Backlot: A Night with Higher Purpose

 Eric Charbonneau/Le Studio

There will always be one-third of the acting population working — and the rest of it will need help,” says Marcia Smith, executive director of the SAG Foundation. “We have a woman who is 49 years old, has an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and she and her husband are journeymen actors. She was diagnosed with ALS six months ago; she has a feeding tube and a breathing tube and doctors have given her five months to live. This woman has to prepare her children for her death. There’s no income coming in. So we have to jump in.”

The nonprofit’s Catastrophic Health Fund, which is providing grants to the woman and her family, will make her final days a little less burdensome. It’s one of more than a dozen programs the foundation offers members and nonmembers including literacy initiatives like Storyine Online, casting workshops and a new voice-over lab named for late veteran voice-over artist Don LaFontaine. There also are internships for college students and scholarships for members and their children.

“We’re out there to help make actors’ lives more palatable and give them the life raft that they need,” Smith says. “Not just for assistance but for work. They can’t get these things anywhere else.”

None of this comes free — or cheap — and it’s up to the SAG Awards to kick in a chunk of change that will keep the foundation’s gears turning. SAG Awards committee chair and SAG Foundation board president JoBeth Williams helps oversee three annual online auctions leading to the ceremony that each bring in about $50,000 for the foundation. Among the items on offer this year: a set visit to Extra, bags from shows such as Glee and Modern Family and autographed posters from movies including The Fighter. Another source of awards-based income comes from underwriters and sponsors such as L’Oreal, Tattingers and House of Graff (which is underwriting the green room this year), and an annual $100,000 shared donation from the Entertainment Industry Foundation and People magazine, which have jointly produced the show’s afterparty since the awards’ inception in 1995.

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Williams makes sure that awards attendees are reminded about the foundation just before the Jan. 30 live telecast on TNT — there’s a short film produced by EIF about it, after which Williams takes the stage to discuss the organization.

“We have a captive audience,” Williams says. “It’s important to remind them that they can participate and contribute.”

The foundation, which came into existence in 1985 when the IRS put tighter reins on regulations regarding unions and philanthropic monies, had a slow start. There were just three programs and two employees 16 years ago, but today it’s a $24 million foundation, with 14 programs and 19 employees.

“We have grown exponentially,” Smith says. “Because we’re run by actors, we understand what actors need to maintain life, a family life and community involvement as an actor. We understand that better than anyone in the field because we’ve been there.”

Now the foundation will also have to cope with repercussions of a likely SAG/AFTRA merger and the potential end of the SAG Awards themselves.

“We’re waiting to see what happens with the merger to figure out our place in the firmament,” Smith says. “It’s an uncertain time for us.”

No matter what happens in the coming months, there will always be SAG members willing to help.

“Every actor I work with knows they are able to carry important messages because they are a celebrity,” EIF president and CEO Lisa Paulsen says. “They realize they are in a privileged and unique position.”           

Says Williams: “The guild has really taken good care of me. They’ve really protected me as an actor, and I’ve been able to earn a living. I absolutely feel I should give back.”

17th Annual SAG Awards
Sunday, Jan. 30
Los Angeles Shrine Exhibition Center
Ceremony, 5 p.m. PT
Broadcast live on TNT and TBS

     

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