Side Agreement

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

It used to be that television was the movie actor's boneyard. If you were getting old, hadn't had a decent movie part in a while, but drank too much or gambled too much or maybe just had to put some kids through college, you were what people around town would call "ready for television"

These days, with many actors on television commanding salaries in excess of $500,000 per episode it isn't a question anymore of being "ready for television." Some of the biggest names in Hollywood are raring for television. Some of them, in fact, are circling the studio in makeup.

That's the cynical reason that so many actors are "ready for television." The other reason is less colorful, but equally true. Most of the feature films being made these days are insufferable, ghastly little pieces of retreaded garbage, with funny dialogue so unfunny, and scary dialogue so unscary, that television actually benefits from the comparison. So when an actor weighs the higher salary and the better material against the small step down in see where I'm going with this.

A few years ago, when we were casting a television series, the network wanted us to meet with an aging movie star with an eye toward casting him in the lead role.

The actor that we met with, though, wasn't your regular long-in-the-tooth, graceful-exit type. He was one of the biggest movie stars of all time. Now, he was broke and in our office trying to pretend that he wasn't broke and he wasn't asking for a job.

How he got broke was a simple case of making a gajillion dollars a year, but spending a gajillion and one. It's a remarkable sight, watching an actor spend money. They don't so much spend it as fling it in all directions. It cascades out of every orifice, to the assistants and the nannies and the household staff and the lawyers and the guy who helps you charter a plane. Get divorced, and the cost of everything doubles. Get divorced again, and you'll discover what ancient Chinese mathematicians called the "ruinous curve."

The meeting was heartbreaking. As much as we wanted to give him the job, we knew we couldn't. The few people who had worked with him in the intervening swan-dive years all gave us the same advice: run. He's crazy, they said. He refuses to work for days. He's late. He's impossible. He argues with the director. He re-blocks the cameras. He'll accuse you of trying to murder him. And worst of all, he punches people. Writers especially.

"If you cast him, you'll have to get a side agreement," my agent said.
"What's a side agreement?" I asked.
"It's an understanding. A legal understanding between you and the studio. It means that if the guy hits you and you don't want to come to work anymore, they can't sue you for breach."
"Forget it," I said. "Who needs this kind of aggravation?"
There was a pause on the line.
"Well," my agent began, slowly, "Before we get all 'forget it' about this, let's remember that the guy is a huge star. A gigantic star A star like that could make your show a hit."
"Well..." I said, wavering.
"Look," my agent said, "what's so great about being easy to work with? I'm horrible to work with, and I'm doing okay. Everything has its drawbacks. Some stars make you hire their idiot friends, some insist you donate to their crackpot charities, some drink, some seduce underage kids, and some..." My agent paused, winding up. "....some even want to write. So in the grand scheme of things, what's a couple of swings from a former box-office sensation and star of your hit television show?"
I think about this for a moment.
"He can't hurt us, though, right?" I ask. "What are we talking about? A black eye? Swollen lip?"
"Honestly? As your agent and legally enfranchised representative, I'm ethically bound to inform you that the guy was, in fact, an amateur boxer. What we are talking about is something on the order of a broken jaw or burst ear drum."
In the end, we passed. The actor was charming in the meeting, but then, he was an actor. He's supposed to be charming in the meeting. A television show, even a hit television show, isn't worth having your teeth knocked out.
"You're crazy," my agent said. "You'd have a hit on your hands."
"Sorry," I said. "I like my teeth and my jaw and my ear drums."
"You still don't get this business, do you?" my agent asked.
What could I say?

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll read the trades.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long