Geoffrey Owens And The Truth About Being A Working Actor

It’s September and the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing. Stars have descended en masse upon the city. They’re dressed in gorgeous designer fashions, attending gala premieres and fabulous events. It’s easy to think that the life of the average actor is all glitz and glamour but the reality of a typical actor’s life is about as far from this glowing picture as you could imagine.

One such typical actor is Geoffrey Owens. Thirty years ago he appeared on a hit TV show and since then he’s worked consistently in the business, but never more than for a few weeks each year. This paucity of work is the rule, not the exception for most working actors, by the way. And, like the majority of people in his profession, he’s had to supplement the modest income he’s made from his art with ordinary, non-glamorous work.

It’s a widespread misconception that all actors are paid handsomely for everything they do, and that having appeared on a hit show means that even years later, these people will be rolling in dough. The majority of actors, like any other working person, must earn a paycheck every month whether through acting gigs or from other, less glamorous jobs.

Mr. Owens was attending to his ordinary, unglamorous job just the other day, doing his best to support himself and his family. He was bagging groceries at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s never guessing that soon, he’d be at the center of a viral news story. Everything changed for him when a customer by the name of Karma Lawrence took it upon herself to photograph him at his place of work.

Ms. Lawrence then sent the photo to the Daily Mail, which proceeded to run a story about Mr. Owens accompanied by a derogatory headline. Unsurprisingly, Fox News was only too happy to jump on the bandwagon. The intention of these stories was nothing less than to shame Mr. Owens for working at his regular job.

The truth is that in the entertainment industry only a tiny minority of actors see great rewards. The vast majority must deal with miniscule paychecks as well as constant challenges and frustrations. Even those like Mr. Owens, who manage to capture a moment of success, aren’t immune to the ongoing struggles of being part of this profession.

Having been on a hit show is no guarantee that you’ll be on another one. Residuals dry up or fail to cover the basic expenses. In the entertainment industry you find yourself gainfully employed one day and unemployed the next. Seemingly popular shows are cancelled at the drop of a hat. You’re the flavor of the month until the next month comes along and suddenly, nobody knows your name. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Like any other responsible grown-up, Mr. Owens was doing what he had to do in order to support his family. This is something he should be praised for, not vilified. The upshot of the shaming incident is that all the publicity made it impossible for him to keep his job at Trader Joe’s.

Ms. Lawrence now says that she regrets taking the photo and sending it to the press, but it’s easy to apologize after the fact. Ms. Lawrence ought to have taken a moment to consider the possible consequences of her actions.

Mr. Owens was interviewed after the story broke and was quoted as saying that his job “has dignity and worth.” He said that “every job is worthwhile and valuable,” and that “there is no job that is better than another job.” I agree. No reasonable person would dream of insulting any other grocery store employee, or for that matter, any other working person. Why should an actor be shamed for doing an honest day’s work in a different field?

What Ms. Lawrence, the Daily Mail and Fox News didn’t anticipate was the enormity of the backlash they received. All sorts of people came rushing to Mr. Owens’ defense, letting the culprits know that their actions were way out of line. The actor Justine Bateman praised Mr. Owens and had a few choice words for those who attempted to shame him. The director Tyler Perry and the editor Max Weiss spoke up in his defense.

The Daily Mail and Fox News remind me of those horrible kids in high school who stalk the halls every day looking for someone to pick on. The stories they published about Mr. Owens are an example of bullying at its worst. If anyone should be ashamed of themselves it’s these particular members of the media. At least Mr. Owens was engaged in honest, honorable work, which is more than I can say about the Daily Mail and Fox News.

I find it funny how the media will idealize a person who was on a popular TV show or who played professional sports but then they’ll shame this same person for doing a regular job afterwards. When the photo of Mr. Owens was published, Terry Crews tweeted that he’d worked at a job sweeping floors after retiring from the NHL. Crews added that “Good honest work is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Some of the general public seems to be confused about celebrities and entertainers. We put them on a pedestal and assume that they’re all living the glamorous life. When we see them doing a regular job, we’re shocked, but just because they were famous once it doesn’t mean that they were set up for life.

Actors, artists and athletes are all working people, doing their job. If, on occasion, the job is glamorous and high-paying it doesn’t mean that their whole life will be like this. Salon Magazine had a lot to say about our misunderstandings of the artist’s life.

The recent incident with Geoffrey Owens helps us put things in perspective and see that we need to stop making assumptions. And we really need to stop shaming people for doing a less glamorous, less lucrative job if once upon a time they were a professional athlete or appeared on a popular TV show.

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Marcia Sirota

Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series