You Can Count On It: Actuaries As Portrayed In Film And Television

How many people, if stopped on the street, would know what an actuary is? The truth is, few people probably know that an actuary is, among other things, the person who uses statistics to figure risks and calculate premium rates for insurance companies. This might explain why the number of movie and television characters who are actuaries is pretty low. Still, the few who have appeared run the gamut from the stereotypical – and some might say offensive – nerdy introvert to the unexpected villain.

A Number of Actuaries in Film and Television

One of the earliest depictions of an actuary in film was Donald O’Connor’s portrayal of a math genius in the 1948 musical, “Are You With It?” In the movie, the main character, Milton Haskins, quits his insurance company job when he discovers he has made an arithmetic mistake. In shame, he runs away and joins a carnival where his actuarial background compels him to work at the wheel of fortune. Eventually, Haskins discovers a plot to defraud the carnival’s insurance company and brings the story full circle.

In 1969, theater’s most famous actuary character made the leap to film. In Neil Simon’s musical “Sweet Charity,” John McMartin plays Oscar Lindquist, an actuary who falls in love with dance hall girl Charity, played famously by Shirley MacLaine.

In the 2001 film “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” veteran actor Alan Arkin plays an actuary with a dark side who despises the unpredictability of life. Arkin’s character, Gene, is a bitter, impatient old man who fires an employee in his insurance office for being too happy.

Perhaps the most remembered actuary in film is the character Warren Schmidt, as played by Jack Nicholson in the 2002 movie “About Schmidt.” Basically, the plot follows Schmidt’s life after retiring from his job. The film is remembered by many real actuaries, in part, because of the tongue-in-cheek statement released by The Society of Actuaries in response to the film:

“While highly humorous, the perception of actuaries… is incorrect. To be more to the point (literally), the perception that actuaries are math-obsessed is 94.00632% incorrect, the perception that actuaries are socially disconnected is 98.3434% incorrect, and – most shockingly of all – the perception that actuaries tend to favor bad comb-overs is 99.67893% erroneous.”

As actuaries occasionally pop up as movie characters, television has been slow to catch-up. While the 2005 British sitcom “The Robinsons” focused completely on the life of an actuary, American TV has not been so kind to the profession. Still, actuary characters can be found. For example, on the hit show, “Hot in Cleveland,” which began airing in 2010, the recurring character Owen, played by Michael McMillian, is an actuary. Owen, the son of main character Joy Scroggs, decides in the show’s second season to move to Cleveland with his baby so his mother can help with the parenting. When Joy explains in one episode that she has no idea what an actuary is, Owen responds with, “it’s an insurance thing.”

So, while the stereotype of the nerdy, loveless actuary has been hyped up in film and television for both dramatic and comedic effect, it is also easy to see that the opposite is true at times. From the carny/detective actuary in “Are You With It?” to the evil actuary in “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” fictitious number-crunchers have been represented in many interesting ways.

Melanie Price is a film aficionado and actuarial science student from Sacramento, California. She writes more about her chosen profession at Guide to the Best Online Actuarial Science Degree Programs.