By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike London climbed the last step, turned and did a double-take when he saw the film equipment spread out on the Lawn, directly in front of the Rotunda.
“It’s like Gone With the Wind or something,” London said. “This is kind of over the top. I was thinking more like a camcorder or an iPhone.”
On the football field, UVa’s head coach is in charge. On the set, director Don Hamilton and his crew gave the orders Tuesday afternoon.
They were there to shoot Virginia’s 2010 football commercial, whose cast of hundreds includes students, fans, coaches, current players and former players. The commercial is scheduled to debut April 2.
“This was kind of like a Spike Lee, Cecil B. DeMille production,” London said with a smile afterward. “I’m excited to see the finished product and how it’s going to look.”
The leading role, naturally, went to the Wahoos’ new coach, who turned in a performance Denzel Washington might envy.
Only once did London flub his lines. During the grand finale, after flawlessly delivering the first three words — “Please join us” — he froze, eliciting hoots of laughter from those surrounding him on the Rotunda steps.
London took the ribbing in good humor, just as he tolerated the barbs that flew his way when the makeup artist halted the proceedings to climb the Rotunda steps and apply more powder to the coach’s face. He was too thrilled by the turnout to mind.
“I don’t have words to express my gratitude for the people who are responsible for putting this together, and for the people who said they want to be involved with it,” London said.
“It was great to see all the former players. There were a lot of great players here today, I’m telling you.
“Current players, fans, young fans, old fans. It was a great venue to have something like this done, here on Grounds, right at the Rotunda. So we’re excited. It’s something that kind of kick-starts things going into spring practice and into the season.”
About 100 students answered the call for extras, along with some 250 fans of all ages. They got handshakes and words of appreciation from London as they walked to the Rotunda steps.
The boys proudly wearing the UVa football helmets in the commercial? That would be 6-year-old Aiden DeWitt and his 5-year-old brother, Cooper. Another DeWitt boy, 1-year-old Graham, clad in a UVa football jersey, played happily on the Lawn during the shoot.
Watching the brothers was their mother, Sarah DeWitt. She’s a 1998 alumna of UVa, and her husband, Jordan, graduated from the University a year later. And whose idea was it for the DeWitts to drive from their home in Mechanicsville for the shoot?
“It was unanimous,” Sarah said.
The 50-some football alumni who’ll appear in the commercial gathered at the University Chapel before being summoned to the Lawn. They represented a wide range of eras.
Among those present Monday afternoon: Jim Bakhtiar, Tom Scott, Gene Arnette, Bart Farinholt, Mike Frederick, Ryan Kuehl, Charles McDaniel, Joe Hall, Vic Hall, Howard Petty, Aaron Brooks, Darryl Blackstock, Antonio Rice, Kase Luzar, Brad Butler, Marquis Weeks, Ray Savage, Ron Carey, Marques Hagans, James Farrior, Marcus Hamilton, Jon Copper, Jason Snelling, Monsanto Pope, Wali Rainer and the coach’s brother, Paul London.
Farrior, who’s heading into his 14th season as an NFL linebacker, flew in from Miami for the shoot.
“I just wanted to show my support for our new coach and the program,” said Farrior, who starred for George Welsh at UVa. “I’ve been a part of this program and this university for a long time. I definitely feel a strong bond, and anything I can do to help, I will.”
Kuehl, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL after leaving UVa in 1995, drove down from Bethesda, Md., to take part.
“I think the idea is to show the players who are here now how much the older players care about the program,” Kuehl said. “We spent a lot of time building this thing with George, and it’s important that they know how much we care.”
London took over in early December for Al Groh, whom UVa dismissed after nine seasons. Kuehl said he’s noticed “a different vibe” at the McCue Center.
“It seems to me like it’s a little freer, a little looser,” Kuehl said. “It’s not as serious. It doesn’t feel like a library anymore, and maybe that’s a good thing for college players.”
The atmosphere was certainly loose Monday afternoon. After every take, a joker in the crowd would shout, “That’s a wrap!”
Ever the perfectionist, the veteran director ignored those helpful suggestions.
“Happiness, please!” Hamilton yelled at one point, asking for smiles from his cast. “I want one more.”
One more became two more and three more and then four more. Finally, though, the cloud cover satisfied Hamilton, as did the subsequent take of the commercial’s final scene. And so he bellowed the word everybody wanted to hear after a long afternoon on the set: