A ‘Lowdown’ Dirty Shame?: VDO & The Alleged Incident In An NBC-Universal Sexual Harassment Seminar

Music ‘The Voice’ by The Moody Blues

I found this bit of gossip on the New York Daily News’s website in Lloyd Grove’s Lowdown column and since it’s not the standard ‘romantic interest’ item, I thought I’d give it a bit of analysis. For the sake of my argument, I am operating on the assumption that everything that happened here is truly and accurately represented (which is probably unlikely given that this is billed as a gossip item):

“Quirky actor Vincent D’Onofrio, star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” is again drawing attention to himself. At a recent mandatory NBC Universal workplace harassment seminar for the show’s cast and crew, the bachelor D’Onofrio, 46, argued with the network lawyer conducting the proceedings until the class finally had to be cut short. The trouble began when the lawyer presented a hypothetical scenario – involving a costume assistant stumbling on a male actor looking at hard-core porn in his trailer – and asked if that constituted sexual harassment. “Why is it always a male actor?” D’Onofrio interjected bitterly, according to a Lowdown spy. “This policy is unfair! It’s a matter of subjectivity, pitting one person’s idea of what’s acceptable against another’s.” He continued: “When you ask actors to do a provocative show with provocative material, they might need to study up on risqué things – looking at a porn site to understand the character better. The policy discriminates against the artists, who might be doing things in the interest of their art.” As the lawyer grew frazzled, D’Onofrio continued to berate him, even drawing scattered applause at one point. Says the spy: “He got all belligerent. When the guy would try and move on, Vincent kept pressing him with more.” D’Onofrio doesn’t have a personal publicist. A rep for the show told Lowdown yesterday: “NBC Universal is committed to providing a workplace free of harassment of any kind, and provides training for all of our series. However, we do not comment on the specifics of any internal meetings.””

Now watch me take several sides on this issue:

Why is is relevant to the columnist that D’Onofrio is a ‘bachelor’ and ’46’ [years old]? Don’t these veiled references merely reinforce the validity of D’Onofrio’s point that white men of a certain age and marital status often automatically get cast into the sexual aggressor role when he takes issue with the lawyer’s first hypothetical? And also what is wrong with an actor being ‘quirky’ and ‘drawing attention to himself’? If all actors were ‘boring’ and ‘desperately trying to blend into the background’, wouldn’t Mr. Grove be out of things to write about (and out of a job)?

Now it’s time to ding NBC-Universal. I think it is a good thing that they are trying to make all their employees go through standardized training into the recognition of what might constitute sexual harassment in a corporate workplace. For one thing, I understand making the actors attend the same sessions alongside the crew and others who work in less visible roles on the series — this is to drive home the *universal* applicability of the policy. But then again, when you so clearly hold out one particular actor (or actress) to be the star, is it so surprising that he (or she) might object to the uniform treatment and anticipate that this might be a problem for the trainer? And to further illustrate NBC-Universal’s cluelessness on this dichotomy, simply look to what D’Onofrio purportedly said in taking issue with the hypothetical, which is a clear allusion to how LOCI is marketed: “When you ask actors to do a provocative show with provocative material, they might need to study up on risqué things – looking at a porn site to understand the character better. The policy discriminates against the artists, who might be doing things in the interest of their art.” You can’t market your TV show as ‘thought-provoking’, ‘compelling’ and occasionally ‘controversial’, cast an actor with the understanding that you want him (or her) to go ahead and do outrageous things (and method actors are trained to go out and garner ‘real-life’ experiences and research to make their characters like serial killers and detectives who investigate sex crimes more believeable) and then say ‘don’t do what you were hired to do because we might get sued’.

What would I say to the lawyer? Well as a person with a bar card , I would have said: 1) be sure to watch a few LOCI episodes before you conduct your training to get a feel for what happens on the show 2) be sure that your client NBC-Universal gives you a little background into how things happen behind the scenes of the show so you will be aware of the political and personal dynamics that may arise 3) don’t let yourself get starstruck or diverted by the star (as a lawyer so many problems arise when you forget who you represent and it sounds like this happened to this lawyer, who was probably a young and inexperienced lawyer given the meeting’s hasty adjournment) and 4) remember those 3 or 4 years of training you had in law school plus all the on the job training you have in *logical argument* and out-argue the actor by skewering all the fallacies in his thinking. Just remember: VDO may know Stanislavski and Boleslavski but he sure as hell couldn’t give a definition and examples of the legally actionable types of sexual harassment or else *he* would be teaching the seminar, just as if you knew as much as VDO knows about Stanislavski and Boleslavski, *you’d* be on TV every week in a starring role ;-)

Now what would I say to VDO if he were to disrupt *my* seminar on sexual harassment?Well for one I’d ask him point blank: “Did I *say* that the male actor in the hypothetical was in fact *you* Mr. D’Onofrio? ” Or better yet, “What makes you, Mr. D’Onofrio think that the costume assistant stumbling in on the male in his dressing room looking at a porn website is *female*? What if the costume assistant was a *man*? Mr. D’Onofrio, would this still be sexual harassment? (As a matter of fact, this is a newly emergent area of sexual harassment law and depending on the state, there is such a thing as same sex sexual harassment).

I don’t care how famous or rich or powerful VDO is, how great I think he is at playing Goren, how (to my mind improperly) personally and negatively he is taking his required presence at being in what is likely to be a dull corporate seminar (hey at least in working for a corporation, he gets to go through a lot of the goofy corporate training millions of other Americans endure, so in that small way he can still relate to the nameless mass of the rest of us). I’m also not going to let his size, his gender, or his experience at playing intimidating characters buffalo me. My job in that position is to get across my client’s point about NBC-Universal’s complete intolerance for sexual harassment, to make sure no one leaves that seminar not knowing what sexual harassment really is, and to teach *all* those employees something useful and valuable (which should at least avoid a few lawsuits against my client, NBC-Universal). I wouldn’t let my respect for an actor’s talent and his arguably disrespectful behavior towards me, the company and his fellow coworkers (if in fact this incident really happened as reported) get in the way of *everyone* learning something and I would be chiding VDO for disrupting the learning process and remind him of his own efforts at teaching acting to get him to empathize with me and cooperate already. I would hope that in the process everyone in the room learned to appreciate my insistence on their paying attention to me and taking me seriously, and maybe to open up discussion amongst all the parties as to what might be construed (or misconstrued) as sexual harassment and get them talking to each other (as they obviously aren’t doing well at or someone wouldn’t be telling tales out of school to Lloyd Grove).

FYI to whomever might be reading this there are basically two types of sexual harassment a court recognizes: ‘quid pro quo’ and ‘hostile environment’. ‘Quid pro quo’ harassment is the explicit pressure to trade sexual favors for continued employment or a promotion or some sort of on the job advantage while ‘hostile environment’ harassment is unwelcome behavior of a sexual or gender oriented nature that creates an intimidating or offensive working environment. In the costume assistant stumbling on an actor or actress looking at online porn scenario, if it only happens once and/or if the costume assistant understands that this is necessary and legitimate acting research for a role, chances are it’s not enough to constitute harassment. ‘Hostile enviroment’ harassment implies that the unwelcome behavior of a sexual or gender oriented nature is repeated and persistent such that it makes one’s job impossible to do. So if our actor keeps looking at porn after that role and it bothers the costume assistant, then the beginnings of a harassment lawsuit are there.

Anyhow, here’s hoping that this gossip report is blown out of proportion and that VDO really didn’t behave that badly. If not, let me go on the record as being officially disappointed in him (he knows and is capable of better) and hopeful that in future he’ll be more open to learning something (i.e. to treat working for an unenlightened corporation as a role for which he should do research like actually making an effort to learn something from the company training sessions other than how narrow-minded the company can at times be).


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