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The Conversation

'Struggling actor' isn't the part Michael O'Neill, like many veteran TV and film professionals, thought he'd be playing in middle age. Feeling undervalued and underpaid, it's tough to avoid that talk about moving on.

November 28, 2004|Mary McNamara | 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.

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.

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."


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."

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