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Hollywood writers' far-from-glamorous lives

"Jeopardy!" writer Andrew Price lives in a modest home, makes mortgage and car payments and describes himself and fellow scribes as "meat and potatoes people."
Sean Duggan
Behind-the-camera workers get to rub elbows with the rich and famous. But many like art director Sean Duggan, pictured here, lead lives that are more regular than regal. Here, Duggan washes dishes at his Los Angeles home. Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Jeopardy!" writer Andrew Price lives in a modest home, makes mortgage and car payments and describes himself and fellow scribes as "meat and potatoes people."

Movie art director Sean Duggan, 38, rarely wears a tux and leads a life that's more regular than regal. "When they roll out the red carpet, they call me to do it," he says.

To most of the world, Hollywood is all about glitz and glamor and beautiful people — some behaving badly. But Price and Duggan belong to what might be called the real Hollywood: its industrial other half, where folks live paycheck to paycheck, drive Toyotas and stay out of trouble.

The current Writers Guild of America strike has cast a rare, international spotlight on this workaday culture of behind-the-camera jobs — known as "below the line" in production parlance.

Most WGA members lead far from glamorous lives, and seldom earn beyond five figures each year. Yet like their colleagues who build sets, apply makeup and lay cable, they're the ones who keep Hollywood cranking the content.

Or not.

Since it began Monday, the writers strike has shuttered nearly a dozen TV shows, including such popular series as "The Office," "Desperate Housewives" and "24." The feature-film pipeline could be next.

"The stars are who they are ... as a function of all those people who are unknown and keep the system going," said Elizabeth Currid, a professor at University of Southern California who studies art and culture in Los Angeles. "Stars wouldn't define Hollywood if there weren't these regular people doing their jobs behind the scenes, day in and day out."

The average salary for entertainment industry employees is $73,000 a year, a handsome income that's 80 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2006 study by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Yet most workers in Hollywood earn far less — when they even have jobs — because the MPAA's average includes multimillion dollar salaries paid to executives.

Most of the 6,000 carpenters, welders, set decorators and prop masters represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 44 earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year, said secretary-treasurer Elliot Jennings.

It's "decent money" that allows for a middle-class lifestyle, he said. But work is spotty and 10 to 15 percent of the membership are not regularly employed — a situation worsened by the increasing loss of film and television shoots to foreign locations, and now the writers strike.

"Most of our members work paycheck-to-paycheck. They get eight months of work in a 12-month period," he said. "The amount of money we make doesn't afford most members to keep their wives home from work. We're middle-class people who get up and go to work every day and can't afford not to."

Having a Screen Actors Guild card isn't necessarily a ticket to Hollywood success, either. Members can spend more time hustling gigs than working them. That's why so many have side jobs tending bar or waiting tables.

"They're not living in mansions," said USC business professor S. Mark Young. "They're probably living in modest apartments."

Writer Diana Ljungaeus was lured by the glamor of Tinseltown when she moved from her native Sweden. Yet she quickly learned Hollywood is a place where "everyone is something else."

"You take a cab and the taxi driver is really a director and the cashier is really an actor, just doing this to get over a poor stretch," said Ljungaeus, 48, who works two jobs to support her playwriting pursuits. "Very few people can live off the arts of TV, theater and film. It's a few that can and they live well. The rest of the hopeful are just struggling."

Glitz and glamor elude even those industry workers who do draw a reliable salary.

Bruce Grayson has been a Hollywood makeup artist for nearly 20 years. He lives in a condo, not a mansion. He has one car, not a fleet. And he wears some designer duds, "but the articles are few and far between."

After two decades in the business, Grayson said he's still "amazed" by the level of wealth and luxury the industry provides to the stars who put a face on Hollywood for the rest of the planet.

"It's not my world," he said. "It's their world."

And they know it.

"The difference between the upper echelon in our business and the lower echelon is so striking," actor William H. Macy said as he walked the picket line with writers this week. "It's tough for me when I'm on set. It makes me feel bad when (the studios) are being so stingy with craft services (catering) people and writers, when they're trying to cut costs on that level."

Ricky Blitt straddles both sides of Hollywood. A writer of television shows such as "Family Guy" and feature-length screenplays, he's successful enough that he doesn't have to look for jobs like many in the industry, but not so successful that he routinely rubs elbows with A-listers.

His lifestyle is "100 percent opposite from 'Entourage,'" he said, referring to the HBO series about the entertainment business.

"This is my Hollywood glamor life: getting up early, writing, petting my two cats and watching NHL sports packages on TV," said Blitt, who works from an office at his Hollywood Hills home. "Nobody quite knows who you are or what you do. You can afford certain privileges, but there's nothing exciting about it."