THE CONVERSATION

Times Staff Writer

Imagine Los Angeles in a blackout with only those windows belonging to actors illuminated. Windows in mansions and in bungalows and in storefront apartments. More than a hundred thousand windows, according to the membership of the Screen Actors Guild, and behind at least half of them, at any given time, someone is having The Conversation.

This year, Michael O'Neill is having The Conversation. With increasing regularity, he and his wife talk about what else he could do. About whether he could teach or take early retirement. About selling the house and leaving L.A., going somewhere a family of five can actually afford to live. About how long is too long, how tired is too tired and how a person knows when it's time to move on.

They have had The Conversation before in their nine-year marriage, but O'Neill did not expect to be having it now. He expected to be having his best year ever, and he had reason.

Last year, in addition to loads of TV work, including five episodes of "The West Wing" as Secret Service agent Ron Butterfield, O'Neill had small roles in "Secondhand Lions" and "Seabiscuit." As jockey Red Pollard's poetry-loving father, O'Neill became a man worn down to such literal and emotional rags by the Depression that he gives his adolescent son into the care of strangers. It was the sort of performance that could change a career, lead to bigger film roles, or a regular spot on a TV series.

Only it hasn't.

Making it in Hollywood has always been a bit like Peter Pan's recipe for flight: All it takes is faith and trust; oh yes, and a little pixie dust. For 20 years, O'Neill has had the faith and trust; he's done the work and accepted that most actors never become big-deal movie stars. He was happy just to be an actor, to support himself and his family by acting. But lately, cost cutting, offshore production, the explosion of reality television shows and a shift in pay scales have made life harder for the journeyman actor to make a decent living.

"It saddens me," O'Neill says. "Because I'm not ready yet. I am an actor, that's who I am, who I've been most of my life. But the industry I'm in now is completely different than the one I got into.

"It's not that there's no work. There's never been any work. But the work you get now does not recognize the value of your experience; it certainly does not compensate you for your experience. All the rules have changed."

Except, of course, the one he is now breaking. The Conversation is, historically, a private thing, an unmentionable part of an industry that thrives on spin. In public, an actor is always doing just great, always getting really good work, always thrilled just to be asked to audition.

The words "lucky," or "fortunate," or "blessed" drop from actors' mouths like coins to be left by a roadside god. O'Neill is no exception.

"I have been very, very fortunate in my career," he says, recounting the innumerable stars he has worked with, the great directors, the camaraderie he has found among all variety of casts.

But he is also old enough -- now in his early 50s -- to appreciate the value of simple truth. "And the truth is I cannot support my family on scale plus 10," he says. "I am too old and too good to be making scale plus 10."

A HEAD ABOVE WATER

At any given time, 80% of SAG members are out of work. And not just for a week or two. "Most of our members are not making the $13,000 a year they need to qualify for health insurance," says Ilyanne Morden Kichaven, the union's national director of communication. "Two percent are the big earners, and the rest, the middle class, are just making a living, maybe $50,000 a year. Scale-plus-10 work."

If you want to make a middle-class actor flinch, say "scale plus 10." "Scale" is $695 a day, the minimum an actor must be paid by SAG signatory productions; "plus 10" is 10% added on to pay the actor's agent so that the actor gets to keep the scale rate.

Even as recently as five years ago, someone like O'Neill might do a scale-plus-10 role if it were part of a small, independently financed project he or she believed in. For most jobs, however, actors expected to get their quote -- the highest fee they were ever paid. Quotes range from just above scale to multiple millions. O'Neill's quote falls in the thousands, not the millions, although he can't remember the last time he got it.

"In the past, you could expect to be paid more as your experience grew," says O'Neill, who still lives with his wife and kids in the small Marina del Rey bungalow he bought 12 years ago as an investment property. "No actor works all the time -- scale plus 10 would be fine if you were working 52 weeks. But that's not how the business works; you need to make your quote to carry you through the stretches when you're not working."

In the last decade, many of the tacit rules of the industry -- including that experienced actors would be paid, and treated, better than those right off the bus -- have been rewritten, leaving many middle-class actors squeezed financially and psychologically.

"Times are very hard," says Kichaven. "The vertical integration of the industry has given us very little leverage to negotiate."

"I used to be able to get journeymen actors their quotes," says Lisa Beach, an independent casting director whose credits include "About Schmidt," "American Wedding" and "White Chicks." "Now I have no say in the budget, I am told by the producer or the director 'these are scale-plus-10 roles and if they don't like it, there are 300 actors right behind them who will.' "

Many actors now find themselves accepting fees they once would have considered too low just to get health insurance.

"I cannot tell you how many people are calling my office at the end of the year," says Gary Zuckerbrod, a casting director for CBS' "Without a Trace," whose career includes a wide range of TV and film projects, among them "Pulp Fiction." "They want me to put them on the show for a day just so they can make the insurance."

And most of the time, Zuckerbrod just can't help. "Without a Trace" is an episodic show with few recurring minor characters. "Look at the lineups these days," he says. "Reality shows everywhere. There are hardly any half-hour shows, and a lot of the hours are like ours. So if you've worked on the show once, you can't do it again."

It isn't just the bit players who are feeling the squeeze; even actors who, 10 years ago, had moved beyond having to audition for parts are back at square one.

"Unless you are a big star, you don't get work based on your accumulated work," says actress Bonnie Bartlett, who is married to former SAG President William Daniels and has worked steadily in television for 20 years. "When we came to Los Angeles 20 years ago, you could make a living working steadily. Now, even if you do 10 episodes a year, and that's a lot of work, you can't make a decent living. And so we're losing quality people."

Daniels, she says, refuses to read for parts, figuring that his body of work speaks for itself. "Me, I'm a hard-headed Norwegian," she says. "I want to work, I want my health insurance, so I go to the auditions and sit there with a bunch of my friends and we all say, 'How can we still be doing this?' "

Loren Lester, who like O'Neill has supported himself for almost 20 years in small roles, says he's seen countless friends take early retirement in the last few years because they just couldn't go on one more audition for a scale-plus-10 job. "It's humiliating if you're an actor with 300 to 500 guest appearances to have to audition for a casting director for a small part. People now are saying, 'Why do it?' Especially when you can't make a living anymore."

O'Neill asks himself the same question, sometimes daily. And he comes up with the same answer:

"Because I have to," he says.

And there it is, the deal every artist has struck since someone decided to skip the hunting party to draw on the dim cave walls: You will do most of your work alone and in darkness and although there is a chance you will become rich and beloved, in all likelihood you will not. Instead you will have to sing for your supper and your mortgage, your dental coverage and your children's shoes over and over again while people in desk jobs roll their eyes the moment you start to complain.

So it's a good thing you like to sing.

LOVE OFTEN UNREQUITED

Michael O'NEILL is a tall man and his voice makes him seem taller -- years in L.A. and New York have roughed up the backcountry drawl of his native Alabama, given it a bit more heft, so he sounds like a statesman or scholar from some indeterminately Southern state. A bona fide American. It is not at all surprising that he gets a lot of voice-over work or that one of his rules is that he will not play the racist in the crowd. "I'll play the angry jerk in the crowd," he says. "But I will not say the N-word unless you give me a very good character and a very good reason."

His face has character rather than big-screen beauty, though the eyes are leading-man blue -- which explains why he has played, among others, a young Mark Twain and a young Robert Frost and why his Secret Service character on "West Wing" has lasted much longer than originally intended. Whatever he might be feeling, O'Neill projects calm and quiet authority -- the farmer determined to hold onto the last 40 acres, the union organizer who still believes, the father able to make the impossible decision.

"I never expected to be super successful when I was young," he says. "I've looked this way since I was 20, sounded this way since my voice broke. Which makes the fact that this has been my worst year doubly frustrating because this was supposed to be my time. Finally I'm actually old enough to play the roles I'm best at."

As far as there's a blueprint for success for actors, O'Neill has followed it -- studied his craft here and in New York, gone to countless auditions, done the voice-over work, given his level best in the steady procession of small roles he has won in film ("Traffic," "Sea of Love" and "Lorenzo's Oil" among them) and on TV ("Crossing Jordan," "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and many more). His listing on the Internet Movie Database is long and healthy, and for the last 20 years, he has made a living solely as an actor.

During the early days, he worked all the jobs people work when they're trying to be an actor, and he never let himself take a job that might interest him enough to leave acting.

"So I would work as a carpenter, but I wouldn't design," he says. "Because I knew if I got distracted, if I found something I could do and advance and make money, then it would be too tempting to give up."

The Conversation remains in the conversing stage because he still loves what he does -- whether they pay him for it or not. "When I nail a performance, when I do something that in all likelihood is too far out there to stick and then it works," he says, "there is no feeling like it in the world. If it's in an audition it doesn't matter if I get that job or another job. For a while anyway," he adds, laughing.

Earlier last month, he had a lot of auditions, for voice-overs and television roles, and put in hundreds of miles on the road; he called friends from the car, describing an audition for "CSI," which was in Santa Clarita.

"The script said they wanted the guy to be so angry he was foaming at the mouth," he says, "so I did that, I went there. And the director says, 'OK, maybe not foaming then.' "

He didn't get the part, but it didn't matter so much because he felt he had done well enough to avoid a kitchen sink moment. "When I have a bad audition," he explains, "my wife always knows it because I'll be standing there doing the dishes or whatever and I'll just groan out loud, thinking of what I could have, should have done."

O'Neill became an actor on a fluke -- when he was in college, he recorded a speech made for his fraternity at Auburn University and alumnus Will Geer heard it. Geer called O'Neill. "He said: 'Son, you should try acting before the corporate structure snaps you up.' And I said: 'Mr. Geer, I don't know anything about it.' And he said: 'Come on out here and I'll work with you.' "

O'Neill had wanted to get out of the South since he was a child; when civil rights marchers came to Montgomery, Ala., he recognized many of the movie stars who spoke. "I remember thinking that they knew how to do it differently in California," he says. "That there was a place where people lived differently."

So he took Geer up on his offer of help, drove across country and spent the first two weeks of his life as an actor sleeping on Geer's back patio. He helped Geer and his daughter Ellen build the Theatricum Botanica and supported himself as a parking garage attendant and a day laborer.

His first movie role was in the 1981 film "Ghost Story." During production, he mostly stood agape -- at the way Melvyn Douglas held an entire set still with his voice, at the sight of Fred Astaire's feet unobtrusively dancing the rhythm of a scene under the table. Most of his role as the deputy got cut, he says, "but I wouldn't trade that first job for any other in the world."

MARRIED TO THE DREAM

If living by the whims of Hollywood is hard on an actor, it may be harder on the spouse. Mary O'Keefe is a lawyer and a poet who understands a thing or two about the vagaries of the acting life. Her brother is Michael O'Keefe, who won accolades in his early 20s as the son in "The Great Santini" and in "Caddyshack." Watching his career soar and dip -- O'Keefe is currently on Broadway in "Reckless" -- his sister learned early on that there are no such things as rules in Hollywood. Nine years ago, she married O'Neill anyway.

During her husband's great year last year, she did not expect this year to be even better. That doesn't mean she didn't hope; she just didn't expect. She says she could easily see them moving back East or down South where they have family and a four-bedroom house is affordable.

But when it comes down to it, she knows she is just a small part of The Conversation. O'Keefe is not a woman afraid to show anger or say what she thinks. But she married an actor, and when you marry an actor, there is only so much you can do.

"It's his decision," she says simply. "Because it has to be his decision."

It's also one thing to talk about walking away, another to do it. O'Keefe works part time as a lawyer and full time as a mom; she has chosen to home school the girls because of the flexibility it provides -- should her husband have to go on location for several months, as he did for his small part in "The Legend of Bagger Vance," she could take the girls and be with him.

"In a lot of ways, the actor's life is the best lifestyle," she says. "Michael is home with the kids much more than other fathers we know.

"It doesn't bother me so much when he isn't working. I know we will get by because we always do. He's my steady Eddie." But it bothers him. And that's why they keep having The Conversation. "Because I can live with him not working," she says. "I just can't live with his depression when he's not working."

O'Keefe, like many others, refers to the acting life as the lottery, because the reason some succeed and some do not often defies explanation and she knows it could change overnight. The list of actors who hit the big numbers in later years is endless -- Judd Hirsch, Richard Schiff, Dennis Franz, Chris Cooper. "You have to play to win," she says.

But that's not quite how her husband sees it anymore. O'Neill and O'Keefe have three daughters -- Ella, 6, and twins Molly and Annie, 5 -- and they give The Conversation a growing sense of urgency.

"When it was me and Mary, that was one thing," says O'Neill. "But the girls? They need what they need, and I have to be able to give it to them."

What the couple want, what the family is starting to need, is for O'Neill to get a series -- the "long money" that would also provide a sense of stability.

When Ella was born, they remodeled to create another bedroom. When the twins were born, they added another bathroom, turned the garage into an office-playroom and put a high wall around the front patio so the girls could play safely. O'Neill has been so involved in the construction projects that, when asked what their father does for a living, the girls say "he builds things."

"People find out your husband is an actor, or they see him on TV and they assume you're rich," says O'Keefe. "And you can be at parties or on sets with other actors who are talking about buying $2-million starter homes and it's hard to think you are all part of the same industry."

They both know there are certain things about the business you cannot change -- O'Neill has seen the supporting role he won cut down to a half-dozen lines in the time it took him to fly to the Southern location because a star wanted his role expanded, has watched many other parts simply disappear in the editing. An actor knows these things happen to everyone.

But some things could change. If O'Neill decides in the next few years to stop being an actor it won't be because he couldn't live without the stardom. It will be because of the money. He has watched his salary decrease as his experience increases, watched the gap in salary between the stars and the rest of the cast widen to almost indescribable proportions.

"I just keep thinking if some of these big stars would just say something," he says. "Like, 'How about I only get $24 million and you take the other $1 million and make sure the rest of the cast is getting their quotes.' "

He knows that talking about such things may well cost him opportunities, but O'Neill believes that the problem is not so much greed as ignorance.

"Most people just aren't aware of the plight of the middle-class actor," he says. "As in any business, the fact that we tell ourselves we can't talk about money or how things are really going benefits no one but the heads of the studios and the stockholders. It sure doesn't benefit the actors."

After a spate of auditions, weeks go by without a call. "There is nothing," he says, sounding more curious than angry. "I mean nothing. I've had two of the best film auditions that I've ever had this year," he says. "I haven't heard anything. Nothing is happening."

Meanwhile, he does the work that is put in front of him. Drops his wife off at the office, takes the girls to art class. He has resolved to learn a poem every day to keep his memory flexible; he's trying to do some writing. He knows he is not as talented as some of the actors who have big careers and that he is more talented than others. He tries not to think about this. Instead, he returns the calls and waits for something to change. Just a little.

"The men I went to college with, they're all doctors or lawyers or engineers," says O'Neill. "And they think I'm the successful one. And maybe I am, because I did do this thing, this incredibly strange and sometimes beautiful thing, which was follow a dream."

Mary McNamara can be contacted at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction Will Geer's theater -- An article about actor Michael O'Neill in the Nov. 28 Calendar section said he had helped actor Will Geer and his daughter Ellen build the Theatricum Botanica. The theater's name is Theatricum Botanicum. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 02, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Will Geer theater's name -- An article about actor Michael O'Neill on Nov. 28 said he had helped actor Will Geer and his daughter Ellen build the Theatricum Botanica. The theater's name is Theatricum Botanicum.
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