Stories from the Line

Maybe we should tell the producers, look, you build the stadium, sell the tickets, form the league, make the rules and then we'll come in with our bats and gloves and get hits. Because that's the way it works.
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I was in India when the strike started. (That's right, India. Not Indianapolis; India.)

Magnificent place, India, by the way. It was my first time, I was there for a part in a movie, and I was constantly touched by their ancient civilization, their instinctive feeling for the spirit world, and the purity of their smiles. Little annoyances along the way, like the air being ninety-seven percent fecal matter, and the crew picking their feet on set and then looking at it -- closely -- were easy to forget once the charm and rhythm of daily life became second nature.

Yes, all the American actors and director and d.p. were in cheerful agreement that the whole trip was a great opportunity to learn and embrace, especially once we all stopped taking the malaria medicine and returned to heavy drinking.

I think I was a great ambassador for our country, too; or, at least, I don't recall any fistfights right after I left a room.

The one tart moment I allowed myself occurred two sips into my third drink one night (whiskey, neat: You really, really don't want anything to do with their water or ice) when the waiter asked how I liked working there in Mumbai, and did I know they had changed the name from Bombay a few years before? I asked if the famous gin company also had to change their name; say, to Boodles. He laughed (I think) and said that some people still liked calling the city Bombay.

I picked up my drink and stood, and put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Buddy, it's your home, and you have the right to call it anything you want. Period. However, if you don't mind my saying, I think a little less time on the naming committee, and a couple of more toilets built, might be the right direction for the government to move." The next day the strike started.

My wife, Eileen Conn, is a multi-award-winning TV writer (It drives her nuts when I say that, but it's my article and I'll say what I want; let her get her own column). She was out picketing from the start, every day, and kept me informed. And when I returned, the day before Thanksgiving, I joined the line, too, every day.

Eileen is more adventurous and goes on shoots and climbs trees and such, but I like CBS Radford, because -- well, it's near our house, that's why, and isn't that the most important thing? (We all know where our friends will be picketing from where they live. "Of course you're at Paramount; you live on Wilcox.") The boldest I've gotten so far is switching to the back entrance of Radford on Colfax. As you've probably heard, the Colfax people can be pretty wild. They walk slower and even -- sometimes -- chant.

After a day or two a van pulled up with strike t-shirts, and they gave me one, and I was pretty proud and still wear it. Funny thing about those t-shirts, though, and let's be honest: There are a lot more XXL's than you probably find at a mineworker's strike.


I mean, we writers, men and women alike, kind of start at large, don't we? We're not small or medium people, whereas most coal miners are built like Christian Bale.

Now, when I was still in India, the producer came up to me one day on the set and asked about the strike. He's Indian, and lived in Hollywood for a while, and we've worked together before; and he's been very successful in both places.

He asked how the strike was going, and I told him I'd let him know next time I talked to my wife, especially if he wanted to pay for the phone call. He laughed, but his heart wasn't in it. But that's okay.

Then he said, "You know, there's an old story about Louie B. Mayer..." (You've all probably heard this one by now, but I hadn't. I don't even know if it was Mayer or not -- Good Lord, I almost called him "Mr. Mayer". What's wrong with us?)

He told me, "Mayer said to his executives one day, 'Boys, when I call a plumber to the house to build a toilet for me, I don't pay him every time I pee in it.'"

And the producer smiled and watched for my reaction. I laughed and smiled, and nodded and said, "Oh, that's great. It's witty. No, I guess no one would pay each time, would he?"

He was very pleased with himself, and relaxed a little, and that's what I was waiting for. So I leaned in and said, "But it's not very accurate, is it? If you think about it, it's not the same thing at all. Supposing the producer was buying toilets to sell to people, or took the plumber's design and made others, and said it was his because he couldn't do it himself, or supposing he charged people ten dollars each time they peed? Or supposing the people only wanted to use the toilet once and then insisted on a new one? Or supposing the plumber only got a chance to make three toilets his whole career? None of these images is precise, either, but making and selling stories in our business is more complicated than toilets, and we all need each other for a far longer time. No, it's really not the same thing at all, is it?"

Now it was my turn to watch for his reaction, and we looked at each other, and finally he said, "No, I guess it's not." Then he checked his watch and said, "Think I'll see how the shot is going. Sometimes the local crews are a little slow."

That's why I walk, folks, because even in India, a place that has a shattering kind of poverty, someone tells a story about not paying writers, and then laughs about it. How many of us for the last twenty, fifty, a hundred years... writers and actors, performers, creative people of all stripes... spending the last decades of life living on less and less every day, while at the same instant new generations enjoy their work and are moved, and laugh and cry... and someone, somewhere, makes more and more?


I may not know much, but here's what I know: Somebody's making a lot of money here, and it's not us. We're not the ones who left the table. We're not the ones sitting back in a lawnchair like Cornwallis under an awning on a hilltop, observing the battle and drinking tiny cups of chocolate before yawning and deciding where to attack next. We're not the ones saying, "No, it's all mine, and you get none of it."

Maybe we should tell the producers, look, fellas: You build the stadium, you sell the tickets, you hire the vendors, you pick the colors, you form the league, you hire the umps, you make the rules, and do all the other vitally important things an owner does. Okay?

And then we'll come in with our bats and gloves and get hits. Because that's the way it works, and that's how you play ball. We can all do this together, and that's what will happen eventually, but why wait? Like an argument in a marriage, you can start talking again in ten minutes, or ten hours, or ten days. Or ten months.

Why not try ten minutes?

By the way, I've washed that t-shirt plenty of times since I got it, and it hasn't shrunk at all. Fits good, too. Fits mighty good. Next time that van comes around, I think maybe I'll try a triple.

Read more strike coverage on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.