Hollywood has become a tough town for sneering bad guys, nosy next-door neighbors, sniveling little nerds and even best friends.

Until recently, a veteran supporting or character actor could make enough money acting in two or three films a year to manage a Beverly Hills mortgage and private school tuition for the kids. But many of today’s supporting actors say those days are over. The studios, paying bigger star salaries while trying to fatten the bottom line, are laying down the law to those in the middle: It’s scale plus 10%, or take a hike.

Actors and their agents – who are also hurting because the pay crunch cuts into their commissions – say a supporting player’s ability to build a daily quote (or fee) is being undercut by producers who are less intent on filling secondary roles with top players than they are with cutting costs.

And yet Hollywood continues to be star-driven. Over the last five years the gap between mid-level salaries and those of the elite stars has grown into a chasm.

“The studios are claiming there is no institutionalized thinking in doing this,” says one veteran actor, who has played numerous good guy and buddy parts in major motion pictures, “but more and more the offers are scale plus ten going out to top people, which was unheard of three years ago.”

Besides forcing established Hollywood actors – none who will go on record – out of beach houses and into apartments, the pay cuts are hurting the boutique agencies that rep many supporting players and, according to some observers, diminishing the quality of major films.

The hot-button issue is rarely discussed publicly because working actors, who don’t have the clout of stars, can’t risk alienating the studios by whining. But their agents and union representatives are quietly taking up the cause.

Actor pay is a hot potato at round-table meetings of the Association of Talent Agents. The reason is simple: When a large tier of actors faces a pay cut, so do their agents, many of whom make up the ranks of the small and midsize agencies.

Officials of the Screen Actors Guild, usually eager to talk about actors’ problems, say they can’t discuss this one because they’re in the midst of contract negotiations and intimate that it could become a subject on the bargaining table.

Slap in the face

Currently, scale pay for film and television work is $504 per day, a sizeable cut in pay for actors who’ve spent years working up to a weekly quote that could be anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. “The difference could mean up to a quarter of a million dollars (on one project),” one agent says. “That’s a terrible slap in the face to people who are really the lifeblood of this industry.”

One actor says there’s an added wrinkle for these acting vets – call it the out-of-town syndrome. While a producer may do in-town casting, they do so with the proviso that the role may ultimately go to someone on location. The in-town casting, in other words, is done just as a backup in case they can’t find someone suitable out of town.

The sword cuts even further with commercial work, one of the last bastions for support players, which is now mostly going to stars or new faces.

“It has been the current trend in commercials to either cast a star or to find someone new,” says easting director Michael Lien. “But I think you’re going to see that start to change. You’ll start to see a comeback by the character actors.”

Yet the comeback may not be on as grand a scale as before.

Sources say actress Teri Garr, who has had star turns in such films as “Mr. Mom” and “Tootsie” and is a reasonably well-known celebrity, worked for a “small amount” in the New Line comedy “Dumb and Dumber.”

One source says Garr, reportedly a friend of one of the film’s producers, was offered the “glorified cameo” with the condition that they were working with a small budget. Maybe so – but at the same time, one of the film’s stars, Jim Carrey, earned $7 million for his role. Neither Garr’s agent nor publicist returned calls.

Chet Migden, who for the past 13 years was executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents until his retirement last month, believes the issue has reached a crisis point, aesthetically as well as financially.

“The other night I was watching ‘Seven Days in May’ and I could not believe who was in that movie in subordinate roles,” Migden says of the 1964 film. “The list ran the gamut. There was not one person in it who had not been carefully chosen. We’ve come so far from those days.”

The film starred Fredric March, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien and Martin Balsam.

“There was a time when there were any number of supporting players who became stars in their own right and were paid accordingly,” says Migden. “Those caliber of people are now being asked to work at close to scale.”

At one time, Hollywood’s list of supporting character actors included such names as George Sanders, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Walter Brennan and Carolyn Jones. They were actors who worked constantly in the old studio system with their faces showing up in any number of different feature roles. The pay was good for its day and it was fairly constant.

Free agency

Yet the studio contract system of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s is barely a memory. Today everyone is basically a free agent.

And while some players have thrived under this system, the new cost-consciousness is putting the squeeze on actors who haven’t worked for scale-plus-ten in years.

“It all depends on how much money we have in the budget,” says one studio executive. “If there’s enough money to match someone’s quote, then we will. But if there isn’t, it still doesn’t hurt to ask them to do it for less.”

In other words, if one actor won’t do it for less, a dozen others will. And since it’s widely perceived that stars are the only on-camera talent who draw auds into theaters, why waste money on the supporting cast?

Top star Demi Moore has just reeled in a $12 million fee to star in Castle Rock’s feature “Strip Tease.” Richard Donner will earn as much as $10 million to direct “Assassins” for Warner Bros.

Yet actors and agents don’t fault the stars or the directors who command such fees. Instead, they say it’s the outcome of an insidious wage war between the studios and talent.

Who’s to blame

“This has been a situation that has been escalating for some time,” says an agent. “When companies moan about paying these high salaries, they have no one to blame but themselves. They’ve never given profit participants a fair count, they’ve manipulated accounts so that net participants never saw any money. And as actors and directors gained leverage, they said no more; we want all the money up front.”

Given that studios are intensely star-driven, they continue to pay the high prices for the favored few.

That, coupled with more work being done out of town – the favorite places being Canada and Florida – has forced many of this town’s acting vets to hang up the ‘out of business’ sign.

While some executives say it only points to a smarter business practice, artists and agents say the practice is hurting the quality of films.

“More and more these actors who have been in the business for 20 years are turning to TV series work because, if they land a series, they get paid better than the scale plus ten they’re being offered for a film role,” said Michael Lazo, an agent with Writers & Artists. Witness Garr, who’s landed a plum supporting role in Delta Burke’s CBS series “Women of the House.”

Seasoned actors, Lazo said, “don’t want to hear a studio tell them to take the role for scale because it could mean a career break for them. That doesn’t sell too well anymore.”