Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"American Labor Law Cramped My Acting Career"

The term Taft-Hartley, a federal act passed in 1947 restricting – or regulating depending on your point of view – the power of labor unions, has a special meaning in the entertainment industry.  Specifically for film and television actors, an actor not in the union who becomes “a principal performer” (says a line) is immediately eligible to join the “Screen Actors Guild” and is covered under the SAG contract with the production company for 30 days, after which he or she must join SAG or cease working on any union production.

So much for the educational portion of the program.  The rest is my standard recipe of biography and foolishness, seasoned with my patented misplaced sense of personal entitlement.


In 1983, or ’84 – I am not a great researcher; I explore the web for a while, my eyes start to water, and then I give up – I was asked to appear on an episode of the cult favorite though low rated half-hour comedy Buffalo Bill (starring Dabney Coleman, and created by the team of Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, whom I had met years earlier when I wrote scripts for The Tony Randall Show which Tom and Jay were in charge of.)

(A side-note about what show business does to people:  When I failed to recognize Tom upon running into him a couple of years after he had retired from the television business, his response to my observation that he looked different was, “That’s because I have stopped seething.”)

I was contacted – by either Tom or Jay or perhaps it was the show’s casting director – and asked if I was interested in playing the role of “Crazy Eddy” Felsik, “The Human Salmon”, thus monikered because he had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel (which was locally significant because Buffalo Bill, a sitcom about an acerbic talk show host, was set proximal to Niagara Falls, in Buffalo, New York.) 

(By the way, the Canadian Falls are indisputably more breathtaking their American counterparts.  FYI, in case you only have time to see one of them.) 

The role would involve a couple of hours’ filming and the delivery of a single line.  I immediately said yes.  The production then “Taft-Hartleyed” me (as I was not a SAG member), and off we went.  (I received the minimum “scale” for my performance; it seemed wrong to negotiate with friends.  Plus,  I mean, you know, who am I kidding?)

When I arrived, I went straight to “make-up”, after which, stripping down to my underwear, I was put into a wetsuit and hoisted into a barrel.  (The wetsuit included the connected rubber hood that claps tightly around your ears and makes it sound like you’re holding a seashell to each of them, and hearing “stereo ocean.”)  The barrel was then raised onto a mobile wooden platform, where, at the appropriate moment, I was rolled into the scene in which I would perform.

The episode’s plotline was that Buffalo Bill was in a ratings slump, and they needed a stunt to pull them out of the doldrums – hence, “Crazy Eddy’s” reprising going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  My arrival into the scene was greeted by an extended, over-the-top rant by host “Buffalo Bill” Bittinger, who was irate, because, by associating with “Crazy Eddy”, the show was selling itself out for ratings.  At the end of his tirade, a still-fuming Bittinger exits wherever they are, ferociously slamming the door.  After which I deliver my line, which was,

“And I thought I was crazy.”

It’s hot wearing a wetsuit.  And it’s even hotter, bordering on “health-endangering ordeal” wearing a wetsuit under blazing studio lights.  But that was my costume, and that was the situation that prevailed – me in a wetsuit, standing in a barrel under blistering overhead lighting.

I could not have been happier.

Less happy, however, was the episode’s director – the multi-hatted Tom Patchett.  Firstly, I was told not to make faces while other people are speaking.  You’ve heard of over-acting.  Well apparently there is over-reacting as well.  And I was doing it.  I was instructed to calm down my face.
(During the third or fourth “take” (of, I believe, a total of six), I noticed, John Fiedler, a respected and oft-used character actor, standing “statue still” through the entire proceedings.  At first glance, he did not seem to be doing anything.  But, in fact, he was doing the “consummate professional’s” version of listening, in contrast to myself, who was LISTENING!!!!!!!!  I had no idea how behaving Fiedler’s way got you any attention.  But I belatedly realized that that wasn’t the point.     

Then, there was the question of my “line reading”, the inadequacy of which led to numerous “retakes.”  I had rehearsed my line at home, but it was clear that the director was unhappy, his eyes reflecting the transparent regret that they had not secured a legitimate actor.  I tried several variations on my reading, adjusting my intensity, as the line, “And I thought I was crazy” has its own prerequisite rhythm.

It was during the multiple re-shoots that I determined that I wasn’t the problem. 

It was the line that was wrong.

Crazy people don’t think they’re crazy; other people think they’re crazy.  Ipso and facto, the line, “And I thought I was crazy” didn’t make sense.  What the line following the bizarre behavior of another person should have been was,

“And they call me crazy!”

Knowing Tom, I felt comfortable asking if I could change the line.  Knowing me, Tom felt comfortable saying “No.”  And we shot it again.  And again.  And again.  Until we got it.

Finally, the scene was “in the can”, and they said “Moving on!”, which for the actors meant to the next scene, and for me meant home.  Weeks later, I excitedly watched myself on television.  My dreams of “Eddy’s” possible return, however, were rapidly dashed when it was revealed in the following week’s episode that “Crazy Eddy” Felsik had indeed challenged Niagara Falls in a barrel, but that Niagara Falls had won. 

“The Human Salmon” had floated upstream.

(Or, more likely, downstream, the rushing waters carrying his shattered wetsuit-clad body out to sea.)

The connection of this tale to the Taft-Hartley Law?  After a “principal performer” says one line, “…he or she must join SAG or cease working in any other production.”

That’s how it works – you get one “free one”, and that’s it.  As a result, because of a single line I delivered in a sweltering wetsuit in 1983 (or ’84), I could receive no further waivers for future appearances. 


They wanted me to do a line on (now Senator) Al Franken’s Lateline (1999) fifteen (or sixteen) years later – and I couldn’t do it.  I had been “Taft-Hartleyed” for Buffalo Bill, and that, for my entire lifetime, was that.  My alternative, of course, was to join the union.  But it seemed impractical to do so for one line every decade and a half.  And who knew if that regularity would last?  Nobody stays hot forever.

I had already appeared in Cannibal Girls (1973), but that was in Canada, where the long arm of Taft-Hartley felicitously does not reach.  For you Americans, however, if you didn’t see me on Buffalo Bill, you missed my entire acting career.  You didn’t miss much.  I was a pretty mediocre “Crazy Eddy.”

Though I still think it was the line. 


pumpkinhead said...

Upon reading what your line was, I immediately thought, shouldn't it be "and they call me crazy." You, sir, were right as always, and you've taught us well.

Tater Tot said...

How would 'they' keep track of such appearances, or, are you on the honor system? Funny story.