Let’s talk about actuaries in the movies

By Chris Fievoli, FCIA, CIA Staff Actuary

We open this post with some news from Hollywood – Liam Neeson is back, in another one of his trademark action thrillers. The Ice Road, set and filmed in northern Manitoba, is noteworthy for featuring an actuary as one of the main characters. Exactly what an actuary is doing in a diamond mine in northern Canada remains to be seen, but I am sure all will be revealed.

This is worth mentioning because it is somewhat rare for actuaries to make appearances in pop culture. Not unlike large segments of regular society, our profession remains fairly unknown to the entertainment industry. As far as I can tell, the first appearance of an actuary in film was the 1948 production Are You With It?, starring Donald O’Connor, better known for his appearances with Francis the Talking Mule. O’Connor plays an actuary who nearly causes financial ruin for an insurance company when he misplaces a decimal point, prompting him to run off and join the circus, a scenario that may hit too close to home for some of us.

Since then, films and television have used actuaries as either comic foils or as examples of an obscure occupation, if not both. I still remember an episode of the 1980s sitcom Night Court when an actuary made an appearance as one of the supporting characters. In what was probably considered a hilarious moment by the screenwriters, the actuary was told to go out and count the holes in the ceiling tiles, whereupon he reported back a few moments later with the exact total. This, of course, is ridiculous – an actuary is much more likely to instead produce a reasonable range of estimates.

At least Night Court was considerate enough to mention actuaries by name. Other films – most notably Fight Club and Along Came Polly – make clear references to risk assessment that would be performed by actuaries without actually referring to the profession. Which, come to think of it, may be better than movies like Zootopia that mention actuaries without having a clue what we do. One of the characters in this film aspires to be an actuary because they want to “file tax exemptions.” Truly horrifying.

The one exception to this was Alexander Payne’s 2002 film About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of actuary Warren Schmidt earned him his last Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In this movie, the recently retired and unexpectedly widowed Schmidt comes to the unfortunate belief that he is no longer needed by anyone. There is one particularly awkward scene where he meets with his replacement at Woodmen of the World (yes, that is a real insurance company) to offer his assistance, and is politely but pointedly told that his expertise is no longer needed. He then sees his files and papers – symbolic of his life’s work – sitting in a dumpster waiting to be taken away.

About Schmidt treated the actuarial profession as not an oddity, nor an obscurity, nor something to be satirized, but simply as an occupation that someone does.

The cautionary tale within About Schmidt is clear. Warren was someone who diligently worked at his job, nine to five every day for his entire career, and evidently did very little else. With his identity wrapped up in work and marriage, he had nothing else to turn to when those things were no longer part of his life. For our profession, this serves as a reminder to ensure that we develop our skills and interests outside of the actuarial realm.

But the really great thing with regards to About Schmidt is that the film treated the actuarial profession as not an oddity, nor an obscurity, nor something to be satirized, but simply as an occupation that someone does. The humour and drama extended not from the fact that Warren Schmidt was an actuary, but rather that he was an actuary who found himself in a difficult situation. Without realizing it, Alexander Payne actually did a great service to the profession.

Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. Directed by Alexander Payne, New Line Cinema, 2002.
Source: ShotDeck.com

But that was nearly twenty years ago. Since then, we have yet to see an actuary as the central character in a feature film, let alone see one portrayed by a legend like Jack Nicholson. Perhaps it was too optimistic to expect more than that. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go in terms of being a more well-known profession, be that in society as a whole, or Hollywood in particular.

I don’t know when I will get to see The Ice Road, and I have no idea whether serving as Liam Neeson’s wingman/antagonist is the image we want to portray as actuaries. But at least we can take solace in the famous quote from Oscar Wilde: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

11 comments

  • An entertaining article (pun intended) with an important message on improving life balance, broadening the scope of practice, and raising awareness of how actuaries contribute to real life problems. Well done!

  • Nice article, Chris. Thank you. I recall that when About Schmidt was in the preparation phase, a well known actuary was tailed in the office for a day or two by a producer in order to to portray the office environment and even the dress code of the day. The Society of Actuaries was asked to provided some props including actuarial texts, the annual yearbook, etc for the office. If you freeze the movie at the appropriate spot, you can see the books on Schmidt’s book case. From Schmidt’s posture and dress in the office, you might even try to guess the name of the actuary who became the model for the movie’s character.

    • It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the movie, but I distinctly remember seeing a copy of the North American Actuarial Journal on his bookshelf, a detail that only actuaries could appreciate.

  • Don’t forget The Billion Dollar Bubble , a short 1978 made for TV movie where James Woods plays the actuary involved in the Equity Funding fraud and scandal. We showed it at a meeting of the Actuaries Club of Alberta many years ago and I just read that it is or was part of the CAS professionalism course.

  • Enjoyed your article Chris! I wanted to add an older film to your survey which was based on real events involving the Equity Funding Scandal. The Billion Dollar Bubble is a 1978 American film about this story. The movie stars James Woods in the role of the actuary.
    Here’s a brief synopsis: Temporarily unable to obtain current figures for their upcoming business report, Actuary Art Lewis and others in the insurance department of Equity Funding devise a plan to forge figures totaling the company’s expected performance for that year. When the company does not perform as well as expected Art and others decide to create fake insurance policies in order to generate the necessary figures to match the expected performance, a provisional measure that is only expected to last a short time. The company created more than 60,000 bogus life insurance policies that it sold to reinsurance companies for a fee.

    Clearly not putting actuaries in a great light, but worth using as an instructive case study on the need for controls?

    • Thanks Bryan and Trevor – I think seeing The Billion Dollar Bubble was a rite of passage for actuaries of a certain age, and served as a cautionary tale against creating fake policies and ordering anything except the pecan pie. What many people seem to forget is that Christoper Guest also appeared in the movie, and he of course portrayed Nigel Tufnel in one of the funniest movies of all time, This is Spinal Tap.

    • Nice collection of this information Chris. Not quite the movies but reality TV on this one. Chrissy Hofbeck, a US actuary was on Survivor recently. Although I believe the show referred to her as a “Financial Analyst” or something along those lines. Initially the About Smith producers wanted to portray a lawyer. But then they ran into “legal” problems. Pun intended. So I guess the default was an actuary.

      • From what I saw, Chrissy Hofbeck was very upfront about being an actuary, so good for her.

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