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How easy is acting success. Ask Dustin Hoffman, who persevered for years before breaking through with The Graduate. Ashton Kutcher wouldn't have made it big without That 70's Show. Most of members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) make under $10,000 per year. Rejection is the norm in acting. Practice your cold readings and practice your craft, but also pray for luck. Ashton Kutcher and Dustin Hoffman had luck in acting and now they're in the top 1% of SAG earners.

Home / Success & Failure  /
Acting The Way To Fame And Fortune . . . Or Failure

Whether you're laughing or crying can largely depend on being in the right place at the right time

Live in Los Angeles for more than a week, and you'll quickly notice that everyone seems to be an aspiring film or TV actor.  Every time I'd go to my gym for a work out, I'd overhear people talk about the roles they auditioned for or thought they might get.  Probe further, you'd find out that some had shot a long forgotten TV movie or had a blink-or-you'll-miss-it part in a major motion picture, probably as an extra.  There was only one man at my gym who most people would've recognized from the variety of parts he's done, both on TV and in film, although very few would know him by name.  

I have a lot of respect as well as disrespect for TV and film actors.  To set the record straight, I have no respect for most aspiring actors.  When I lived in Los Angeles, I was enrolled in an acting class for a short spell.  Not everyone in the class, like myself, professed to be there to make it as a professional actor, but most of them did. At the start of class, they'd shout upbeat statements like "Next year it's me you'll be seeing on must-see TV!"   Each week, we were given a choice between coming in with a prepared scene and having the acting teacher critique it or showing up with nothing and being randomly assigned a cold reading.   In case you're not familiar with the world of acting and auditions, a cold reading is the delivery of scripted lines without any prior rehearsal.  There is a definite skill to this, namely in the auditioning process, and some classes are devoted entirely to learning how to do cold readings well.  Our class, however, was not one of them.

In the beginning, I endeavored to come in every week with a scene, fully memorized.  Cold readings are all well and good, but in order to become a better actor, you have to polish your acting.  That means getting out there on stage and acting in front of an audience and having your peers and teacher review you.  This also means doing some actual work outside of class time.  Usually, scenes were done with a partner, so you had to schedule time(s) to meet outside of class to rehearse.  That's a glimpse of the real world of acting.  Any real acting job would require rehearsal time off the set.  

My scene partners never bothered to memorize their lines or wouldn't schedule time to rehearse or just plain wouldn't show up in class the day we'd agreed to do the scenes.  Eventually, I just gave up and did cold readings like almost everyone else.  Soon after, I quit the class in disgust when I realized that most of my fellow students weren't serious about acting, and I'd lost all respect for the teacher.  These are the "actors" I have no respect for.

And then there are the actors who attend classes, study for scenes, and go on painful audition after audition.   It's not an easy life.  You might be the next Laurence Olivier or Meryl Streep in the making, but if you don't look right for the part, another actor from the inexhaustible pool of Brando aspirants will be hired.  Especially for commercials, it doesn't really matter if you have any acting talent.

Whether you have talent or whether you don't, heading to another cattle call audition requires courage in spades.  The odds are never in your favor.  In 2003, the median annual earnings of salaried actors were $23,470.  The median is another way of saying that half of all actors make more than this and half less.  According to a Los Angeles Times analysis from 2008, 72.1% of actors make less than $5,000 per year and 81.1% make less than $10k.   Only 5.4% of the Screen Actors Guild's (SAG) 122,000 members earn a passable wage ($28,100 to $99,999), classified as "middle class" by the union and those earnings, the analysis found, are eroding in real terms.  Just 2% of SAG earns over $200,000.  The multimillion dollar paydays you read about among the Jerry Seinfelds, Ray Romanos, Kelsey Grammars, Tom Cruises, and Jim Carreys are rare.  Figures are sketchy just how many actors rake in at least $1m per year, but if we assume 700 of the total SAG membership is just to be generous, that's only slightly more than a half percent of all of SAG.

There's no rhyme or reason to the madness.  In normal professions, the longer you continue doing them, the more experience you gain, and the more money you probably earn.  In the world of acting, you may have never had a previous professional acting gig in your life and you can walk right onto the set of a TV show or movie.  Look at the career of Topher Grace, best known for his role on That '70s Show, which ran for 8 years and netted Grace millions of dollars.  Before getting cast, he had no acting experience whatsoever.  The same goes for his even more famous showmate Ashton Kutcher.  I can come up with countless other examples, including Burt Ward, known for playing Robin on the iconic 1960's Batman TV series.   Imagine if you were an aspiring actor of similar age, with a lot of acting experience, even multiple awards under your belt, who'd auditioned for these same roles but lost out on them.  You have to go back to being a waiter or valet parker to make a living, as these guys make five-figure-per-week salaries and start launching real careers.  

Scoring a role on any TV series is tough enough.   Now think about how much tougher it is scoring a role on a successful TV series.  No one has a patent on crystal ball technology to predict which shows are going to be hits.  Luck has a tremendous amount to do with it.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus, best known as the only female Seinfeld cast member, started her television career getting cast as a player on Saturday Night Live in 1982.  In 1988, she scored the role of Eileen in the short-lived, now forgotten series Day By Day.  She's lucky it was short-lived and got pulled by 1989.  Had Day By Day been renewed for just one more season, she would've been unavailable to play the part of Elaine Benes in Seinfeld and her post 80's career may have equated to no career at all.  Jennifer Aniston muddled through 9 episodes of Muddling Through in 1994.  Had that show been greenlit for the 1994-95 season, she wouldn't have been around to appear in Friends, which ran for 10 seasons and in the final two years, earned her $1m per episode.  

Those are good luck stories.  More of often than not, the luck is bad.  Anyone remember the late Norman Fell and Audra Lindley from the TV show Three's Company?  The show was an unqualified hit after its debut.  Lindley and Fell were part of the original cast, appearing as the bickering Ropers, the landlords to John Ritter's, Suzanne Somers', and Joyce DeWitt's roommate trio.  The Roper characters became so popular that the ABC television network wanted to give them their own show.  Fell wasn't excited about it.  Three's Company was already a smash and could run another 5 years.  You have to give Fell a lot of credit; he wasn't greedy.  He was fine with having a supporting role. But Lindley wanted to do the spinoff, the paycheck and ultimate rewards were higher, and Fell was assured he could return to Three's Company if The Ropers tanked within a year.  Too bad for Fell it didn't tank faster.  His show ran for a year-and-a-half, too late for Fell to run back to Three's Company.  He and Lindley never landed another regular role on a TV series the rest of their lives, and Don Knotts got to cash the landlord checks over the last 5 years of Three's Company's run.  

Don't shed too many tears for Fell.  Most actors never get a regular role on any TV show.  They're constantly auditioning for their next assignment. Anyone remember Hal Buckley?  He was a bit actor in the 1960's, best known but hardly known for his role in the 1970 Clint Eastwood caper Kelly's Heroes.  I caught Buckley in a rerun of the 1960's TV show That Girl recently and wondered what kind of career he later enjoyed.  Not much of one, it would seem, before he died prematurely at age 48.  Hollywood is littered with people like him, people who never landed the right role to gain any prominent recognition or money.  The luckier ones become character actors, jumping from a guest appearance on one TV show to another, or become typecast in one narrow niche which at least keeps them employed.   Some would debate whether typecasting is good, but I say better to be typecast than be an outcast.  

So you bet I have great respect for working actors or serious actors busting their chops incessantly in order to become working actors, always aware of the likelihood of being more often unemployed than not.  Most of us would be rational and accept that the probable rewards (= none) don't justify the huge risks one has to make.  Focused actors throw that caution to the wind.  They invest in expensive new headshots and slog their way to an audition for a guest spot on a TV show or movie they personally wouldn't waste their time seeing.  They know that even if they land the part, as difficult as that's going to be, this one role's not going to make much of an impact on their careers, and they'll be back to beating the pavement in a week for the next elusive position --- all to statistically make less than $10,000 per year.  

Dustin Hoffman put it well when he said, "You get these rejections over and over and over again . . . year after year after year after year. You don't know if you're good, because it hasn't been validated. And it's an extremely painful and frightening experience, because you don't know whether you're conning yourself or not."  Actors are some of the world's most insecure people chasing after some of the world's most unstable work for, statistically, some of the world's least lucrative payouts.  They deserve all of our respect and a long trip to the psychiatric ward.  

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