There’s a great scene in the wonderful 1982 movie “My Favorite Year,” set in 1954. Peter O’Toole plays a semi-washed-up actor named Alan Swann, famous for swashbuckling roles. For reasons too complicated to explain, Swann tries to shimmy down the side of a building using a fire hose. He ends up dangling just below a cocktail party on a balcony. Two stockbrokers are chatting when one of them notices Swann swinging below them. “I think Alan Swann is beneath us!” he exclaims.
The other replies: “Of course he’s beneath us. He’s an actor.”
It may be hard for some people to get the joke these days, but for most of human history, actors were considered low-class. They were akin to carnies, grifters, hookers and other riffraff.
In ancient Rome, actors were often slaves. In feudal Japan, Kabuki actors were sometimes available to theatergoers as prostitutes — a practice not uncommon among theater troupes in the American Wild West. In 17th-century England, France…