Moreover, producers are increasingly moving work to places such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand to save costs, hiring crews and local actors for lower rates. In lieu of residuals, actors are typically paid a flat fee outside the U.S. because unions have no jurisdiction there.
Actors who once spent a week on a production preparing for scenes are now summoned to the set at the last moment so producers don't have to pay for rehearsal time. In many cases, stand-ins are used in their place. Fewer days on a set reduces the amount of residuals actors earn and makes it harder to accrue the necessary time to qualify for health benefits.
The income squeeze is especially nerve-racking because work in Hollywood is inherently sporadic even in flush times. Actors typically patch together a living with a buffet of roles that in a given year might include three to four guest appearances on a TV series, a minor role in a major film, a stage play and a part pitching products for advertisers such as Home Depot or McDonald's.
Brushes With Fame Don't Guarantee Wealth
Middle-class actors who get steady work belong to something of an elite group. According to numbers SAG computed for The Times, 71% of its members make less than $7,500 a year, with only 5% making more than $70,000.
"When you look at how many days we work in a year, it's not a lot," says Blaisdell, whose earnings have been as much as $120,000 some years and as little as $35,000 in others. He has supplemented his acting income by performing at a comedy traffic school and selling office supplies. "But every day I'm not working, I'm working trying to get work."
Even for those who have had a brush with fame, there is no guarantee that they will have wealth or security.
Emmy-nominated actress Allyce Beasley, 49, became a household face when she played receptionist Agnes DiPesto in the 1980s hit series "Moonlighting." Today, the Brooklyn-born actress supports her writer-husband and 13-year-old son mostly with voice-overs and radio commercials for such advertisers as Carl's Jr.
"I rent a little house in the Larchmont area, the shabbiest house on the block, which is fine by me," she said. "But people think you're a millionaire because 'Moonlighting' said, 'Also starring Allyce Beasley.' "
Beasley says that in the past 12 years since "Moonlighting" ended her annual income has ranged from $35,000 to $70,000, a fraction of the $500,000 she earned one year when the show was on the air and she was in heavy demand by advertisers. But after the show ended and she went through a bitter divorce, she was forced to give up the Hollywood foothills house she owned and her car.
The truth is, confessed Beasley, "I have barely been able to make ends meet."
She said it has been a constant struggle to even stay in the middle class. Rejection is a frustrating and sometimes absurd part of her life. She has auditioned for voice-over work requiring "an Allyce Beasley type." It does not help that she is Allyce Beasley.
"Whoever they think I am, that must not be who I am because I never, ever get these jobs," she said.
Beasley recently landed her first weekly job since "Moonlighting" ended in 1989: a yearlong gig doing voice-over promotions for Disney Channel's "Playhouse Disney."
Like many actors, she expects union negotiators to thwart any efforts by the studios to cut into actors' compensation.
Protecting health benefits is especially critical to Beasley, who was diagnosed and treated for advanced breast cancer three years ago. To keep working, Beasley said, she hid her postoperative drainage tubes under her costume during shooting of the film "Stuart Little."
SAG negotiator Brian Walton said the union's goal in the negotiations is to "produce a deal that solves the unique problems and meets the unique needs of middle-income, principal on-camera actors."
Actors are seeking increases in compensation and benefits, including a 5% annual boost in minimum pay. Studios want to hold the line at the same 3.5% hike recently granted to writers in an agreement reached last month.
The unions also want to give middle-class actors a significant bump in residuals, the payments that flow like an annuity when their work is rerun in such markets as cable TV and in foreign countries. Residuals can account for 30% to 60% of an actor's annual pay and provide income during down periods.