Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, May 2, 2021


PBS recently ran a fascinating three-part series on Ernest Hemingway, which prompted me to pull a copy of The Sun Also Rises down from the shelf, blow the dust off, and settle in for another read. I didn't think much of the book when I first read it thirty-plus years ago, but some books can only be appreciated after life has kicked you around for a while, and maybe this was one.

Or not. Although Hemingway is a master at painting terse, vivid word-pictures, describing the details and action of fishing or a bullfight better than anyone, the story and characters of this book still don't resonate with me. Maybe you had to live through the horrors of World War One to fully appreciate the travails of Jake Barnes and the "Lost Generation" of young American ex-pats in Paris -- or maybe the ravages of age and four decades of manual labor have so pummeled my brain that I lack the ability to understand or fully embrace such a damaged, feckless character as Lady Brett Ashley -- but I'll leave all that (and any discussion of Hemingway's Iceberg Theory) to Lit majors and others with the predilection and cranial capacity for such intellectual heavy lifting. All I know is that the stories each generation tells emerge from the circumstances of their time, and although most human experiences are universal, the context differs radically from one generation to the next, which is one reason only the best of those stories endure.*

What motivated this post wasn't Hemingway, but my old NABET union card that fell out of the book when I opened it, where it apparently served as a bookmark for the past 39 years -- and suddenly I was reminded of the many twists and turns that carve a path through Hollywood.

In the late summer and fall of 1980, I BB'd my first feature film, a steaming pile of cinematic garbage called The Return, a quasi-science fiction film with a cast of "name" actors who were either terminally bored, down on their luck, or otherwise in need of gainful employment.**  Acting is the chanciest of all film industry endeavors, and only a relative handful of thespians can afford to pick and choose their jobs, which is why Raymond Burr, Cybill Shepherd, Martin Landau, Jan-Michael Vincent, and the venerable Neville Brand agreed to do this movie. With such a cast, it could have been a halfway decent film, but as usual, a lousy script doomed any chance of that.

Having worked on nothing but crappy low-budget movies at the time, the script didn't bother me. This movie was six weeks of work at a point in my young career where BB'ing a feature represented a big  step up, and I was happy to have the job. Although much of that experience has faded from my increasingly porous brain, a few clear memories linger: Cybill walking to and from her trailer accompanied by a PA holding a 24-by-36 flag over her head to shield her from the hot sun wherever she went, Raymond Burr being driven to the set in a six wheel ATV, since his massive bulk and bad leg precluded him from walking over uneven ground, an extremely drunk Jan Michael Vincent slurring his words in the middle of the day while rambling on about doing "combat weapons training with Paco in the desert," watching another of our actors repeatedly spit water into Vincent's face for take after take (which Jan Michael clearly did not appreciate), observing -- and surviving -- an on-set explosion that by some miracle didn't kill any of the crew or bystanders, and filming a scene in an office on the 9th floor of the Inglewood City Hall, where Cybill cooed "We were supposed to be the first father-daughter team in space" to Raymond Burr as two window washers slowly descended into frame outside, much to the surprise of all concerned. My last memory of that job came when we finally wrapped the film well after midnight on a Saturday, and four fat lines of cocaine were presented to me and my three juicers. After hoovering up my share, I hopped aboard the 1000 cc Harley Sportster that had been rented for Jan Michael Vincent to ride in several scenes, then thundered back and forth through the little town of Piru feeling like the King of the World.***

Some things you don't forget, and those memories always bring a smile, but something else happened that had a much bigger impact on my next thirty-five years in Hollywood and beyond. Near the end of the shoot, the Key Grip asked if I'd be interested in joining NABET Local 531 AFC (Associated Film Craftsmen), a small offshoot of the National Association of Broadcast Radio and Technicians Local 53, which served much of the news radio and television broadcast industry at the time. Local 531 represented crews who worked on television commercials for the most part, along with an occasional NABET feature. I'd already attempted to join IA Local 728 -- the main Hollywood film union for set lighting -- but rather than explain the process every newbie must endure to join, a fat asshole wearing a white wife-beater behind the desk of the 728 office laughed me right back out onto the street. Since the IA wouldn't take me, maybe NABET would, and all I had to do was be recommended by a current member, pass the entrance exam, and pay a $500 initiation fee.****

Given that the standard rate for NABET juicers at the time was $250/10 hours  -- twice what I was earning doing features -- and all a new member needed to qualify for union health insurance was earn $750 (three days of work), this was an offer I couldn't refuse. I studied up on the relevant grip and electric subjects, passed the test, paid the initiation fee, and was at long last a union member in Hollywood. A few weeks later I had health insurance for the first time since leaving college ten years before, and began making decent money. Over the next decade, I worked hundreds of NABET commercials, meeting crew people I'd know for the rest of my career. 

Those were some very good years, but as Robert Frost warned, "Nothing gold can stay," and by the early 90's, NABET Local 531 was floundering as the IA muscled in to take over the commercial world. The silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud was a merger that brought NABET members into IATSE, which is how after fifteen years of toil in Hollywood, I finally became a member of IA Local 728 ... but there's always a fly somewhere in the soup, and terms of the merger left it up to each local to decide how to deal with us. While the Grip Local 80 took an enlightened approach, giving former NABET grips the okay to work whatever union jobs they could find, Local 728 was run by aging dinosaurs actively hostile to new members, requiring us to keep paying union dues every quarter while denying full member status until each of us could cobble together the 30 days necessary to qualify for the industry experience roster.  In essence, we were in the same leaky boat as raw "permits," who are allowed to work IA jobs only when the town is so busy that every member of that local is already employed.

This felt like a cruel joke, and seriously pissed me off. For the next three years I had rage-fueled nightmares about firebombing the 728 office, but eventually I landed a non-union TV movie that "turned" -- signed an IA contract  -- near the end of production. With my 30 days in hand at last, I was now a full member of 728, and thanks to that, was able to survive when much of Hollywood's television commercial production left the US for Canada in the early 90s, thanks to runaway production fueled by tax subsides (read: bribes) that combined with a favorable currency exchange north of the border to reduce producer costs up to 50%. With my bread and butter work gone, I seized an opportunity to enter the world of multi-camera sitcoms, where I toiled for the rest of my career, and was finally able to qualify for union health coverage in retirement (above and beyond Medicare) and a small but meaningful pension. If that Key Grip hadn't helped me join NABET back in the early 80's, I don't know what I'd have done. Instead of retiring to a small house in the woods north of San Francisco, I might be now be living in a cardboard condo under the 6th Street bridge, on the concrete banks of the LA River. 

Hollywood is a different world nowadays. Although Local 531 is nearly thirty years gone, NABET - CWA is still going strong. The old 728 dinosaurs retired or died off, replaced by younger leadership smart enough to embrace the obvious: that bringing in new, hard-working people would make the union stronger. The kids joining the IA now have no idea what it was like back in the Bad Old Days, and that's a good thing -- I'm just glad they don't have to put up with all the crap we did.    

As for me, well, I'm still thinking about that wild late-night ride through Piru...

* Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan of Hemingway, particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls, and his short stories. If you've never read The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber, you should.

 ** For any civilian readers out there, "BB" is short for Best Boy.

*** Hey, it was the 80's, when much of the country and pretty much all of Hollywood was awash in cocaine.

**** Roughly $1400 in 2021 money.