Was Beloved Actor Exposed to Asbestos on Stage?

Mesothelioma cares not who it strikes.

To this disease, entertainers and celebrities are the same as construction workers, mechanics and Navy veterans. Mesothelioma cares only that its victims inhaled or ingested asbestos at some point in their life.

Ed Lauter was 74 when mesothelioma claimed him last October. He was a character actor in more than 200 movies and TV shows since the early 1970s.

His widow, Mia Lauter, says he developed mesothelioma because of all that acting he did.

She claims the production studios where he worked brimmed with asbestos. And, because he worked in so many pictures and series, his exposure to asbestos was off-the-charts high.

Angered by this, Mia Lauter last week initiated a lawsuit against the CBS television network and GE (which earlier owned the NBC television network).

Asbestos in Movie and TV Studios

If the studios where Lauter worked were in fact contaminated by asbestos, much of it would have been lurking in the construction materials used to erect those production facilities.

Many TV and film soundstages were constructed during the era when asbestos was used in almost every imaginable building material.

By the time Lauter came along, those studios had been standing for decades. Their interiors likely would have been showing their age, with a damaged wall section here and a missing floor tile there.

If that was their condition, then asbestos fibers had likely broken free from those materials and gotten into the air.

Lighting is a big reason why many studios became asbestos repositories. Movies and TV shows cannot be made without big, bright lights.

Unfortunately, bright also means hot — production lights typically reach temperatures of 1,500 to 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit while in operation.

Because these lights run so very hot, things around them need to be kept cool. The answer in bygone days was asbestos.

During the early years of Lauter’s career, asbestos-containing construction materials also would have been used to build sets.

Sets are fashioned from scratch or by taking sets from previous productions and modifying them to suit the requirements of the new production. During filming or videotaping, a set might be further altered to make it look completely different for use in another scene. When the production wraps up, the sets are stored, cannibalized, or demolished and hauled away.

Constructing, modifying or striking (dismantling) a set made from asbestos-containing materials disturbs the asbestos and allows it to escape into the air. The same would occur if the script called for damaging or demolishing the set with the cameras rolling.

Lauter Always Had Work

Lauter was diagnosed with mesothelioma one year ago, but only lived five months beyond that.

He was born in Long Beach, N.Y., and received his first showbiz break in 1968 by landing a part in a Broadway play.

In 1971, Lauter was cast for an episode of the detective series “Mannix” — the first in a long, long line of small-screen crime shows to feature him. Among them: “Charlie’s Angels,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Magnum, P.I.,” The A-Team,” “Miami Vice,” “NYPD Blue,” and “CSI.”

He made movies, too. In 1972, Lauter appeared in a western, “Dirty Little Billy.” Four years later, he was in the final thriller — “Family Plot” — made by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.

Lauter’s cinematic portfolio includes “Death Wish 3” (1985), “The Rocketeer” (1991), “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), “Mulholland Falls” (1995), “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “The Longest Yard” (2005).

In 2011, Lauter played the butler in “The Artist,” which went on to win Best Picture and five other Academy Awards.

Lauter’s final film has not yet premiered. In fact, there are four awaiting release. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and “Blind Pass” are completed, “The Beautiful Ones” is in post-production, and “Becker’s Farm” is still filming.

The roles Lauter played were typically those of hard-bitten cynics and tough-as-nails types. But he also had a flair for comedy and a gift for mimicry — his impersonations of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood and other Hollywood legends were spot-on.

Possible Asbestos Exposure from His Cars

In the lawsuit brought by Mia Lauter, Ford Motor Co. also is named as a defendant. Her complaint alleges that Ed Lauter was exposed to asbestos from the cars he drove.

Specifically, Mia Lauter points to the cars’ brakes, clutch assemblies and assorted other components as being asbestos-laden.

Meanwhile, Mia Lauter has announced the creation of the nonprofit Ed Lauter Foundation. It does not exist to advance mesothelioma research. Rather, it’s a scholarship fund to help novice thespians study the craft of acting and excel at performing.

Hopefully, the lessons the actor-hopefuls learn will include the need to be vigilant against asbestos exposure in the production studio.