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.
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.
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.”