After siblings object to his role, actor gives part of pay for pro-drilling photo to anti-fracking group
January 18, 2014 10:08 PM
Dick Hughes, a struggling actor in New York, was thrilled when Chevron paid him to come to his native Pittsburgh and play a farmer in a print ad. Then he heard from his Pittsburgh-based family about the dangers of fracking. Mr. Hughes has since donated some of his earnings to an anti-fracking group.
By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dick Hughes is hoping that he'll be for the fracking industry what the Marlboro man turned out to be for the cigarette industry: a one-time spokesman-turned-activist.
In truth, fractivism, as the anti-drilling movement is called, isn't really Mr. Hughes' cause. That's best left up to his brothers, Dan and Dave Hughes, both Pittsburghers involved in environmental and social justice causes. And to his niece Lily Hughes, who volunteers with the Shalefield Organizing Committee, an anti-fracking group in northeastern Pennsylvania.
But it's Dick Hughes' face on a huge ad for Chevron Corp., so he figures he might as well use it.
The story began in March 2012. Mr. Hughes, a Shadyside native who lives in New York, was happy to be hired to come back to his hometown as a paid actor. At first, it didn't matter that the commercial he was invited to shoot was for California-based energy giant Chevron.
Mr. Hughes said he didn't know the company was involved in fracking. He also didn't know much about fracking, other than it wasn't something he supported.
Chalk it up to his New York residence, but Mr. Hughes says he wasn't aware of the way Chevron burst onto the Marcellus Shale scene with the $4.3 billion purchase of Atlas Energy Inc. in 2011, that it had hundreds of shale wells in Pennsylvania and was looking to build a regional campus here.
All Mr. Hughes knew was that on March 22, 2012, he'd get to visit home and that his brother Dan would give him a ride to the Scott Dairy Farm in Oakdale, where the 70-year-old actor would put on a flannel shirt, some ragged suspenders and a well-worn hat, and stand in front of a farmhouse looking into the distance.
He was paid $5,500 for travel, work and a year of rights to the photo.
The ad, which would later be stripped across the bottom half of two newspaper pages, said, "Drill the right way, or don't drill at all."
It was stamped with a red "We Agree" and signed by Chevron's head of Marcellus operations Bruce Neimeyer and University of Pittsburgh professor Radisav Vidic. It ran in the Post-Gazette five times during the fall of 2012.
Even before the ad ran, Dave Hughes started lobbying for his brother to distance himself from it. The conversation got "a little bit testy," Dave Hughes recalled.
"I told him, 'If there's any way that you can make sure they can't use you, try to do it,' " he told Dick Hughes. "I even sort of half joked, 'I would pay you for what they paid you to get out of it.' "
"He was joking?" Dick Hughes recently wondered. It didn't sound like it at first.
Dave Hughes -- who founded the public policy advocacy group Citizen Power -- took the ad personally.
"How would you feel if I had done an ad for Dow Chemical?" he asked his brother.
That was a jab for Dick Hughes, who has spent the past 11 years organizing campaigns against Dow Chemical around the long-term effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
'What?! That's my uncle'
Meanwhile, somewhere in Philadelphia, Mr. Hughes' niece, Lily Hughes, was talking anti-fracking strategy with a friend when she saw an open newspaper and her uncle's face splashed across it.
"I saw this picture and I said, 'What?! That's my uncle. What's going on?' " Ms. Hughes recalled.
It hit her hard, as if she'd been betrayed, and Ms. Hughes immediately called her mother.
Word was getting around the family.
Dan Hughes, a community organizer who has spent the past two years focused on environmental causes, disapproved as well.
"Natural gas is the next step in the ongoing disaster of fossil fuels" he said.
"My question [to Dick] is, even if it's not fracking, Chevron, to me, is the enemy," Dan Hughes said, to which his brother responded: "Only the enemies are making ads."
Dick Hughes, who became a national curiosity when he spent eight years in Vietnam during the war sheltering street kids and raising global awareness about them, is still a working actor in New York.
He's been in half a dozen episodes of "Law & Order," played a small role in Martin Scorsese's 2006 film "The Departed," and had parts in other TV shows and movies, many of which employ the Dick Hughes one-raised-eyebrow pose, according to Dan Hughes.
His real passion is theater, which doesn't pay the bills. For that, he does commercials.
So, it came as a shock to his actor friends when, in November, Mr. Hughes turned down Chevron's offer of $1,800 for three years of unlimited use of his photo.
He also tried to deny a one-year extension, which the company offered to pay $2,500 for, but his approval of that was written into the original contract.
So he took the money and then donated more than half of it to the Shalefield Organizing Committee.
"Wait till they [Chevron] find out that half the money went to my niece's anti-fracking group," he chuckled.
He also sent the ad image to Lily Hughes and encouraged her to use it in anti-fracking literature, to bait Chevron into suing her group and bringing more attention to her cause.
He's been doing something similar on his website, loosecannons.us, an already outspoken place where the opening video clip, featuring a child with a disability, dares: "Please sue me, Dow Chemical."
Mr. Hughes was the only actor out of 16 involved in that shoot who declined the extended contract, said his agent, Lindsay Glickstein, senior print booker at CESD Talent Agency in New York.
"We have a lot of people that turn down jobs for alcohol, cigarettes, lottery -- for moral, ethical reasons," Ms. Glickstein said. "Some people are vegetarians and they don't want to be condoning people eating meat. You hear everything.
"I wasn't shocked, but on the client side they were," she said. "They kept calling me and throwing more money [at it] and I said it's not about the money."
Trip Oliver, a spokesman for Chevron, said the company "respects the right of people to have differing opinions."
"As always, Chevron and its more than 700 Western Pennsylvania employees remain committed to living by the message in that ad -- 'Drill the right way or don't drill at all,' " he said.
A man of many roles
Dick Hughes is the fourth of seven siblings in a family of activists. When the whole gang gets together, discussions run loud and late. Everyone has a cause.
Dan Hughes dubbed his brother Dick "packet man" for the comprehensive folders of information he compiles and tries to maneuver into the hands of prominent people and decision-makers.
He'll take a job as an extra in a movie and then sneak off the set to talk up a celebrity about his crusade against Dow Chemical and Agent Orange, for example.
"I can write a whole book on packeting," Mr. Hughes said. "The best time is to catch them when they go back to their trailer and when the production assistant assigned to them is called away."
In the 1970s, when Mr. Hughes was still in Vietnam, Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman narrated ads that ran on television stations in Pittsburgh and around the country pleading to "help Dick Hughes" in his work with Vietnamese street kids.
One of his major concerns about participating in the Chevron ad is in disappointing Pittsburghers who helped his cause during that time. He also worried how fracking would impact working-class families. But the most vocal criticism came from inside the family.
"If you lend your skills and your photo to a company like Chevron, and they can use that to promote their fracking business, you're sort of an accomplice in my view," Dave Hughes said. At least, "It's not like he did it intentionally," the actor's brother said. "If he did it intentionally, that would create some serious tension."
The Hughes are a tough crowd.
"Right after I did that Chevron ad, my agent called me for an audition for UPMC," Dick Hughes said. "And I thought, oh boy." He knew that his brother Dave had just taken part in a rally to save Braddock Hospital from closing.
He went to the UPMC audition but when he saw the script, Mr. Hughes decided not to read for it, as a nod to Dave.
Dave Hughes has kept a copy of his brother's Chevron ad "hidden away" in his home office.
At first, he said he just put it on his desk and forgot about it.
Then he said he saved it as a matter of record.
Finally, he said, "It's such a big picture of my brother in the newspaper."
Passions and causes aside, it's kind of cool, Dave Hughes said.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.
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