It used to be that getting your SAG – or Screen Actors Guild – card was a big deal for actors who wanted to act onscreen. It was a big deal because it was so incredibly difficult… in a Marxian way. Not Karl, but Groucho. The only way to join was if you did union work. And you couldn’t get union work because you, well, weren’t in the union. Another club that didn’t want me as a member. As a young actress, I was, of course, dying to get in. This is the unlikely story as to how I finally did.
I was working as an assistant to an executive producer who had created a primetime puppet show. Yes, puppet. As in the Jim Henson family of puppets. (No, my boss wasn’t Jim Henson, may he rest in peace.)
My boss didn’t create the puppets. He just thought he created the world.
Other than being obsessed with himself, this boss was also obsessed with – of all things – the promotional posters used in advertising the puppet show. Posters, really?
Let me back up a bit more and write this story in chronological order.
I didn’t start off working for this executive producer (How ‘bout I call him EP from now on?). No, I began this decade (1990) working as an assistant to a former boss who I had known and loved. But she was a co-executive producer on another show run by EP. So the EP would hang around not only his puppet show, but this other show as well.
And one day in a meeting where my boss and the EP were pitching stories, I made the mistake of massaging the EP’s shoulders briefly. It was a nice thing to do, I thought. Little did I know this would lead to my downfall.
Because after a few minutes of this friendly shoulder massage he grabbed my wrist and instructed me to keep massaging. So I did. What was I gonna say?
I ended up massaging his shoulders for two hours that day. This is closest I’ve ever come to a casting couch. From then on, if at all possible, I steered clear of the pitch room.
But that two-hour massage was enough. EP loved me after that. So, later in the year, when his assistant announced that she was leaving, EP told my boss that he wanted me to be her replacement.
My boss encouraged the switch. “It’s a good move for you. He is the head honcho, after all…”
And so I became the right-hand woman to the big boss, the EP.
In the meantime, I had started being trained by his current assistant in their offices a floor below. She was leaving to get married or have a baby – I don’t remember. But I do remember how haggard she looked. Like she couldn’t wait to dance into the sunset – or run.
I also started hearing stories of how EP liked to be “babied” with, for example, homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or, you got it, neck massages.
So, within a week or two, we made the transition. I was EP’s new mother, er, assistant.
One of the first phone calls I got as the new assistant was from someone on the crew asking if he could have one of the show’s publicity posters. These were posters of the various puppets on the show, shot in couplings and situations to elicit mirth from even the most brain-dead of television viewers.
I don’t remember when the friction started between EP and me, but I do know the fact that I no longer was the “mistress” giving massages and was now the “wife” who refused to make widdle-biddy-baby a PB&J didn’t help the situation. And, frankly, I didn’t care. I was an executive assistant, not a professional coddler. (And yet the latter is exactly what 99% of show runners want in an assistant.)
I could see EP getting cranky about my refusal to change his diapers and wipe his butt, but what really surprised me was his anger at the fact that I’d given away a few of his publicity posters.
“I told you to always ask me before giving away these posters.”
I didn’t remember this conversation, but okay. “I only gave one to the studio publicist who called and asked for a poster for the photographer who took the pictures.”
“I DON”T CARE,” I remember him bellowing from the same mountain upon which Moses delivered the Ten Commandments. “ASK ME FIRST!”
Evidently, I didn’t realize that these posters were, in fact, gold. If only eBay had existed in 1991.
But the shit really hit the fan on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
I had used my lunch hour to get my hair cut and told the other assistants where I’d be. I was sitting in my chair, chatting with my hairdresser, when the salon’s phone rang (remember this was before the ubiquity of cell phones). My hairdresser answered the phone, looked at me with perplexity, then walked over — extending the cord a good twenty feet — and handed me the phone.
“It’s for you.”
From the receiver streamed such histrionic vitriol that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Even my barber was stunned. EP spat at me so viciously that spittle practically flew from the earpiece. The call ended as abruptly and abusively as it started.
After taking my beating, I lowered my head and silently cried through the snip, snip of scissors.
I arrived back at the office and could see past the bullpen of assistants’ desks to the large corner office that was the EP’s. He was pacing like a tiger. Back and forth.
He saw me and motioned me in. The moment I was past the threshold, he released the door’s magnet and it closed behind me.
“I quit.” This was gonna be an ugly mess, but at least I got in the first words.
“I told you not to give away my POSTERS!” I felt like Christina Crawford in the showdown with the wire hangers.
I was already crying ugly, snot running, dry-heaving. But – dammit – I would have my say. “It was your wife who asked for them. She said you wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, I MIND alright!” He gesticulated to the credenza behind his desk. “Those posters are more important than THESE!” He pointed to the photos of his children. To this day, I don’t know if he meant the posters were more valuable than his children’s pictures or than HIS ACTUAL CHILDREN.
Through the kind of abominable sobs only a twenty-something girl can emote, I said, “I give you my two weeks notice.” Then I walked out and sat at my desk in the bullpen.
The Monday after the four-day Thanksgiving holiday.
I went back to work, honoring my two weeks notice. And, ironically, after some downtime and a likely chat with his wife, Attila the Hun came to me with remorse. No, he didn’t apologize exactly, but he did tell me he’d like to “help me get started in the field I want to work in.” He had helped a previous assistant get a job working with a director, is that what I want to do?
“No,” I said, “I want to be an actor. You can give me a line on the show and those few minutes of work will pay as much as my salary for the week. The extra income will also help as I look for another job.”
“Oh,” he replied, “I can’t do that. EVERYBODY wants a line on the show. Every wife, sister, nanny. EVERYBODY.”
“Okay,” I said. “But if you’d like to help me that’s what I want.”
My line on the show was, “Hi, my name’s Lynn, and I’m having trouble with my boss.”
The irony of this line was not lost on either one of us.
And, that, is how I got my SAG card.