Thursday, December 1, 2011

Leslie Hoffman: Hollywood stuntwoman turned activist

Leslie Hoffman
When I was a kid growing up in the small Adirondack village of Saranac Lake, I was enthralled by the story of Leslie Hoffman. The fact that her parents owned the local pharmacy already gave her elevated status in town, but she’d made it big.
Really big in my eyes.
Leslie was a Hollywood stuntwoman.
I first heard of her fame at about 11 years old when I was watching Charlie’s Angels, a favorite television series of my childhood. My oldest brother David commented that Leslie had done stunts for the series and the fascination began.
A year or two later, Leslie took a 78-foot leap off the Love Boat. Then she appeared in M*A*S*H, Fantasy Island, Remington Steele, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and dozens upon dozens of other movies and television shows, sparing other actors from the dangers involved in successfully suspending disbelief.
The latter part of her career was spent coordinating stunts in movies and television, including the Star Trek New Voyages series.
She was the first stuntwoman elected to the Board of Directors of Screen Actors Guild, the country's largest entertainment union. She was also the first woman in her line of work elected to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Los Angeles Local Board and AFTRA National Boards in the 1980s.
I had imagined her life and her future as one full of red carpets, celebrity dinners and hand prints impressed in famous sidewalks.
Not so.
Leslie's stint with SAG didn't go well.
She advocated for all kinds of members -- women, people of color, children -- and, she says, some colleagues didn't like that. Leslie says she became the victim of vicious rumors and bullying tactics in which SAG and certain stuntmen tried to have her removed from the board and blacklisted her from working stunt jobs. The blacklisting hit her hard, making it impossible for Leslie to find work in Hollywood.
She paid a price for her advocacy and, later, she paid a price for all those stunts.
Leslie suffers from post-concussion syndrome -- the result of a career full of hits, bashes and bangs to her head -- along with chronic back pain. The syndrome resulted in depression and other mental health issues and led to a devastating breakdown in 2003.
The federal government awarded her Social Security Disability Insurance in 2004, and included the previous two years. SAG gave Leslie her pension retroactive to 2002. But when she applied for its Disability Health Plan, a well-hidden clause in the Producer-SAG Health Pamphlet that stipulates that SAG members who suffer a career-ending injuries while working on the set are entitled to health benefits, she was denied.
Despite the federal ruling, the SAG board denied her again during a 2010 appeal, this time saying her injuries didn't happen on the sets. In the meantime, she has been paying for her own health, prescriptions and dental insurance, which we all know costs a bundle these days.
But that wasn't enough to bring Leslie down.
With so many troubles of her own, Leslie still found the energy to fight for others in similar situations, helping them win the benefits and reimbursements she has been denied. She also complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming that SAG has a 30-year history of bullying and blacklisting for financial gain.
Leslie says she received word last week that the Department of Labor will take her complaints to the next level of investigation.
Her claims are not far-fetched. The Labor Department has been investigating allegations of embezzlement by SAG administrators for months, including charges that the CEO of the Producers Health and Pension Plan embezzled funds.
It has been a rough road for Leslie. She will never fully recover from her injuries and it pains her to see that stunt persons still perform without, in her opinion, the appropriate safety precautions. Her fears and her advocacy for head trauma victims have extended to other occupations, such as professional sports, and to other sufferers.
Leslie's head injuries make it difficult to communicate as fluidly as she would like. That sometimes drives away people who don't understand continuous head trauma and its permanent effects. It can be hard for her to tell her story in a way that makes sense -- hard for her to convince anyone to write about it, to get the word out and create change.
Something good has come out of this though.
For me anyway.
I am no longer a full-time journalist. My focus is fiction, so I won’t be digging into files, interviewing actors, producers, SAG members, investigators and doctors to verify the details of her story and get myself a page-one byline. I derive no financial or career benefit from getting to know Leslie or blogging about her battle.
I get something better.
Gone is my fascination for Leslie’s talent and her star-studded career.
Instead, her battle has helped me to become familiar with Leslie, the person, and the selfless advocate she has become. I am proud to know Leslie and I am sure that she has made our shared hometown even prouder.

3 comments:

Debra said...

what an excellent article! I am so glad to see someone advocating for LESLIE!!!

Jill Borak said...

Great post! Leslie is a hero, and I hope the Department of Labor fights as hard for her as she fought for others.

Jerry Saravia said...

Super article, I also wrote about this too. I hope she gets the help she deserves.