December 2008 Ethics Dunces

Actor Jeremy Piven

Every profession has its prime directive. For doctors, at least according to tradition if not the AMA, it’s “First, do no harm.” For lawyers, it is zealously represent your client within the bounds of the law and ethics rules. And we know all what a Federation Starship captain’s prime directive is, don’t we, Trekkers? In the acting profession, the prime directive is “The show must go on.” This ethic still is observed in the theater with some consistency: professional actors regularly perform on stage despite fevers, personal tragedies, injuries and small audiences. The principle is that if the audience paid to see the show, it should see the show it paid for. And there is something else: stage productions are the ultimate team enterprise, a high-wire act of trust and collaboration that depends on every participant, from assistant props manager to the light board operator to the cast, being ready and dedicated to the project

Then there are actors like Jeremy Piven, star of the HBO series “The Entourage,” and formerly one of the key ensemble members of the hit Broadway revival of David Mamet’s satire, Speed the Plough. Contractually obligated to continue in the show through February, Piven suddenly withdrew from the cast, saying that he hadn’t been feeling well, and that he had been diagnosed with a “high mercury count,” a malady usually associated with tuna. Mamet, a lifetime theater veteran despite his success as a writer for other mediums like TV and movies, was clearly unconvinced by the excuse, saying that Piven is apparently “leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”

We shall see if Piven’s mercurial rise actually keeps him out of acting projects for very long. It is sufficient right now to observe that traditional actor’s ethics dictate that as long as a performer can deliver his lines and wasn’t literally at death’s door, quitting a show with no warning is an ethical breach. This is particularly so when the production itself may be jeopardized; all of Broadway is reeling from the financial downturn, with more than half the shows ready to close or suffering at the box office.

“The good news is that some really great actors will be helping out and stepping in, which to me is a sign of great heroism and friendship,” said Mamet. In other words, other actors not committed to the show will help make sure that the show does go on.

But that was Piven’s responsibility too.




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