With national controversy continuing to brew over non-union theatrical tours, actor Barry Williams—who received a $52,000 fine from Actors Equity on Jan. 17—has become something of a lightning rod for labor sentiment in theatre. Playbill On-Line conducted interviews with Williams, who originally made his name as Greg Brady in television's "The Brady Bunch," in connection with his work on a non-union tour. The Equity side of the story continues to be covered at length in other articles.
For the record, the star of Troika's successful Sound of Music tour says he found himself working a non-union show, one which Equity has singled out as part of an aggressive campaign to bring the producer's shows into the fold. Williams' participation in the production is key: As long as he works, the show goes on. But only if he, and any other potential stars, refuse to work can Equity effectively hold the producer's feet to the fire and bring Troika tours under the union umbrella.
The recent fine levied on Williams has done as much to make the actor a household name as anything else he has done since "The Brady Bunch." Even so, Williams would rather have avoided the entire mess. Some have said Williams has hurt the union cause, while others have questioned the size of the Equity fine. The union itself calls the fine "one of the largest amounts ever imposed by the stage actors' union against one of its members."
"You work a lifetime for a career and toward building a reputation," Williams told Playbill On-Line, "and to have that pulled out from under you is a tremendous blow. When that is coupled with the fact that down the line I did everything that they asked except not go to work, it's very poignant and downright damaging."
Williams believes that there is a definite political context to his dilemma and that he has been caught up in something different and much bigger than he ever expected when he signed on for Troika's Sound of Music tour. "I think there are issues that confront Equity that I have relatively nothing to do with. They have found this cause célèbre to forward their cause," he said. Williams thinks his conflict with Equity is politically motivated. "It's been stated to me that there are union concerns regarding successful non Equity productions of tours that are unrelated to mine. There are, in other words, issues in front of the union that I was certainly not aware of when my decision was being made that are well outside the scope of the tour of Sound of Music. The spotlight has been placed squarely on me as a way of bringing their newly found direction to light and, in a most personal way, a concerted smear campaign to damage my name and reputation."
Williams said that his situation with Equity was "a little like going out to play touch football and then finding that the opposing team is using chain saws to tackle you with."
Following a recent Playbill On-Line article concerning Equity's hearing on Williams and his subsequent $52,000 fine, the actor said, "I was extremely surprised by the information you [Playbill On-Line] had after the hearing. It caused me to wonder about their [Equity's] objectivity and their willingness to listen. We spent three hours to reach a conclusion and I was assured and reassured that nothing we discussed would be discussed between friends or outside sources—and the next thing I know, a press release has been issued.
"Equity staff is on record as giving information that I was assured would go nowhere. In terms of the settlement...well, I'm going to honor my word and not get into those kinds of specifics. But I can help illuminate my side and provide information about what caused me to become associated with the national tour of The Sound of Music. People base their decisions on the information they have at the time. For me, it was a matter of 'Is this something that would be a good idea to do, or not?' Unfortunately, for me, once I was playing, the field changed and I have subsequently been subjected to the wrath of the union. It's like going up against City Hall."
"I was assured there were talks going on between Troika producers and Equity regarding my situation," Williams said. "I knew that the union and Troika were talking. The producer told me that he was putting an offer on the table that had been acceptable to Equity in the past. I was also made aware that virtually every other major union had a special agreement with this production. This [show] is produced by Bob Frankel and they took it to Troika to create a second leg of the tour."
Chronologically, Williams said, all of this activity preceded his actual signing. "It caused me to keep it simmering," Williams explained, "and it involved six months on a tour, which meant a chance to go on tour to certain cities where I have certain other CD, concert and radio interests. In other words, the tour enabled me to be there in person."
Williams also said that before he signed with Troika he was told that "all the other unions singed special deals with Troika. This includes the director, Susan Schulman, who is on the board of the SSDC, the AFM [musicians], costumers, set builders and ultimately the stage hands whose status changed after the tour began. To me it all seemed reasonable, and there was no reason to anticipate that something would not be worked out."
Once the fireworks between Troika, Equity and Williams began, Williams said that he tried to call Alan Eisenberg [Equity's executive director]. "But he did not return my calls," Williams said. "This was in September."
"It may be coincidental," he said, "but when you look at the PR value of Equity campaigning like this it becomes a little more apparent (or transparent) in terms of what's really going on."
Asked if he participated in Equity's disciplinary procedure, Williams said no. "I wasn't part of that, and there was no negotiation with me about the disciplinary findings," he explained. "I went in and had a dialogue in good faith and explained what the facts were leading up to my taking the diminished status of 'financial core.' The next thing I got back was this fine. I was not privy to their dialogue or what factors they were considering."
The actor said he was informed of the Equity fine by Fed Ex. "There was a three-page letter from Robert Bruyr that outlined the charges and the penalty," Williams recalled. "In order for them to make their determination, it was necessary that they not accept and not believe my testimony. So, when they say they are 'convinced,' the question becomes, 'Who did the convincing?' My sense is that I walked into a firestorm. Unwittingly."
A Republican, Williams says he has never picketed on the union's behalf but claims to have "always honored the values of the union, all the unions."
"I've been a member of Actors' Equity since 1974," Williams said. "This is the first time there has been any controversy surrounding my membership, and I think a penalty should take into account the 27-year history of a member and a person. To levy the largest fine ever is completely inconsistent with my loyalty, my intention and my record. I'm not sure Actors' Equity even knew my name before this came up. Alan Eisenberg did not appear at the hearing, which is a surprise to me since he is my 'accuser.'"
Has Williams given any thought to using the courts rather than pursuing 'Equity justice'? "That is an option, yes," he said. "Once I took financial core, which they are claiming not to recognize, they cannot then come back—because I'm outside the jurisdiction of their system once I've given up full membership. It seems they want to have it both ways, they want me to leave but then they establish a case against me to discipline me and fine me."
In early October last year, during the commercial strike by actors, a pro union informational pep rally was held at the Royale Theatre, where Equity members were encouraged to honor that strike line, even if they were not direct members of the striking unions—SAG or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). It was during this broad crisis for entertainment unions that Williams' case became news. Looking back, Williams sees a link between the SAG commercial strike, when Equity members were encouraged to hold the line, and the separate effort to make an example of his case. "Absolutely so," Williams said. "But the position of SAG was clear, they called for a strike , a line which I would not cross. The word scab was misapplied to me [by Equity]: They were using marquis value to promote their purpose."
Williams said he feels like a sacrificial lamb. "I think that's as clear as the day is long. While under the umbrella of Equity I did not do anything against the rules. Their summation of evidence is based on subjectivity and high emotion. What Eisenberg is saying is not grounded in fact, it's grounded in conjecture and it seems all too convenient. You don't fine somebody $50K plus because they took [promotional] pictures and it certainly was not evident that I had a binding agreement until sometime after I took financial core."
The actor also addresses Equity's argument that his work on the tour erodes labor standards. "As for this idea that I have taken jobs away from anyone," Williams said, "my understanding is that this tour could not have been successful based on the venues we were playing...under the current Equity standards. There would not have been a tour. I know that Equity has cited some weeks where we have been very successful, but the entire length of the tour must be taken into account. Some cities have been successful, but these have compensated for other cities where money has not been made or still others where money has been lost. As the tour has moved forward, we have had split weeks, reduced performance weeks and ticket prices scaled lower, making it impossible to create the same kind of profits [consistently]."
Williams said he would prefer to see everyone happy and hopes to able to resolve the issue in an agreeable fashion. "Let's just say I won't be doing this again, meaning non-union," Williams said. "I think it's in both Equity's and my best interest to bring me into the fold rather than casting me aside, and I am anxious to explore ways that can be done. They're fighting a much bigger cause...if they want me to be part of that, I am willing to discuss that and reach an agreement with them. But, I would like to put a stop to misinformation and out and out untruths that they have disseminated against me personally."
—By Murdoch McBride