Marnina Schon, a Berkeley-born member of SAG-AFTRA, picketing outside Netflix's Los Angeles office on July 26, 2023. (Photo/Darnell M. Johnson)
Marnina Schon, a Berkeley-born member of SAG-AFTRA, picketing outside Netflix's Los Angeles office on July 26, 2023. (Photo/Darnell M. Johnson)

‘There’s no giving up’: Jewish voices from the Hollywood strikes

Hope you like reruns.

In mid-July, the union representing 160,000 actors went on strike after their contract with the major studios and streaming giants expired and talks broke down. They joined 11,500 screenwriters who had been striking since May. Together, the strikes are crippling Hollywood productions. And for now, there’s no end in sight.

This being Hollywood, an industry started by Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, there are prominent Jews on both sides of the labor disputes.

On one side are studio executives such as David Zaslav, who has made a number of controversial budget cuts as CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, and Disney CEO Bob Iger, who caught flak for calling the strikes ill-timed and the demands of the writers and actors “not realistic.” Their demands include higher wages, residual payments for streaming content and agreements over the studios’ planned use of artificial intelligence.

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, in sunglasses, and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland join protestors on strike in Los Angeles on July 14, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Valerie Macon-AFP via Getty Images)
SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, in sunglasses, and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland join protestors on strike in Los Angeles on July 14, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Valerie Macon-AFP via Getty Images)

On the other side, there are figures such as Fran Drescher, president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Drescher, who starred in the ’90s sitcom “The Nanny,” publicly excoriated Iger over his remarks. In a speech about an early offer from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Production (AMPTP), the Queens native used Yiddish to properly register her displeasure: “What we ultimately received from them is what my mom would call a leck and a schmeck.” That is, “a lick and a sniff.”

Caught in between are the many Jews with household names who write and act in your favorite films and TV shows, and the thousands of other creative types whose names are not as well known.

To better understand what’s roiling La La Land, J. spoke with Los Angeles-based screenwriters and actors about the challenges they’ve faced in the entertainment industry and the contractual issues that are most important to them. (The AMPTP did not respond to J.’s multiple requests for comment.)

Marnina Schon

Actor (“Chanshi”)

It’s been a busy summer for Schon, who grew up in Berkeley and has been a SAG-AFTRA member since 2018. She’s been participating in both the writers and actors strikes; acting in “A Picket Line,” a parody of “A Chorus Line” produced by improv group Upright Citizens Brigade (“we work fast”); and singing show tunes with Rachel Bloom and the cast of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in protest outside of Universal Studios Hollywood.

“We’re angry but we’re also energized, and we’re theater kids so we’re gonna sing some songs,” Schon, 29, said.

Her first professional acting gig came in eighth grade, when she appeared in a production of “Brundibar” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She moved to L.A. for college and stayed. While she dreams of one day making a living solely from acting, she currently supplements her income by tutoring b’nai mitzvah students.

“This new contract will influence if I can ever hope to act full time without having to side-hustle teaching my students,” she said. (“No shade to them. They’re wonderful,” she quickly added.)

There is a misconception that all Hollywood actors are rich, she said.

“People think of A-list celebrities, but those aren’t the people who are hurting,” she said. “There are thousands more of us who are just trying to be middle class. And so many actors and writers are below the poverty line and living paycheck to paycheck. We’re all sick of watching the wealth gap grow and knowing we’ll never have financial security unless we become mega stars.”

Since so many actors have already figured out how to scrape by, she predicts that the AMPTP will suffer the most from a prolonged strike. “They’re not going to outlast us,” she said.

In addition to wage increases, Schon wants the new contract to require studios to get actors’ informed consent to use their likenesses generated with artificial intelligence, and to limit what studios can demand from self-taped auditions, which actors must shoot and edit themselves for free.

Schon praised Drescher for her union leadership and noted that Jewish women have been at the forefront of American labor activism. She cited the 1909 “Uprising of 20,000,” an 11-week strike by Jewish women who worked in the New York shirtwaist factories.

“I think what’s cool about actors and writers is we’re trained in how to get people to feel what we feel,” she said. “We’re telling a story right now of collective justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, my dudes.” Ever the tutor, that phrase “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” comes straight from Deuteronomy.

Stephen Tolkin

Screenwriter (“Brothers and Sisters,” “How to Murder Your Husband”)

Tolkin spent years toiling as a Hollywood writer. He has written for shows such as “Brothers and Sisters” and “Knots Landing,” as well as dozens of made-for-television movies. His father, Mel Tolkin, wrote for Sid Caesar’s iconic 1950s series, “Your Show of Shows.” And when his son joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) years ago, the elder Tolkin told him proudly, “The guild is your mother.”

“My father participated in the strike in 1960, which gave us things we take for granted, like health care and a pension plan and residuals,” he said. “A lot of people think that came from the sky. No, it came from a strike that lasted almost a year. So I take this very seriously.”

Though the issues facing striking writers and actors differ somewhat, both the writers and actors unions agree that the use of artificial intelligence poses a threat. To Tolkin, 69, it is an existential threat for writers.

My father participated in the strike in 1960, which gave us things we take for granted, like health care and a pension plan and residuals. A lot of people think that came from the sky. No, it came from a strike that lasted almost a year.

“We have to get a firewall protecting us from A.I.,” he said, “because what [the studios] dream of is a world where writer costs are zero. I know from messing around on ChatGPT, the thing is only 6 months old and it can already come up with a bad story. But it will learn. So Iger and Zaslav think in 10 years, they can save hundreds of millions of dollars on writers. Think how much Wall Street will love them if writer costs drop to zero.’”

He added, “For that, we have to go to the barricades.”

Raised in a culturally rich Jewish home — his father, after all, was best buds with Mel Brooks — Tolkin noted how the strike places one segment of the Jewish American experience against another. “It has always been thus, the Jews in the big office versus the Jews in the writers room pounding on their Underwoods,” he said. “But I believe the community acting together to do what’s good for everybody is a deeply Jewish value.”

Terry Walters

Actor (“La La Land,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” lots of commercials)

A native of Queens, Walters did theater and acted in soap operas in New York City while waitressing to support herself and her first child. After moving to Los Angeles in 1994, she threw herself into TV acting and worked her way up to a fee of $2,500 per day. She also appeared in around 100 national commercials — Kraft Mac & Cheese, Hormel Chili, Tylenol, Facebook.

Terry Walters (Photo/Courtesy)
Terry Walters (Photo/Courtesy)

“I made my living doing commercials for a very long time,” she said. “It was fantastic.”

She’s played small roles in big movies, such as 2016’s “La La Land,” but her fortunes changed as she got older. This is the first year that she won’t make enough money acting to qualify for union health insurance.

Walters still considers herself lucky, though. She has a pension — thanks to the 1960 SAG strike — and her husband has a job outside of the entertainment industry.

The problem in a nutshell, she said, is that wages have been “squashed all the way down.” For example, she said, she acted in two episodes of season 1 of “Santa Clarita Diet,” a Netflix comedy series starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant.

“It was a great working environment, but the money was nothing and I barely make residuals on it,” she said. The Netflix brass told her they couldn’t pay more upfront because “we don’t know how [the series] is going to go.”

Terry Walters (far right) at a recent WGA picket. (Photo/Courtesy)
Terry Walters (far right) at a recent WGA picket. (Photo/Courtesy)

The residuals situation is also deeply unfair, she said. For an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that first aired during its second season in 2001, she has made no more than $50 in residuals to date. That would only be reasonable “if it was not a hit show and nobody was making money from it.” (What was it like working with Larry David? “He’s such a curmudgeon on the show, but in person he’s so nice and charming,” she said.)

The message that the studios and streamers have been sending to actors is that they are “disposable.” But actors make valuable contributions to society, Walters said. “It’s such a healing, giving thing to do,” she said. “We can’t all be doctors and financiers.”

Walters’ 21-year-old son, Ollie Walters, is also an actor. The mother worries about how her son and his peers will make a living without a more favorable contract. “I would love nothing more than for my son to be able to create and be protected and not be taken advantage of in this business,” she said.

When she is not on the picket lines, Walters is looking for plays to act in — an activity allowed under SAG-AFTRA rules — and writing her own TV series about four female friends “of a certain age” set in a small California town.

“I can audition for commercials, too,” she added, “so if there’s a commercial that needs a seasoned grandma, call me.”

Jeffrey Lieber

Screenwriter, showrunner, playwright (“Lost,” “Miami Medical”)

“This strike is not going to necessarily benefit me because of my place in the industry,” said Lieber, a co-creator of the mid-2000s smash hit series “Lost.” “But it will determine whether or not there is a viable career as a screenwriter going forward.”

Lieber, 54, started out as a playwright and actor in Chicago. He decamped to L.A. in 1995 and wrote for a number of TV series before transitioning to showrunning in 2004. The job, which entails overseeing a show’s writing staff and interfacing with studio executives, opened his eyes to the “worker problem we have in Hollywood, and the worker problem we have in America,” he said.

Jeff Lieber
Jeff Lieber (Photo/Courtesy)

“We have capitalism on steroids, and right now all the money is going to a very small group of people and that’s leaving the workers in trouble,” he said. The solution: “If you pay your workers, they’ll pay you back” with their labor and loyalty. Plus, he added, “They’ll pay for subscriptions to streaming services!”

Lieber said he benefited in his career from earning residuals and from profit participation, which refers to the practice of studios paying writers a set amount if the project they work on turns a profit. That benefit vanished under the streaming model.

“They pay you a lump sum up front and say, ‘Please go away,’” he said. “Profit is capped off the bat, since they can’t figure out how many people are watching.”

Lieber has been striking three to four times each week outside of Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City in L.A. County. Several of his projects are on hold, and he thinks the strikes may drag on into the fall.

“Everyone wants to go back to work, but there’s not a lot of complaining about whether the strike is necessary at all,” he said. “Everyone understands where we’re at. This is not going to make any one person a lot of money, but what it may do is keep the community of writers and actors viable.”

Bruce Nozick

Actor (“Weeds,” “The Last Ship,” “Chicago Med,” “Big Little Lies”)

When Nozick was picketing in front of Amazon Studios in Culver City on day one of the strike in 90-degree heat, he and his fellow actors had access to ice water, fresh fruit and pizza from sympathetic neighbors.

Bruce Nozick at a recent SAG-AFTRA picket (Photo/Courtesy)
Bruce Nozick at a recent SAG-AFTRA picket (Photo/Courtesy)

He believes that support stems in part from a broad understanding that L.A. is a company town and that the local economy depends on a thriving film and television industry.

“There are so many people who work in and around the entertainment industry,” he said. “Millions will be affected: the people who drive the trucks, that do the catering, the hair, and the ripple effect on the restaurants and bars. It’s not just actors and writers. It’s going to be everybody.”

Nozick said he has the financial resources to ride out the strike but worries about the many writers and fellow actors who will face financial hardship.

A Massachusetts native, he grew up in a nonreligious but culturally rich Jewish home in Brooklyn. After graduating from NYU, he got work off-Broadway and later starred in a pair of films playing famed Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz. He’s been in L.A. since the early ’90s.

To Novick, this strike is the labor movement’s equivalent of “Shootout at the O.K. Corral.”

“It’s been a long time coming for things the actors and writers are asking for,” he said, “There have been discussions for a long time, but they never addressed the streaming [residuals] issue especially. There’s no giving up at this time.”

That likely means a protracted strike. Novick worries that the studios can afford to wait out the unions.

Actor Bruce Nozick (right) in “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” which ran at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, June 18-July 16, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy)
Actor Bruce Nozick (right) in “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” which ran at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, June 18-July 16, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy)

“So many of those streaming companies are owned by much bigger conglomerates like Apple and Amazon,” he noted. “Only a small percentage of the money they make comes from their entertainment divisions. They are financially just fine. That’s what scares me.”

Novick’s credits include regular roles in “Weeds” and “The Last Ship.” Most recently he co-starred in the revival of “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” a play about the friendship between Muhammad Ali and comedian Stepin Fetchit.

He played a rabbi in TV’s “Touched By An Angel,” officiating the bar mitzvah of a character played by Kirk Douglas. He also played a Jewish peddler in an episode of “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman.”

Though he has mentored young actors over the years, given the increased difficulties in making a living in the field these days, Novick said his advice has changed: “The first thing I say is ‘Dude, if there’s anything else you can do besides acting, do it.’”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.