Pop Culture

He's not dead, he just plays it on TV

A very dead-icated man: Chuck Lamb, posing outside one of his trailers.

Professional Dead Guy is not a career many people can make happen. But one man has realized his dream of playing a dead body, and he clearly has the cold, clammy touch for the job.

“When I started doing this, I thought, ‘I really do look like a dead guy,’” said Chuck Lamb, the living human behind DeadBodyGuy.com. “I’m pale and I’m bald, I have bags under my eyes — you could definitely pick me out as a zombie or a dead guy anywhere.”

Lamb, who has played dead bodies on TV and in movies wasn’t always the go-to pro corpse he is today. A former Ohio-based computer programmer, one night he dreamed that he was a dead body on “Law & Order,” with Det. Lennie Briscoe staring down at him. It was a vision of the future, he hoped.

“I told my wife, ‘I could be Dead Body Man!’” he said. “Everybody needs a dead body.”

Lamb created a website in 2005 to self-promote himself to the industry, and got more response than he bargained for (he says they stopped counting hits on the site after 50 million). He landed corpse jobs on TV series like “What I Like About You” and “The Jury,” plus movies like “Stiffs,” and garnered a lot of media attention, including a story in The New York Times and a 2006 appearance on TODAY.

Lamb got lucky — it seems that everyone thinks they can play a dead body. And while there’s a bottomless well of need for corpses at any number of series and reality re-enactment dramas, David Waldron, who casts background actors for “Law & Order: SVU” said the competition is, well, stiff.

“Everyone says ‘I want to be a dead body,’” said Waldron. “And I say, ‘You don’t really want to be a dead body.’ If you’re working with me, you know it’s not an easy job.”

That’s because it’s uncomfortable work, particularly on “SVU.” On that show, bodies get dumped in the mud, covered in red corn syrup and maggots, stuffed behind a dumpster with cats crawling on them, and left behind with their clothes torn in cold Central Park. Which means the actors have to endure those indignities, too. Other times, a body in the autopsy room may require three hours of makeup, while a burn victim can take up to five hours.

Lamb does his thing on the set of "Stiffs."

“The novelty goes quickly out the window,” said “SVU’s” casting director Jonathan Strauss. “That separates the professionals from the amateurs. The hardest working men and women in show business are the dead.”

Lamb, however, had a knack for it. Aside from — as he puts it — looking a little dead already, he was extremely dedicated to his work. For “Jury,” he was portraying a body in the Florida sand dunes when he was accidentally laid him out on a pile of red ants. “I laid there for ten minutes before I said, ‘These ants are biting the piss out of me!’” he recalled. “They had to hose me off I had so many red ants on me.”

For some, playing dead can be a way station to greater things: Actor Mike Shiflett, who has since worked on HBO’s “John Adams” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in live, speaking roles, had an early start as serial killer Ray Copeland on Discovery ID’s “Forensic Files.” It helped him discover that he really, really loved acting. “It’s been fun, it’s been an adventure, and a real learning curve,” he said.

When trying to break into the business, Lamb had his wife take photos of him "playing dead" around the house. He was surprised at how many ideas she had for poses.

As for Lamb, he's scaled back his ambitions, since he didn’t want to move to Los Angeles or New York to really dedicate himself entirely to the dead guy pursuit. But he would like to fulfill one remaining dream. 

“If I got on ‘Law & Order,’” he said, “we could close up shop after that.

“Everybody wants to make their mark in the world,” he said. “It’s fulfilling a dream. I know it might seem a weird dream, but it’s my dream.”