Collectors' Guide To Hand Props:
Richard A. Coyle
So what is a hand prop?
A hand prop is anything that can be held in a person's hand.
In this context, a hand
prop will refer to an item held in the actor's hand during filming a
scene or scenes
within a movie or television show.
A hand prop is any knife, cup, cellular phone, medical
instrument, handgun, rifle or
any other common everyday thing that an actor can pick up and hold.
For the purposes of this discussion we will concentrate only
on the not-so-everyday type
items, i.e. the hand prop seen within science fiction/fantasy movies
and television shows.
Millions of people have been touched by the awe and wonder of
these movies and TV
shows. Within their dramatic action nature, the protagonist is usually
portrayed in a very
heroic manner where the fate of the entire planet, or even the
universe, hangs in the
balance. Some viewers have been caught up in these high adventures and
identify with that
hero. This is one reason for the desirability of these collectibles,
aptly-named "hero" prop.
Other people have enjoyed the epic sweep and uniqueness of the
story telling. Many have
become fans not only of the movies and programs but fans of the
complete processes that
bring these stories to life, the film-making itself. They study every
aspect of the
production, the costumes, the makeup, the special effects, the set
design, etc. Some have
become movie and TV show producers, an occupation evolving naturally
from their studies.
One important aspect of movie making has always been the hand
prop. It can set the
personality of the character. The right type of hand gun and holster
can define the cowboy
from the gunslinger. The right hand prop can even set the whole plot of
the whole movie; 'The Maltese Falcon' was one such hand prop.
Hand props do not stop there. There are many types of the same
model needed for film
work. There is the "hero" or closeup model, the special effects model,
special working model that fires blanks, the background prop and the
Of Heroes and Stunts
At the top of any collectors' prop buying list would be the
"Hero" hand prop
which was shown in the hand of the lead star in an important scene
within the movie or TV
show. Standard practice would require two or more fully functional
heroes. "Hero" is movie slang for the best model with the most
features used for the
closeup or insert shot. This is usually shown in those shots where just
about all you see
is the hand of the actor holding the hand prop. One such scene is the
closeup of Cpt.
Kirk's hand welding the door knob of a room he had just herded the
doctors into during the
hospital scene in the movie Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home.
The number of
"hero" props depends on how many scenes the prop may be in and the
of the actor dropping it to the floor destroying it. Adam West
infamous for this.
In the Star
Trek IV example, there were no stunt props made of this
prop. There was only one stunt planned and the low risk stunt of
throwing the prop to the
Navy FBI man could be safely done with the model already on hand.
Were this a scene with firing props, there would be both of
the first two types used: a
"hero" prop and the special rigged special effect prop to produce the
bang of a firing weapon. They would, of course, use the non-functional
copies for the
majority of the scenes where you would not see the gun fired. The
special realistic firing
props would be reserved for the scenes where it would be fired and
secured for safety
reasons after the scene was "in the can". This ensured that all during
of the filming the actors would be carrying safe and harmless
The Background prop is used when there will be many actors or
extras in the background
to be seen with props. A background hand prop is usually made from a
mold taken from of
the "hero" props, then cast in plastic for low cost and usually only
The background Phasers made for the first Star Trek movie
were cheaply made,
vacuum-formed copies with two halves taped together and no detailing.
They were commonly
and irreverently referred to as the "twenty-five cent models".
Last is the Stunt prop. The standard practice would be for a
mold to be taken from one
of the hand props to produce rubber stunt props for any action scenes
where someone could
be harmed by a hard prop. These rubber stunt props, so important for
the safety of the
actors, are the least collectible of props. This is because the
detailing is normally very
poor as detailing does not usually show in fast moving action scenes
anyway and also
because the use of foam rubber abbreviates their shelf life for the
rubber has a dismaying
tendency to rot away unless preserved within a special atmosphere.
Identifying and Verifying
One of the main problems for the collector of these pieces of
movie history and
memorabilia is correctly identifying the actual prop. Normally research
gives you only
enough to narrow your search down to the actual number of hand props
made for each movie
or TV show.
It is usually almost impossible to prove which of the two or
more hand props made for
each scene was "The One That Was Actually Used." Again, using the Cpt.
prop scene in Star
Trek IV as an example, there were two of these props on
set for the filming, so there are two "original" props from this movie.
could be seen on the movie screen or conversely, either could have been
shot in take after
take and not been seen on the screen. Confusion is multiplied.
Adding to the confusion of which prop actually made the final
cut of the scene is the
common practice of prop makers everywhere to produce copies of these
hand props both at the
same time or at a later date for their own archives, friends,
co-workers, even to have
their own copies and sometimes to sell to collectors.
There is also a growing number of prop makers outside of
Hollywood (who never worked in
Hollywood) who produce "copy props," often in their garages, which is
props are commonly known as "garage kits." Sadly, these copy props are
mistaken for real ones.
And last to all our sorrow and shame, some prop makers produce
reproductions made to be sold as "real original, right off the movie
right-out-of-the-actor's- hand-prop." Perhaps the government should
require a stamp
So it is a buyer beware...Letters of Authenticity are not any
guarantee as many of
the letters are fakes too.
Other officials, producers, stars and crew did not care nor
really know what the props
really looked like in the early years. They gave little thought that
some of their
signatures could be put to fraudulent use.
Auction houses do the best they can to verify authenticity of
props sold, but even then
can be deceived.
I have witnessed three experts fighting over whether a prop
was real or not.
Last word, buy for the fun of ownership and for yourself.
Investing in props can be
risky so you should never spend more than you can afford to totally
lose. A fake is worth