Fred Willard happily took the offer to guest star as Ty Burrell’s dad on “Modern Family,” even though it was a Christmas episode.
“I thought, ‘Oh well, that will never rerun,'” Willard recalls. “When it ran again two weeks later, I couldn’t believe my good luck.”
It’s not easy making a living as a guest star, especially these days. Snagging that first rerun check is crucial in building a financial base that’s getting more and more difficult to sustain. After paying out money to an agent, manager and sometimes a publicist, as well as the big IRS grab, there’s not much meat on the bone.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out getting paid on average between $7,500 to $10,000 per episode means an actor making his living as a guest star would have to come up with at least eight jobs a year to make a middle class living after doling out the cuts. Of course it helps if you guest on a show that is heavily syndicated, such as “CSI” or “Two and a Half Men.”
“It’s doable, but not easy,” says veteran actor Bill Smitrovich, a Screen Actors Guild Hollywood Division Board Member. “We used to have quotes, and they respected what you were paid on your last job. Now, it’s more cut and dry.”
In the past decade or so, the TV landscape has changed dramatically. There are fewer scripted shows, often replaced by reality programming. Instead of scripted shows going into reruns during summer — the former financial model in which networks would make boatloads of coin — it’s more likely now networks will plug in reality shows to compete with cable’s new scripted fare.
However, the budgets on many of those cable shows are near the low end of the spectrum.
“Smaller budgets on scripted television shows are a factor in being able to earn a living,” Smitrovich says. “Our wages have been knocked down exponentially. ”
Willard, who is appearing in an arc of stories on TNT’s “Franklin & Bash,” said getting an arc obviously helps the financial bottom line for an actor.
The down side, Smitrovich says, is the actor who just finished a high-profile multi-episode arc might be at a disadvantage to the actor who hasn’t been seen in a while and has time to audition.
A complaint from many actors who count guest star roles as their main source of income is the network’s reluctance to use them on a regular basis. Trying to get those eight or more gigs in a year just doesn’t happen for the vast majority of actors.
NBCUniversal casting exec VP Grace Wu says there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about how often one actor can guest star, although generally networks try to schedule so that an actor isn’t seen on two shows — even on different networks — in the same week.
“It’s hard getting work because there’s a big talent pool, and I would say it would be highly unusual to be able to do more than five (guest roles a year),” Wu says. “But everyone wants to get the right actor for the right part. We’re always looking for fresh faces, but those tried-and-true character actors who can deliver will always get cast.”
And there’s always the chance a great guest gig will turn into a regular role.
“If someone makes a strong impression, it compels me to consider them for bigger and better roles,” she says.
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