A Middle Class Perspective

I joined AFTRA in 1972, SAG and AEA shortly thereafter. IMDb lists much but hardly all of the work I’ve done over the past 36 years – soaps, commercials, voice-overs, children’s TV, public affairs TV, prime time, features, and theater. I am a poster child for “middle class actors.”

In my working career, I’ve watched SAG grow from 25,000 to 122,000 members…yet this reality endures. About 10% of SAG will make a consistent living wage and earn health and pension benefits. Five years ago, I saw my peers dying…and took my pension. I’m hardly rich, but I don’t ever need to work again. I have ‘enough’. Yet I’ll bet a SAG actor who begins a career today and enjoys a comparable level of success and consistency to mine will not qualify for a pension, 36 years from now.

Think of the producers as OPEC and we performers as HUMVEE drivers. Simply put, we have zero leverage. We lack sufficient clout to compel them to deal with us in terms we might consider equitable.
Our union leaders are our commanders and this is a time of war. It is not a time for posturing or hubris. A savvy commander assesses the tactical reality and makes decisions that minimize losses, while planning to rejoin the battle at a more advantageous time.

It may be that by next contract negotiation, we have managed to level the playing field and can negotiate with genuine strength. Or maybe not, maybe that ship has sailed. We are comprised of three groups – Stars (and we know who they are), middle class actors (hardly household names but making a living, owning homes, putting kids thru school) and newbie’s (or aspirants or dreamers). Stars don’t need SAG. Newbie’s hope to move up the food chain but have little to lose. The ‘middle class actor’ (like his struggling economic counterpart in American society) is the only one with a dog in this fight.

The issues being contested in negotiations are important in principal but insignificant in pragmatic reality. They are certainly not compelling enough to justify a work stoppage. So why are AFTRA’s 70,000 plus and SAG’s 122,000 plus (given that 44,000 are dual card holders) allowing our leadership to indulge in brinksmanship that endangers not only the opportunity for middle class actors to make what living they may, but also threatening the livelihoods of …I don’t know how many, but a helluva lot! I mean the crews and support people that enable what it is we do?

WAKE UP! It’s 2008, we are a nation a war, an economy in recession, confronting a sinking dollar, soaring energy prices, a housing crisis, global terrorism, massive national debt…have I left anything out? And do you need more reasons to conclude that a work stoppage is an incredibly self destructive choice at this time in our history?

It’s called “show business”. If you want to be creative, do theater. It will enhance your craft and you might enjoy yourself. If you choose to vie for success in what is now prime time or feature films (hoping to buy that winning lottery ticket) well good luck to you! The odds are stacked against you (always have been, always will be) but dreams sometimes come true…and we all have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Just don’t confuse your giddy aspirations with reality, OK?

A strike benefits no one. The producers don’t care. They have product in storage and the belief that viewers will watch any amount of crap they roll out in prime time. The stars care only inasmuch as their big ticket projects will be delayed or shelved…but they won’t miss any meals. The beginners won’t have that chance to show their stuff, make that impression. The crews and behind camera workers will lose income and opportunity. And finally, the class of actors continually held up as “those middle class actors, for whom we’re fighting!” will be those most disadvantaged by a strike.

Approve the AFTRA contract. Compel SAG’s leaders to seek a comparable agreement.

Yes, we got fucked. That sort of thing is going around these days. Tomorrow is another day. But don’t add insult to injury by prolonging this silliness. Get ‘er done! Then use the next 3 years to find ways to insure that what we do is irreplaceable…and therefore valuable…and therefore commensurately rewarded.

FATHERS AND SONS

FATHERS AND SONS 3 May 2006

Tiger lost his dad today, and I’m feeling for him. The special relationship between Earl Woods and his son, fabled golfer Tiger Woods is well documented, but there is a universal truth in this event. All sons will lose their mothers and fathers at some point. The impact of those losses is comparable yet somehow different. It’s not quantitative, it’s not less or more affecting, it’s just different. Both events are grievous and both are life-altering.

I introduced my father to golf many years ago and it became something we could share with equal passion, a safe place away from our differences regarding Vietnam and Hollywood and politics. We celebrated the ascension of Tiger through college and his early successes on the PGA. Though I now lived in California and he in Ohio, we spent many Sundays on the phone, rooting, commiserating, applauding Tiger’s prowess and competitiveness. “Dad, did you see that? Wow!”

I’m not particularly accomplished as a golfer, comparatively speaking. I’ve broken 80 exactly twice – two rounds of 79 and each was special and a personal triumph. I have one hole-in-one. I have exactly two eagles in my entire life. Tiger has accomplished that feat numerous times in one day. So clearly, I’m not suggesting we share anything other than a passion for the sport.

I enjoy modest celebrity because of my work as an actor. Although I’ve been recognized in many distant lands, Tiger is a world-wide celebrity. If my recognition factor is one hundred, compared to the average citizen, Tiger’s is one million. But we both cherish golf, we both deal with public attention and we both now contend with the loss of our father.

I’d always admired ‘the legend’ of Tiger Woods, long before his PGA success because his father, Earl Woods had served two tours with Special Forces in Vietnam. That war was a defining experience in my own life and I was taken with the idea that a combat professional might raise his son by instilling within him the values and mental toughness required for a child of color to succeed in this world. Tiger is a singular athlete but his success is far more connected to the mental strengths nurtured by his father than his athleticism. There’s no question about his genius and imagination as a golfer. Any week he competes, viewers sense they may capture lighting in a bottle, see something so heroic it will engage everyone, golfer or not. He may not only attempt a shot no one else might dream of trying, he may pull it off! He is simply tougher mentally, spiritually than his competitors.

We’ve watched him grow from a boy to a man, transform his physique, refine his swing, push to demand more of himself. His training regimen has challenged the PGA tour, his competitors now lift and diet and stretch to keep up with Tiger’s own growth. But that mental toughness continues to distance him from his rivals.

Years ago, competing for Stanford in the NCAA golf championships, Tiger came to Ohio State to play The Scarlet, the tougher of OSU’s two 18 hole courses. I was always more comfortable on The Gray, their less demanding circuit because The Scarlet is one bear of a course! Speaking of which, we should remember that OSU’s alumni include John Cook, Tom Weiskoff and The Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, considered by many to be the greatest golfer of all time.

My father, then retired from his latest posting as Director of International Studies at OSU (and an avid club member) had volunteered to serve as a marshal that day for the tournament.

Earl Woods had accompanied his son to that event, as usual and for eighteen holes my father and Tiger’s father walked and talked and enjoyed the competition. I have a golf cap, autographed by Tiger to remember that encounter, a souvenir from my father I still cherish.

I struggled with my fathers passing for some time. I am very much the man I am today because of his guidance and example. But I still miss my father. I miss sharing my successes and failures with him. I miss his rich laughter and his warmth.

The image of Earl Woods I will remember is the embrace of his son one afternoon at Augusta, both dressed in Tiger’s traditional Sunday red, sharing and celebrating his fourth Masters victory. The moment is iconic, a hug connecting every father with every son.

Tiger will continue his golfing dominance. He will contend with the absence of that fundamental presence in his life. And I suspect he will continue to share his future accomplishments with his father but now, in a more spiritual way. Being a son means eventually accepting that transition. But for him this is a defining passage. He is his father’s son. Tiger has always had my admiration but today I share his sense of loss.

3 May 2006