Upping the ante in its aggressive campaign to bring Troika Productions under Equity contract, the theatrical actors' union has fined former "Brady Bunch" star Barry Williams more than $50,000 for appearing in a non union Troika touring production of The Sound of Music.
Williams has been fined $52,274 which, an Equity spokesperson explains, "represents two weeks salary [Williams makes $15,000 per week] as well as the documented expenses connected with our hand billing effort." Equity staff and union members from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and teamsters from the Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) have bird dogged the Troika tour. Their strategy involves leafletting Troika venues to alert Sound of Music audiences that the show is non-union and not "Broadway."
According to an Equity statement, "the fine is one of the largest amounts ever imposed by the stage actors' union against one of its members." In fact, the amount is staggering, if only by comparison with the $50,000 fine levied on golf star Tiger Woods by the Screen Actors Guild last year. Woods was punished after he crossed SAG's commercial strike line last year to do a General Motors spot for the Summer Olympics in Sydney. Many actors felt that the multi-millionaire Woods got away with doing scab work with little more than a slap on the wrist.
In fact, while Woods' $50,000 fine was reduced by half from an original $100,000 it appears that Williams enjoyed a similar break. "They actually wanted a lot more," said a source close to the actor.
A hearing for Williams was conducted at Equity's national headquarters in New York on Jan. 8. The union said Williams testified before an "impartial hearing committee" which heard evidence about such charges as "entering into a contract or letter of intent to play the part of Captain Von Trapp...without permission from the association." The union said it "prohibits its members from working without an Equity contract in non Equity shows." Williams, an Equity recusant since he officially requested "financial core" status on Sept. 27 last year, defended his position saying he started work only after pulling back from full membership. The union insists he is culpable under union rules because he was a full member when he began negotiating for the role.
The former "Brady Bunch" star is expected to exercise his right to appeal. Neither Williams nor Troika returned calls by press time.
The real stakes for Equity involve concerns over unity with other entertainment labor organizations. Troika and Equity have been hammering at each other for months and Williams has indicated, through a third party, that he found himself in the midst of a broad labor debate. "I don't want to speak ill of Troika at all," a source said, "but I think Barry was promised that whatever issue there was between Equity and Troika, it had been taken care of. By the time he learned otherwise, he was already involved and, yes, there was a nice paycheck. But there were also 65 other people involved and if he had bailed, it would have meant bailing on them as well."
There is reason to consider the actor's argument. Equity's strategic efforts with regard to Williams and Troika intensified in early September last year, just after SAG and AFTRA conducted a special rally at the Royale Theatre during the SAG/AFTRA commercial strike. The Sept. 7 Royale Theatre rally was a wake-up call, aimed at stemming the flow of Equity (and other) actors who were said to believe it was acceptable to do commercial work, often because they were not directly affiliated with SAG or AFTRA.
Just three weeks later, on Sept. 27, Williams withdrew from full Equity membership just as the SAG strike reached a highly publicized crisis. This confluence took place on the day that IATSE national president Thomas C. Short appeared at the negotiating table shared by actors and commercial producers to state his union's support for the SAG/AFTRA strike line.
Union sources in New York cited Short's guerrilla-like appearance and strong language on Sept. 27 as a gut blow to SAG's opposition [making them blink at the prospect of facing teamsters and actors on the same strike line]. Meanwhile, Equity was working quietly on its production contract and holding its own against an increasingly renegade 'Greg Brady.'
The climax of the SAG/AFTRA strike came on Sept. 27. IATSE weighed in, the talks broke down and two dozen major film and theatre stars regrouped to hold a hastily reorganized press conference at the Crown Plaza Hotel after the negotiations stalled. But, in context, the union sentiment in the entertainment world was running high last fall, with Paul Newman, Steve Buscemi and Richard Dreyfuss frequently mixing it up on the sidewalk with the unions' striking "rank and file" members. Perhaps eager to ride this wave and, at the very least, not wanting to appear out of touch at a time when sister shops were pulling together, Equity saw its Williams drama escalate.
Making its own connection to the union fellowship theory, a recent Equity statement summarized last fall's union protests of Williams' Troika show saying, "Strong turnout was also attributed to a sense of solidarity among actors following the recent [SAG/AFTRA] commercial strike."
In fact, by the time Troika's Sound of Music had opened, the show was being leafletted by Equity. Union spokesperson David Lotz says the show is a hit, with many exceptional qualities. "This is definitely a show that should be covered by an Equity contract," Lotz told Playbill On-Line.
Equity reports that actor Corbin Bernsen "turned down Troika's offer [for Williams' part] on Equity's advice." Primarily a non-Equity producer, Troika Entertainment also produced the Equity tours of Jolson in 1998, starring Mike Burstyn, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with Patrick Cassidy (Annie Get Your Gun) and singer/songwriter Deborah Gibson (Funny Girl). Troika is also doing a non-Equity tour of Chicago.
In prepared remarks, Actor's Equity president Patrick Quinn said, "The union will continue to inform the public that the tour is promoted as a 'Broadway' show, yet no one, except for the star, has ever appeared on Broadway. The young actors in The Sound of Music are being paid substandard wages, without pension or health benefits. We believe the theatre-going public is entitled to its money's worth and should see professional productions where actors earn a living wage."
Equity is reportedly completing work on a new "split week" contract proposal that may be better adapted to the Troika business model. Meanwhile, the issue for working actors comes down to wages. According to Equity, "Williams is reportedly earning more than $15,000 per week on the road. Troika has refused to divulge the other actors' salaries, but sources have indicated that their wages are between $350 and $650 per week. (Note: under Equity's recently negotiated production contract, all actors would be earning at least $1200 per week, plus per diem ($700), health and pension benefits)."
Citing Troika's sell-out record with this production of The Sound of Music, Equity executive director Alan Eisenberg issued his own statement saying, "Troika has claimed that they cannot afford Equity's rates, but they have union contracts for their stagehands (IATSE) and musicians (AFM). The sets and costumes are gorgeous. They're using the Broadway commercial on television. Look at the grosses. Where's the money for the actors? They deserve a fair share. The union is very flexible in balancing the interests of producers with fair wages and working conditions for actors. In the markets where The Sound of Music will be playing [split weeks], producers are presenting shows like Fame and The Civil War under special Equity agreements. I don't accept Troika's financial arguments in the face of such competition. By his improper actions, Mr. Williams has helped a non-union show go on tour and undermined Equity's efforts to organize the tour under Equity jurisdiction."
Equity reports that Troika has appealed a National Labor Relations Act (NLRB) ruling in the union's favor that was handed down after Troika filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint in connection with the leafletting of The Sound of Music. For its part, the union has also targeted the Troika-produced, non-Equity tour of Grease by filing charges against Eddie Mekka and Cindy Williams (both of "Laverne and Shirley"), who have been touring sporadically in that show. In addition, Equity has asked SAG and AFTRA to commence their own disciplinary actions against Williams "under the provisions of the 4A's charter," an umbrella group for entertainment unions.
—By Murdoch McBride