ASHLAND – Dale LaRue's task was to hold a worn-down rock hammer.
He wasn't sure why, and he didn't know the significance of the hammer. He just knew that part of his job as an extra in a movie being filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory was to display this prop and have his picture taken.
Fans of "The Shawshank Redemption" know the rest: After one of the most dramatic reveals in cinematic history when Warden Samuel Norton discovers a tunnel through which Andy Dufresne has escaped from prison, the film immediately cuts to a search party trudging through a river searching for any remnants of the prisoner.
As Morgan Freeman's voiceover states, "all that was left of Andy Dufresne was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, "damn near worn down to the nub."
A camera flashes, and the iconic search crew picture appears on screen, as the camera zooms in on what's left of the rock hammer Andy used to tunnel out of Shawshank. And there's LaRue, hammer in hand.
"The guy standing beside me with the stick in his hand, I thought he was the one they were focusing on," LaRue said. "Then the movie comes up and I'm the one holding the hammer."
In the summer of 1993, LaRue was a sergeant at the Ashland post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol when a recruiter came in and asked, "Who wants to be in the movies?"
First came a trip to the barbershop for "period-style" haircuts, since the movie was set in the 1960s. Next came wardrobe at a place in Mansfield to be fitted for period-style uniforms. The first day of filming, LaRue was lined up with the rest of the crew on the banks of a stream running between the Ohio State Reformatory and the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
"The director (Frank Darabont) looked at me and said, 'You're in front.' He apparently liked the way I looked," LaRue said.
The crew spent about seven hours in the stream that day, going through the motions of the scene over and over again. As the actors trudged through the water, a cameraman on a track slider followed the action from above. Morgan Freeman even stopped by to watch for a while.
After he agreed to be in the movie, LaRue picked up a copy of the Stephen King novella, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" to familiarize himself with the story. However, nowhere in the book does it explain in much detail the significance of the rock hammer.
"I thought it would be interesting based on Stephen King's mini novel, but even after reading the book, I didn't realize that would be a major part," LaRue said. "I thought well I've got a rock hammer, and we're up front and they're taking a picture of us, so it must mean something."
The iconic picture of the search crew with LaRue front and center was taken at least 15 or 20 times, each time as the actors turned to face the camera during the action. Next to the "real" photographer was an actor with a period-correct camera that appears in the film.
After many hours filming in the water, director Frank Darabont could tell the crew was worn out by the end. He promised that if each of them provided their names and addresses, the production company would send each of them the still shot that was taken.
"I share that quite frequently because when people say, 'Oh, you were in the movie?' I say here's the proof," LaRue said.
LaRue appears as an officer a few other times in "The Shawshank Redemption," most notably in the scenes where law enforcement arrives to apprehend Warden Norton. LaRue can be seen driving the lead police car, filmed on a stretch of road between the Mansfield Correctional Institution and State Route 13.
"They brought a stunt coordinator in from Hollywood, and he told me I did a better job than most stunt people, but I haven't got a call back from that," LaRue said with a laugh.
On the final day of filming for the movie, LaRue was dressed in a suit and tie and asked to play a news reporter, but because of his significant role as an officer, his face couldn't be shown as any other character. The remaining cast enjoyed the perks of being on a Hollywood movie set on the final day of filming in Mansfield before filming the closing scenes in Cancún, Mexico.
"I said, don't you need state troopers down there, too?" LaRue joked.
LaRue has been retired for 15 years now, after spending the last 14 years of his career at the Ashland post. His experience with "The Shawshank Redemption" remains one of the most memorable parts of the job, and he's regularly recognized every time the movie appears on cable television.
"It goes by in a blink, but there I am holding the hammer," LaRue said. "My acting career ended there, but my legend lives on."