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I Walk the Line

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If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?By Leonard KladyIn the two Americas that are divided by a line drawn in a frame of celluloid, the odd one out is too often the actor.If you’re like most people—including even the august staff that work for this publication—you’re apt to say, “but actors are above the line.” And you’re both wrong and right. The marquee performers are indeed ABLs. However, the majority of the cast from supporting players, bits with business and especially the extras are in fact part of the below-the-line component. When these lines were being plotted out on the budget sheets in the early days of the studio system, those actors under contract were part of the fixed costs and therefore below the line. And while it’s true that the stars were also under contract, by dint of their fame they might be traded out to another studio and became a separate budget item that put them in a different category from their brethren.At any given time there are roughly 20 movie superstars and perhaps another 50 performers that command billing and fees that transcend the minimums set out by the Screen Actors Guild. A comparable, slightly larger group ply their trade in series television. Together they are the few, the lucky, the very privileged that form the ranks of the acting community’s above-the-line club.That leaves by my rough calculation about 119,000 additional SAG members fighting for a crust of bread. Psychologically they are in a tough position. The bounteous fortune of less than one hundredth of a percent of its ranks infects the industry perception that actors are its fortunate sons and daughters. In fact, prospects for employment in front of the camera are far worse than for anyone else that has earned a union or guild card that’s immediately behind or far removed from the camera.At any given moment about 80 percent of the members on SAG’s rolls are unemployed and the average annual salary of an individual falls below what’s deemed a standard living wage. Year after year surveys by the guild conclude that job opportunities are declining under its jurisdiction. One has a decided advantage perhaps if they are male, white and under the age of 40. But it’s likely just a slim edge as its scrolls have a far greater number of people of that description than senior, Asian women. Regardless of how it might be described, when there’s a speaking role in a play on a feature or sitcom, there will be minimally a hundred experienced and capable people that could fit the wardrobe demands.When my nephews were in their teens, both pursued and snagged professional acting work. However, when it came to that crucial point in life when each had to map out a future, one decided he didn’t need it and signed up for med school. The other had to act and in the course of two decades was lucky enough to be a company resident at Stratford and A.C.T. in San Francisco, appeared in movies, television and commercials and in between taught voice, fencing, managed a café, modeled, worked in construction and took whatever work was available to sustain himself. Acting is his vocation and addiction and comes with elements worthy of applause as well as one’s sincerest pity.Most mornings I drop by the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, where it’s common to run into some familiar faces. One of its denizens is Mario Roccuzzo, an actor with credits dating back 40 years and like most pros in the field, you’d never match his face with his name. But you know the face. Mario, among hundreds of credits, played the bartender in The Magestic who listens to Jim Carrey’s endless plaint and finally says, “I wouldn’t know J. Edgar Hoover if he walked in wearing a dress.”Mario’s a great type in a town that’s not particularly short on talent. Like most in his profession he has more down time between auditions and gigs than he spends in front of the camera. Last year was particularly bad and his earnings fell below the level that entitles him to health benefits. But he got an unexpected respite last week when a lottery ticket he purchased turned out to be worth $20,000. He’ll be able to pay into the guild plan but what he’d really like is a national commercial or, even better, another juicy guest spot like the one he had two seasons back on ER.

Written by Len Klady

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