It was a major plot twist for Dan Irwin.
After more than 30 years of serving in the military and working at a prison, he became an actor.
Dan, 64, of Sparta, has appeared in about 50 films in the past four years, as well as plays, TV shows, Internet series and commercials in the St. Louis area.
"It ain't no hobby," he said with dramatic flair. "It's my job. It's what I do."
The government pensions help. Most of Dan's films are made by independent or student filmmakers who can't afford to pay him. Community theater also is a volunteer gig.
Dan doesn't mind, and neither does his friend, Bill Conklin, 54, of Granite City.
Bill acts in local films and plays when he's not working as an IRS contact representative.
"A lot of times they have food (at movie shoots), so you get to eat," Bill said. "Plus you get to meet new people. You get to be friends on Facebook, and it's just fun."
Beyond meager earnings, actors in low-budget films must be flexible. The process typically takes longer than it would with highly paid, professional crews.
Dan and Bill recently showed up for a 10 p.m. shoot in Fairview Heights that didn't start until almost midnight.
The crew for the film "Joe Hanrahan 'Invents' Insane-O-Vision" had been delayed at another location.
"We had some guys who volunteered to bring a police car, and they were late," said director Trevor Juenger, 26, of St. Louis.
Trevor is a New Athens native and Webster University film student. Dan appeared in his horror movie, "Coyote," last year.
In "Joe Hanrahan," Dan plays an 1899 patent officer. He leads a mob to hunt down an inventor whose glasses caused him to hallucinate and his eyes to gush with blood.
Dan fit right into the period with his gray hair and beard, old-fashioned wire-rim glasses and a vintage-style hat.
"He was great," Trevor said. "We lit his hands on fire (using protective gloves), and he really didn't care that much. He let us do it twice."
Dan's love of movies goes back to his childhood in Sparta, where parts of "In the Heat of the Night" were filmed in the 1960s.
Producers welcomed the public to watch if people stayed off the set.
Dan remembers Rod Steiger walking in and out of a house for repeated takes. He was the friendliest actor, waving at crowds and signing autographs.
"The only thing I regret is the day that they auditioned for extras, I went to school," Dan said. "I didn't know about it. If I would've known about it, I would have skipped school."
Dan spent four years in the Air Force, studied art in college and worked briefly as a Menard prison guard before 10 years in the Army, six years in the Army Reserves and a return to Menard as a clerk and medic for 16 years.
He started auditioning for parts soon after his 2009 retirement, despite a lifelong hearing problem.
His first movie was "Veterinary Medicine," produced by a Webster student.
"We filmed it at his father's veterinary clinic in Wright City," Dan said. "I was a bum, and it got best drama for a film under 15 minutes in the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase."
Dan's first play was "Missing Link" with Open House Theatre in New Athens.
Since then, he has tackled big and small parts, ranging from professors to janitors, drunks to murderers, priests to businessmen, teachers to zombies.
Bill has appeared in several movies with Dan. He admires Dan's dedication.
"He always knows his lines, and he gets aggravated when other people don't because you're supposed to," Bill said. "If you know your lines, you can get into your character quicker."
Dan learns about casting calls on StLouisAuditions.com and through word of mouth.
Sometimes he just shows up for movie shoots, hoping to be tapped as an extra and willing to help crews pack up.
Occasionally, filmmakers have enough money in their budgets to pay him.
"I had one job where I made $600 an hour," Dan said. "Of course, I only worked 10 minutes. I was only there 15 minutes.
"I had one line. It was, 'Amy, we can't stay much longer after the funeral.' I said it three times, and they said, 'Yeah, that's it,' and they stuffed some money in my pocket."