A Tough Scene for Actors

Matt Kimbrough, a burly 49-year-old Silver Lake actor, can run through the highlights of his two-decade Hollywood career in a few minutes of scattered videotape.

Look closely. There he is as the bartender in "Erin Brockovich." Don't blink. He's playing Annette Bening's gun instructor in "American Beauty" and a bodyguard in "The Limey." Forget looking for him as Babe Ruth in "Cobb" or as a villain in the upcoming film "Joy Ride." His scenes got axed at the last minute.

For all the setbacks and fleeting frames of film, Kimbrough still makes a decent living--never less than $25,000, never more than $60,000--and he's always hopeful about the big break.

"You know, you're one audition and one gig away from something really turning it around for you," he said.

Kimbrough is one of the legions of Hollywood's middle-class actors--journeyman artists who work alongside stars like Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Will Smith. Their names are usually familiar only to relatives and friends. Many don't earn in a year what famous actors make before lunch.

The actors inhabit a boundary zone between the swath of part-time actor wannabes in L.A. and the sliver of mega-stars who live in Malibu beach homes, drive Range Rovers and summer in the Hamptons. Unlike about 85% of the nearly 100,000 Screen Actors Guild members, these middle-class thespians--roughly 6,000 SAG members in all--actually act for a living.

Their unsung lives have become the main battleground in the current contract talks between Hollywood studios and the two acting unions. SAG and the smaller American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are negotiating a three-year agreement to replace the existing contract that expires on June 30.

The reality is that no one is too worried about Julia Roberts starving to death, but the surging migration of movie production out of the United States and erosion of acting wages in recent years have put the lives of the middle class in a precarious position.

Although they account for less than 10% of all union actors, the middle class is, in many ways, the heart and soul of working Hollywood, trudging in the shadow of stardom for about $30,000 to $70,000 a year. Actors say they increasingly are offered "scale plus 10"--union rates with an additional 10% for their agents--by producers looking to trim costs. Minimum wages for speaking roles are $617 a day and $2,142 a week.

"For people who work hard and are trying to build up their careers, to be pushed at scale plus 10--which happens a lot--that's tough," says Kent Faulcon, a North Carolina native whose credits include roles in "Men in Black," "American Beauty" and the TV series "Charmed."

The studios contend that actors aren't so bad off, with more work opportunities because of expanded television programming and increased demand overseas for Hollywood's TV shows and films. But for those struggling in the middle class, it is a weak pitch. They live in modest apartments and small homes. They drive Mazdas, Buicks and Toyotas. The highlight of their day is when the cell phone rings with news of an audition for a TV pilot, a commercial, or, if they're really lucky, a bit part in a big studio movie. Checks arrive in bursts, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand at most.

As Stars Get More, Others Get Less

It all boils down to a life that, while comfortable, is at once desperate and mundane, grueling and sometimes almost glamorous.

"For actors like myself there's this kind of fame or shame attitude: If I'm not famous, then I'm a failure," said Brad Blaisdell, 52, whose film and TV roles include a detective on "E.R." and a reporter in "The Rat Pack." "Woody Harrelson and I did a play together. I would hang out with Woody, see all his stuff and all his success. Then I would get in my Mazda to go home and feel like I was a failure. Yet I'm an actor who is in the upper 5% of the Screen Actors Guild in terms of being able to earn a living."

The movie industry has always depended on the journeyman performances of the middle class to keep the wheels of production moving.

After all, somebody (Matt Kimbrough) has to play such roles as the bartender (all 50 seconds' worth) in CBS' forgettable 1998 cowboy series "The Magnificent Seven."

"I serve whiskey, not talk," snarls Kimbrough's beefy, tough-guy character. "Better go somewhere else . . . and take him with you."

"I'm interested in a man . . . rides a big gray . . , " says one of the show's stars.

"Now I want you out of here before you're thrown out," Kimbrough's character says just before he is hurled over the bar by the star.

Hollywood's dependence on the middle class is not what it used to be. Soaring payments to stars and directors have come to consume a greater share of film and TV budgets, squeezing the salaries of middle-class actors.

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.

Blaisdell said that actors have largely missed out on the new streams of revenue that have flowed from cable channels, foreign markets and newer networks such as Fox, the WB and UPN.

The Internet, which offers yet more possibilities for residuals, has also injected a new dimension in the contract negotiations. Many actors feel strongly about the Internet because they contend the unions in the past failed to recognize the potential of other distribution outlets such as cable.

"We're being shortchanged," Blaisdell said.

For all the hopes for this round of contract negotiations, the actors realize that with so many people fighting for so few jobs and the ease with which Hollywood has moved overseas, they are in a difficult position.

It is a real-life role that they are used to. Actors say they are often treated like auto parts that can be easily interchanged, giving them little leverage when hardball producers insist they take or leave a low-paying role.

When Scenes Are Cut, Residuals Vanish Too

Even if they do land a gig, middle-class actors know their work may eventually be cut. Since scenes in a film or TV show are an actor's calling card, that affects their future job and income prospects. If cut out altogether, actors collect no residuals.

Much of the video footage Kimbrough sends to casting agents includes scenes that never appeared. Kimbrough played Babe Ruth in the 1994 baseball movie "Cobb," or so he thought until director Ron Shelton sent an apologetic note in a package that contained a video with his scenes--all of which had been cut at the last minute.

Last year, in what he described as his potential "huge break," Kimbrough was cast in a major role as a villain in "Joy Ride," a John Dahl film by Fox. After a month of work at $4,000, the studio called saying Kimbrough's part had been cut and suggesting he agree to have his name taken off the credits.

Faulcon was stunned at a screening of the 1999 Oscar-winning film "American Beauty" to find his part as one of Annette Bening's prospective home buyers was trimmed to a few seconds, leaving out his lengthy comic monologue on the dangers of ceiling fans.

The 30-year-old Los Feliz actor faces yet another hurdle--he is African American. Faulcon, whose annual income falls between $30,000 and $80,000, sees a dearth of opportunities for minorities. That has been exacerbated, he said, by the popularity of TV shows such as "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," starring mostly white, young actors.

The ultimate indignity is the elimination of an actor's recurring character. That happened to Kathryn Joosten, 61, a former nurse and wallpaper hanger who played the secretary to Martin Sheen's President Jed Bartlet in NBC's hit drama series "The West Wing."

Her character, Delores Landingham, was killed in a car wreck during a recent episode. She knew her character's destiny when she received a call from one of the show's producers requesting a meeting.

"I thought about it and said: 'That's it. I'm getting killed off. There's only one reason a producer calls you in,' " Joosten recalled.

Thanks largely to frequent appearances on "West Wing," Joosten's income last year peaked at $160,000, well above that of a typical middle-class actor.

She is back to seeking film and TV roles to maintain her income.

But it is an endless battle for actors to maintain and improve their "quote"--the amount they are paid above scale. An actor doing a "guest star" role on a TV show--where the name appears in the beginning credits--is loath to take smaller "co-star" parts where credits appear at the end.

Actors say such co-star roles send a perilous signal to casting directors that their career is on the wane.

"You can be riding high in this business and the next week . . . nothing," Blaisdell said.

Pay Scale

Most actors don't make the big bucks--far from it--71% make less than $7,500 a year:Under $7,500: 71%

$7,501-$15,000: 10%

$15,001-$30,000: 8%

$30,001-$70,000: 6%

More than $70,000: 5%

Source: Screen Actors Guild


Age: 30

Car: 1998 Isuzu Rodeo

Home: Rents apartment in Los Feliz.

Annual income: $30,000 to $80,000

Roles: Parts in TV's "Charmed" and "NYPD Blue" and West Point graduate in "Men in Black," prospective home buyer in "American Beauty" and father of a sick child in upcoming Kenvin Costner film "Dragonfly"


Age: 49

Car: 1998 VW Beetle

Home: Rents house in Larchmont.

Annual income: High of $500,000; usually $35,000 to $70,000

Roles: Agnes DiPesto in "Moonlighting," Aunt Beatrice Little in movie "Stuart Little" and Coach's daughter Lisa Pantusso in a memorable "Cheers" episode.


Age: 49

Car: 1996 Buick Le Sabre

Home: Owns condo in Silver Lake

Annual income: $25.000 to $60,000

Roles: Bartender in "Erin Brockovich," gun instructor in "American Beauty" and parts in TV's "Profiler"


Age: 61

Car: 2000 Toyota RAV4

Home: Owns tract house in Mount Washington.

Annual income: Peaked last year at $160,000.

Roles: Delores Landingham in "West Wing," Clare in "Dharma and Greg" and a nun in "Ally McBeal"


Age: 52

Car: 1991 Mazda Protege with 140,000 miles.

Home: Owns townhouse in Sun Valley.

Annual income: As high as $120,000, as low as $35,000.

Roles: FBI agent in movie "The Negotiator," bartender in "Three's Company" and reporter punched out by Frank Sinatra in TV's "The Rat Pack"