As I contemplate my current Actors Equity Association dues statement, I have decided, after sixty-something years of acting and diligently paying my toll come hell or highwater over the years both lean and abundant, I will be requesting a leave from the once-respected union, one of which I used to declare in program bios I was proud to be a member. Today, I’m about as proud of being a member of AEA as Rihanna is to say she used to be Chris Brown’s girlfriend.
Of course, part of the reason for this is that I’m teaching acting and directing for lotsa hours at New York Film Academy, as well as privately coaching prominent actors on two different TV series on different networks this season. Above anything else, however, caring for Victor, my partner for 48 years, desperately trying with everything in me to keep him comfortable and living at home as long as possible as he descends into the fog of Alzheimer’s, has kept me from traveling to work in theatre and eventually led to giving up my beloved apartment in New York last year. Staying in my fifth-floor walk-up with a view of a brick wall or traveling in shows has always done my nomadic Kerouac-inspired soul unimaginable good, as exploring new cities and enjoying the freedom of hotel living are things I have called home since my glory days as a working kiddie. Still, all that would not be good enough reason to stop handing AEA my meager little dues were it not for what the union has done to my world.
If you live in El Lay and have any interest in the performing arts, you would have to have been in a coma the last two years not to know how Equity has royally fucked the amazingly prolific and courageously innovative intimate theatre community in our city. By demanding small struggling theatres pay any union member who agrees to hone his art for free or with infinitesimal remuneration to have a creative outlet to offset the lack of caring from the mostly artless but omnipresent Hollywood film industry, AEA has decimated the ranks outrageously—but not without a fight. Still, when over two-thirds of LA members voted in a referendum demanding the union not put their new soul-sucking rules into effect, they ignored us all and implemented the ridiculously unworkable plan anyway.
It was difficult enough last year to send off my hard-earned cash to a union that’s done nothing for me in years but give me grief—and has totally disregarded the wishes of two-thirds of its LA membership. This time out, I just plain can’t seem to do it. As I said, I have been a loyal dues-paying member of AEA since sometime before Johnny B shot Honest Abe, but I can’t in all good faith support their unconscionable cause any longer.
In all honesty, there’s not much to lose for me. There aren’t many roles for geriatric juveniles with an ass the size of Texas around these days unless it’s a priest or a mentally-deficient adult—and playing stereotypical fading old duffers who invariably croak at the end isn’t much of a challenge either. Granted, this is also true in the film and television industry, but it’s especially prevalent onstage, where the only real challenges as an artist for a guy at my stage of life come from bravely off-centered 99-seat theatre companies working to create astounding new art and make a real difference. I have no interest playing Doc in West Side Story or some other role I could call in from home for some dastardly LORT-Z pay rate at a civic light opera in Duarte or somewhere in San Bernardino County. As a 70-yr-old actor living in LA these days, teaching and private coaching are a far better way to pay the bills and pass on what one has learned from the masters before passing on—unless you’re an established name actor and even then, I suspect most of them are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.
So, after 63 years fiercely believing in AEA and everything for which the original concept unionizing stood in the first place, sadly, I’m outta here. I may not be able to control where my tax dollars go as handled—mishandled—by our insane and dangerous President Dummald J. Troutmouth and his equally character-challenged minions, but I can stop paying Equity as it screws me personally and systematically destroys the community I love so dearly. It’s a sad state of affairs but, truly, it’s also oddly freeing.