptied it out and stuffed it in the cup,” said D’ Ambra, 58, who became harried while reliving the urgency of the moment.

“Being late is what gets you fired in this business,” chimed in his assistant, Aaron Holden, who recalled a short-notice grocery run and a long checkout line.

“I left my ID and my credit card on the counter, told the guy I’d be back, and just took off with the the stuff,” he said.

Mostly though, D’ Ambra is prepared.

Dozens of bins containing everything from board games to wine glasses line the walls of his trailer. In his 40 years in the business he’s accumulated a small warehouse of stuff.

Including the fake tarantula that briefly sat on Joe Pesci’s chest in “Home Alone” (Pesci doesn’t like spiders, D’ Ambra says) and the foam rubber paint cans that smacked the actor in the face (Pesci doesn’t like real paint cans hitting him in the face, D’ Ambra says).

In addition to TV shows, D’ Ambra, who lives in Glen Ellyn and has five kids, worked on big budget movies including “The Fugitive,” “The Break-Up” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

His dad, Joe D’ Ambra, who was also a prop master, got his son in the business in a roundabout way.

“My dad had a heart attack when I was 13 and before he died in the hospital, he made his best friend from the business promise to get me a union card when I was 18, but he never told me about it,” D’ Ambra said. “When I turned 18, he called me into his office and said ‘I’ve had your number on my desk since 1969.’ ”

His father’s friend told D’ Ambra he needed to pay $600 in order to get his Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union card before he could step foot onto a film set, an astronomical figure for a teenager who split his time working at a restaurant and managing a car wash. D’ Ambra turned to walk out of the room.

“This was a big guy, and he horse collars me from behind and calls me every swear word in the book until I agree to pay the money,” said D’ Ambra, who did, in piecemeal installments.

“Two years later, I get a call, and it’s my dad’s friend. ‘I want you to go work on this commercial,’ he says. I didn’t know anything, but I learned,” D’ Ambra said.

“I haven’t told that story in a long time, I just got a little teary-eyed.”


Twitter: @mitchdudek

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