Register of Deeds: When Hollywood comes to town

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By William P. O’Donnell, Norfolk County Register of Deeds

Lights! Cameras! Action! It’s safe to say that for most people, those three buzzwords do not conjure up thoughts of the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds. After all, what is so alluring to Hollywood about a building that contains 5 million real estate documents?

And what possibly could the registry and the surrounding courthouse buildings have in common with television actors, movie stars, and the Oscars? Well, if I got you scratching your head by now and putting down your People Magazine, let me explain.

L-R: Registry staff members Rich Kennedy and Claire Martin, Robert Downey Jr., and Norfolk County Register William O’Donnell

L-R: Registry staff members Rich Kennedy and Claire Martin, Robert Downey Jr., and Norfolk County Register William O’Donnell

Dedham Square is one hot location when it comes to filming. I saw it in 2013 when the movie The Judge was filmed right in front of the Superior Court, District Court, and the Registry of Deeds. The film starred Robert Downey Jr. as a hot shot, slightly shady big city lawyer coming home to a small town in Indiana where he later defends his father, a stern judge, played by Robert Duvall, who is on trial for murder.

It was impressive to see the crowd of fans and movie extras, the large white blazing klieg lights, the boom mikes and the director’s chair in front of the Registry of Deeds as the cameras rolled. What was even more amazing happened a few days later when there was an unexpected knock on my side door on a hot summer’s day. It was Robert Downey Jr. asking if there might be a place he could study his lines. Needless to say, we made him our guest and put him in the registry’s conference room where he entered and left throughout the afternoon to do his scenes.

And it is true what they say about Robert Downey; he is one of the nicest people you can meet. An intern in my office got her picture taken with him and when she explained that her mother was a big fan too, he wrote a personal notation for her mom. Later he took a photo with the registry staff and me.

The movie was both a critical and financial success. It opened the Toronto Film Festival and it earned an Oscar nomination for Duvall for Best Supporting Actor. The only hitch to my whole movie experience was when the crew was filming the Registry of Deeds’ front door. I thought, “This is great. My name is on the door! I am going to make the movie!” Little did I appreciate that directors are sticklers for details. Gone were the words Norfolk County Registry of Deeds, replaced by Crawford County. The date changed from EST. 1793 to EST. 1852. And worse yet, I was replaced by a register of deeds named Dennis W. Hartig. Oh well, I guess there aren’t too many people named William O’Donnell in Indiana.

A few years earlier, Dedham Square was treated to the filming of multiple episodes of the hit TV series The Practice, which starred James Spader. The show became a spinoff for Boston Legal. These particular episodes centered around Spader’s character, Alan Shore, coming back to his hometown to defend his boyhood friend on a charge of murder. Some of the filming took place in front of the Registry of Deeds; the District and Superior courts were also used in the filming.

Again, I almost had my marquee moment. An assistant director came into the registry and said, “You look like a lawyer and I responded, “I am one.” He asked me if I wanted to be an extra by walking down the street. I thought I had done a pretty good job because he later asked me if I could walk up some courthouse steps with another person that night. I didn’t realize the scene would literally take all night to shoot in the freezing cold. However, what really dampened my spirits was that my scenes, like many would-be actors, would fall victim to the cutting-room floor.

But the films keep coming. Just several months ago, some movie scenes were shot across from the Registry of Deeds at the Norfolk Superior Court. The movie is about the Detroit riots of 1967. It is being directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar for Best Director in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. The film is scheduled to be released on August 4, 50 years to the date of the riots.

We can only hope Hollywood comes again to Dedham Square and the Registry of Deeds in the very near future. Until then, with my movie career never really taking off, I will keep my day job.

Around the Real Estate Block: Canton property sales totaled 64 for December 2016. The average property sale price (including residential and commercial) for December was $843,653. There were 47 Homesteads and zero foreclosure deeds filed for the month of December in Canton.

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