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No work, no heat, many bills

December 19, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Gil Smith hasn't told his children or his grandchildren yet that he can't give them Christmas presents this year. The longtime Screen Actors Guild member is not sure what to say or even how to say it.

"A strike -- I'm not working," says Smith with a sigh, from his rented home in South-Central Los Angeles. "I have no Christmas money. I have enough to try and keep up with the bills, the utilities, the rent and hopefully to buy some food. That's it."

Smith is one of thousands of so-called below-the-line Hollywood employees -- the behind-the-scenes production crews of film and television -- now out of a job with dimming hopes of a resolution to the bitter, stalled talks between the striking Writers Guild of America and the studios. But unlike others who may have temporarily lost their paychecks, Smith can't search for substitute work just now.

A few days after Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles native who has worked on shows like Fox's comedy "Back to You" and ABC's dramedy "Ugly Betty" spent 10 days in the hospital after having sections of his right lung removed. A pathology report later revealed it was cancer.

"They took the spots out," Smith said. "The doctors said it's gone."

The medical bills, however, are present, mounting and a heavy load upon his already precarious finances. Although he is covered by guild insurance, Smith was told by the hospital his out-of-pocket costs for the surgery alone will be $2,000 to $3,000. He doesn't have it.

"I'll make payments -- as low as I can get them," said Smith, who speaks in a whispered wheeze and must press a pillow against his ribs to breathe deeply, cough or sneeze. "I figured my life was worth it."

He also can't afford to pay for all his medications. Sometimes he goes without an inhaler for his lungs, sometimes without antibiotics or other medicines. And despite the recent cold snap, he shut off his heat last week for fear of what would be a crippling $100 gas bill.

"I had the heat on for eight days, but I had to cut it off," said Smith, whose elderly mother from Corona has temporarily moved in with him. "I bundle up so much, but sometimes I still find myself shivering at nights and in the morning."

In a career that has spanned three decades, Smith has worked on scores of feature films and television shows. In fact, he landed his first Hollywood job in 1973 after he heard that the Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby movie "Uptown Saturday Night" needed some "black guys" as film extras. From there, he held a host of below-the-line jobs on hit television shows like "Baretta," "Starsky and Hutch," "Taxi" and "Will and Grace."

"Gil loves to work," said Peggy O'Rourke, a dialogue coach, who first met Smith about five years ago on "Will and Grace" and now works with him on "Back to You." "If there's anything getting him through this, it's the belief that he will be going back to work soon. He can't wait. He loves to be busy and to be helpful. And he loves talking to people -- actors, background artists, anyone and about anything."

His most common duty has been as a "stand-in," a person who doubles for one of the show's stars before filming starts to check lighting and camera angles. The hours can vary a good deal. One day might be three hours, another 16. Most recently, Smith had been a stand-in for Fred Willard's character on "Back to You."

"It's not a 9-to-5 job and I am not a 9-to-5 person," said Smith, who has had few dry employment spells in his behind-the-scenes career. "I love the freedom."

But for now, Smith is largely confined to his worn and modest two-bedroom home where the only sign of Christmas is a small plastic wreath on his rusty iron security door. Most of the day, he sits in a small living room with mismatched curtains covering the windows.

From his faded gray recliner, he exhales into a special breathing machine 10 times an hour to strengthen his lungs. Later, he'll perform range of motion exercises and finally will slowly pace between two rooms to build stamina.

"The most I can walk is 30 minutes," said Smith who had his stitches removed last week. "And then I'm pretty winded."

Breaking the monotony of recuperation is a lively 7-month-old stray kitten he adopted in the summer. The red tabby named Focus almost died a few months ago from a mysterious illness, but Smith nursed it back to health by hand-feeding it liquids and boiled chicken breast.

"I'd been allergic to cats all my life and didn't really like them," said Smith, who often finds Focus on his chest, especially when he's sleeping. "I guess I'm not allergic anymore, or at least not to him."

Although he has a small television in his living room, he rarely turns it on -- least of all to follow news coverage of the strike.

"All I saw was signs and stories that the talks broke off," he said. "I never saw the stories about the thousands of people behind the scenes, who are under so much stress. It just saddened me too much, you know?"

He's careful not to take sides in Hollywood's worst labor dispute in a generation, but he still has a message for both parties.

"I want the writers to get what's due them, but I would ask both sides to go out and see how people below the line are living and how it's affecting them," he said.

"I would ask them to sit down, set aside their differences and stay in the room until it's resolved. Go get into a room and don't come out until it's done. If you have to go every day, just deal with it. Don't let it drag on anymore; it affects so many people adversely. I know hard-working men and women who are losing their homes."

Still, he tries to remain hopeful and take comfort that his condition is gradually improving. In fact, he feels pretty sure he could return to his old job -- if the strike is over -- by mid- to late January.

"I want to work," he said. "I'd go back, just short of having to go back to the hospital again. I want to work."

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