Losing money can be an actor’s greatest talent
Years ago, I had a meeting with an actor who had been, for most of the 1970s, the most famous and successful movie star in Hollywood. He was in my office because he had spent the decade or so after his heyday spending himself into penury and now had to contemplate the unthinkable: he was asking to be in a sitcom.
Back then, there was a bright and uncrossable status line between the world of feature films – which meant more money and more prestige – and the world of television. Television actors were “small screen” players. Movie actors were “big screen” icons. Television work might have offered more regular and sturdy employment, but the glamour was entirely the province of the cinema.
On the other hand, if you were a famous actor who needed money, agreeing to appear in a television series was a pretty sure-fire way to rustle some up.
But how, exactly, I wanted to know, does a movie star fritter away tens (and sometimes hundreds) of millions of dollars? Years ago, the actor in my office must have seen that question somewhere in my facial expression or tone of voice, because he was quick to offer an explanation. “At a certain point”, he said, “I just couldn’t do anything by myself. I had dozens of people working for me.”
“Doing what?” I asked.
The actor shrugged. “No idea,” he said. But he had lawyers and two agents and a team of business managers, all helping themselves to a generous percentage of his annual earnings. He had been bled white, over the years, by his personal retinue. And now he was in my office looking to star in a sitcom, for which he cheerfully blamed his entourage of advisers.
That was only a partial explanation, of course. He omitted the dozens of houses he bought, the unrestrained spending sprees on luxury items, his unwillingness to fly in anything less than a chartered Gulfstream jet. But when people lose money, the first thing they ask themselves is, “Did I lose it, or was it stolen?” And everyone prefers to think that it was stolen, because then it’s someone else’s fault. If you lose millions of dollars you feel like a fool. If it was stolen, you can feel like a blameless victim.
Johnny Depp, the quirky and eccentric star of the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films – along with a plurality of director Tim Burton’s best movies, including the smashing Edward Scissorhands – suffered some major financial setbacks recently, and he asked himself the same question. His answer was to file a massive lawsuit against his former money managers, whom he accuses of mismanagement, fraud and even embezzlement.
His advisers have responded to the complaint by itemising an astonishing array of bizarre (and extravagant) expenditures, including more than a dozen houses, an expensive yacht, and a $5 million (Dh18m) specially-made cannon, which Depp used to blast the ashes of his late friend, the late author Hunter S Thompson, from a mountaintop in Aspen, Colorado.
Depp, like the movie star in my office years before, was (and probably still is) a genuinely rich man. But – and this will come as no surprise to many of you – money is remarkably easy to spend. There are always plenty of people who suddenly appear alongside a newly-rich person brimming with ideas and plans and encouraging words for how to spend it, and while it’s possible that Depp, like my actor friend, had some of it stolen, it’s more likely that most of it went out the way it often does with movie stars and celebrities: in fistfuls of extravagances and custom-made cannons.
Television actors, on the other hand, can also make enormous sums of money, but they tend to keep more of it in bank vaults and safe investments. The working life of a television actor is more regimented and predictable, and they’re required to work more hours. A normal television series is in production for nine months of the year, with long days of shooting and few breaks to count on. Television actors simply don’t have the time to develop exotic and expensive hobbies, a taste for rare wines, a compulsion to buy houses or a need for an overpriced entourage.
Movie stars, on the other hand, may make one picture every two years – that’s about three months out of 24 – which leaves plenty of leisure time to start getting weird. And even when a picture is in production, there’s an awful lot of sitting around and waiting for the shots to be set up, which provides ample opportunity for more profligate spending. The cycle usually ends somewhere in my outer office, where I’ve met more than a few movie stars with bills to pay.
Johnny Depp, of course, isn’t going to show up on a television series anytime soon. He’s still a bankable movie star and the next instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is due out soon. But he’d do well to remember that even international movie stars can end up in my office. Losing money is something that actors excel at.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles
On Twitter: @rcbl
Updated: April 27, 2017 04:00 AM