I recently saw a movie that had a phone number that didn't start with the obviously fake "555." Is there a movement for more realistic numbers on TV and in movies?

By: Jess, Toronto

A.B. Replies: If you're impressed by fake phone numbers in movies, then wait until you see the license plate numbers in the upcoming remake of Miami Vice. I hear they have digits and letters and--wait for it--flamingos.

For years, Hollywood has tried to escape the dreaded 555 phone number, and it's killing our suspension of disbelief quicker than Charlize Theron masquerading as a scrappy mine worker in a bandanna. These attempts at authenticity have enjoyed only spotty success.

The 2003 movie Bruce Almighty used a non-555 phone number that just happened to coincide with more than 30 very nettled, very real individuals scattered across the country. The film's studio, Universal, picked the number because it wasn't in use in Buffalo, New York, where the story took place. Too bad the number was in use everyplace else, including the home of a reverend in Cornelia, Georgia and a radio network based in Colorado. One poor lady in Florida got so sick of fielding calls for God she was ready to set fire to Jim Carrey's face, which, as everybody knows, is made out of a very flammable rubber and would have made for an exciting pyrotechnic display. She threatened to sue instead.

Other entertainment executives have commandeered the country's phone system and turned it into an evil-genius marketing machine. Last year, an episode of Scrubs featured Donald Faison's character establishing the ideal phone number in 916-CALL-TURK. Fans who dialed the number got a recorded message from Faison saying the show was moving to a different time slot and to please vote for Scrubs in the annual People's Choice Awards.

"I am so excited," Faison's voice said. "I can't believe you called me." A few people who called the number even got the Scrub actors live on the blower.

TV people know that if they broadcast a number--any number--some hockey puck is going to call. Last year, the character Luke left his cell number, 860-294-1986, on a message for Lorelai in a Gilmore Girls episode. Callers got a message touting a new children's facility at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was all kinds of touching.

At one time, phone companies actually offered a service that helped the movie and TV industries come up with realistic-sounding dead phone numbers, but they reportedly ran out of them. Now, most of the time, the entertainment industry still falls back on 555, which was officially set aside for it in 1973. Increasingly, 555 numbers are being assigned to real people and places, but others are still being used by the Biz. You can reach Ned Flanders in Springfield at 555-8904, apparently. I'm sure he's standing by, waiting for your call-diddly-all.

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