Hollywood’s stunt performers — whose careers, like those of professional athletes, tend to decline after a certain age — have been lobbying the SAG Pension Plan, without success, for decades to allow them to retire with full benefits at age 55. They can currently take early retirement at that age but with a 30% reduction in pension benefits.
At its meeting this weekend, SAG-AFTRA’s national board of directors is expected to take up the issue in response to a resolution approved at the union’s convention in October, which urged the board to recommend to the Pension Plan’s trustees that they provide full pensions at age 55 to all members – like stunt performers and dancers – who work in physically taxing professions. In the past, however, the pension trustees have said that doing so would cost the Plan too much money.
The latest push to lower the full retirement age for stunt performers comes at a time of renewed concern about their welfare following the union’s establishment of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety in the wake of the deaths of stunt performers last year on The Walking Dead and Deadpool 2. In the end, however, the decision to lower their full retirement age will be up to the Pension Plan’s trustees, even if the SAG-AFTRA board votes this weekend to adopt the convention delegates’ resolution.
SAG board minutes show that the issue has been debated since the 1980s, when it was noted that “there are in the stunt community a lot of performers who have reached their late 40s and 50s who are unable to work anymore because of the accumulation of injuries over the years – not one specific traumatic event that has made them disabled, but an accumulation over the years that has been enough to make it very difficult for them to work, or not work at all. And that is why you had the stunt community lobby over the years to allow stunt performers to retire at age 55 with full pension, and which has never been adopted.”
The issue came up again in 1997. Back then, famed stuntman Dick Warlock, whose more than 200 credits include stunt coordinator on the second and third Halloween films, urged the Plan to lower the full retirement age to 55. “Stunt people use and abuse their bodies in the same manner as any other sports figure does,” he wrote in a letter to Bruce Dow, who then was CEO of the SAG Pension & Health Plans. “I feel as though I can still perform as I did when I was 20,” but he added that “to think this way is only fooling myself. As a stunt performer, I need my full bag of tricks, and let’s face it: At that age we can still ride in a car or throw a punch, but to get down and do it like when we were 20 is almost totally out of the question.
“I wear hearing aids due to the gunfire and explosions that I’ve encountered in the past 37 years of working in this business,” he wrote back in 1997, when he was 57. “I have a separated shoulder as well as knee damage. I’m actually pretty well off physically, compared to some of my contemporaries. I don’t know what impact this would have on the Plan as a whole, but it would probably be pretty minimal. Mr. Dow, we need this put into effect ASAP and we need your help to do it.”
Earlier that year, SAG’s board asked the Plan’s trustees to study the impact of full retirement benefits at age 55 for stunt performers and coordinators, but after looking into it, Dow told the guild that “the trustees were concerned with the equity of providing more liberal benefits only to certain limited groups of participants. Such an action could set a precedent for other groups to request preferential treatment based on their specific needs, and it would be extremely difficult to deny one group’s request while approving another’s. For example, women with advancing age many times find reduced employment opportunities because of the limited roles available.”
Child actors, he wrote, “are another group who may also have shortened careers,” as are dancers.
“If all these groups were included,” Dow wrote, “the cost of such a provision would not be affordable to the Plans.” In designing benefits, Dow told the guild, the trustees “have limited funds available for benefit improvements, and therefore must consider the needs of all the participants will benefit from the Plan’s provisions. In any event, the current financial condition of the Plan would not allow for such a change at this time.”
Like all members of the union, stunt performers are eligible to receive a full disability pension if they are under 65 and can prove that they are totally disabled; or an occupational disability pension if they are younger than 65 and can prove that their disability occurred during the course of employment covered by the Plan, including a disability caused by an injury that occurred during production, at an audition or rehearsal, or during travel to or from location.
Not everyone who applies for an occupational disability pension gets one, however — including Warlock, who turned 78 on Monday. He told Deadline that he was denied such a pension when he was 55 even though he says he suffered disabling injuries while on the job. “I asked for occupational disability and they turned me down,” he said. “I have a busted knee and a shoulder that’s so bad they won’t operate on it. I hurt it on Rollerball, when I was knocked out for three days, and I re-injured it on The Relic, when I was suspended from wires and they jerked me into a table and blew out my shoulder a second time.”
He said he’s grateful to the union for providing him with a reduced early pension – for which he said he receives about $1,900 a month – but remains bitter about the Plan’s denial of his full occupational disability pension. “The union sucks as far as I’m concerned, and as far as stunt people are concerned,” he said.