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Airman moonlights in the movies

  • Published
  • By Michele Donaldson
  • Air Force Materiel Command

For one Air Force Materiel Command Airman, day-to-day duty calls for a uniform and management of training for those in his care. However, when the weekend rolls around, what to wear and what he will be doing is never a sure thing, especially when Hollywood calls.

Master Sgt. Mark Gabenski, a training manager at Headquarters, Air Force Materiel Command, is a background performer, previously known as an extra, and is often called upon to take part in movies and television scenes to add ambiance and help create a believable world behind the main characters.

"It's exciting to be on a set and see how experts accomplish film production, but it's a hobby, not a career," said Gabenski.

An avid movie fan, Gabenski answered a casting call for background actors for the television show "Friday Night Lights" on a whim. He played numerous roles, including a football player, a spectator in the stands, and, several times, a person seen walking behind the major actors.

That little taste of cinema inspired him to pursue his hobby when he transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Although it sounds glamorous and lucrative, the days are long, and sometimes boring.

"You begin the day with makeup and costuming, and then you wait while the crews spend hours setting up lights and cameras and going through scenes," said Gabenski. "It's not bad unless it's sweltering or raining for 13 hours straight."

Since that first experience, he has appeared in several television shows such as "American Crime,” and more than 20 feature films including "Spy Kids" and "A Man Called Otto" with Tom Hanks, and "Tree of Life" with Brad Pitt.

In March, Gabenski traveled to Oxford, Ohio, to work on the set of a new, yet unnamed,  action movie. In that film, he and several others dressed as militia members in full riot gear, firing rubber guns. He stood next to the stuntman killed by the main character and got to duck away.

“No one will recognize me in that one since I was in costume," said Gabenski, "But it was a great experience." 

A new Superman movie will be filmed in Ohio this summer, and Gabenski is actively seeking a part in it.

"My dream is to appear in a Marvel or Star Wars film," he said. "I already have my own Jedi robe if that chance ever comes up."

Gabenski will retire from active-duty service next year and plans to study filmmaking. He hopes to dabble in screenwriting or audition for minor speaking roles.

"I watch films differently now," he said. "I can imagine how the scene was created and sometimes think of alternate ways it could be played."

He admits there are pros and cons to his hobby. He enjoys meeting celebrities and doing something different on a day off, but it can be disheartening when his appearance doesn't make the final cut in a project as it did in a movie where he was cast with Robert Redford.

"The main satisfaction for me is doing something that might stand the test of time," he said. "The excitement when a project airs and photo memories are a perk, too."