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Geoffrey Owens Never Deserved What He Got. Job-Shaming Is Just Plain Tacky. When your family is counting on you in down times, you do what you gotta do.

By Joan Oleck

Paula Lobo | ABC | Getty images

The media-hungry public loves a hard-luck story, especially when the focus is on someone who once rode a wave of success.

Think about the off-Broadway and movie actress Patricia O'Grady (bit parts in Taxi Driver and Next Stop Greenwich Village) who local media last May revealed had lived for 60 years in New York City's cheapest rent-controlled apartment ($28 a month) in high-end Greenwich Village.

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The place was a dump: no heat, no hot water, but O'Grady, whose story gets worse -- she was fatally struck by a car at age 84 ahead of those May reports -- stayed in her rent-controlled space long, long after her career peaked. The point was, she wanted to stay in that apartment; she wanted to pay that rent. She even asked her landlord, who was a pal, not to make improvements because, she said, her tiny rent bill didn't warrant it.

The Geoffrey Owens story is similar, in some ways.

Owens, as the whole world knows by now, played Sondra Huxtable's husband Elvin on the TV hit, The Cosby Show, from 1985 to 1992. But actors' fortunes are known to rise and fall; that's apparently why Owens was working at a Trader Joe's in Clifton, N.J.

There, a shopper named Karma Lawrence snapped his photo and offered it to celebrity websites. The Daily Mail, in the U.K., published a story about Owens on Aug. 30. That led to a second "outing," so to speak, by Fox News. Social media then went crazy -- all creating the distinct impression that these various media players were trying to shame the actor.

But let's hear it for how Owens, 57, responded; he was "devastated" by the photos, but he wasn't bitter. "No one should feel sorry for me. … I've had a great life. I've had a great career. I've had a career that most actors would die for," he proudly told Good Morning America on Tuesday.

"I got to a point where I'd been teaching acting and directing for 30-plus years but it just didn't add up enough," Owens said. "You've got to do what you've got to do."

In short, no shame. You've got a family to support and you're able-bodied and in your right mind -- so you go out and get a job. Any job. And you don't apologize.

Owens's attitude resonated for me, reminding me of the Christmas season of 2013, when, at the tail end of the recession, and deep in debt, I took a job from Thanksgiving to New Year's, selling scarves and fancy tablet covers at Macy's for the princely salary of $8 an hour.

Like I said: You have responsibilities. You fulfill them. I was -- still am -- a single mom; I'd been laid off my editing job in 2008 and was making a very slim living freelance copyediting (with few assignment around in those years), teaching very part-time and plowing through the last of my retirement savings.

Macy's, in fact, wasn't all that bad. I loved counseling old dudes on what scarf their wives would prefer as a gift. ("Tell me, what are her colors?" I'd say with my most sincere face).

I took pride in those tables of sale items I'd just lovingly put back in order (for at least a few minutes).

Geoffrey Owens as Elvin Tibideaux in The Cosby Show
Image Credit: NBCU | Getty Images

Sure, there were the down sides, like the long intervals between bathroom breaks. And of course there was Christmas Eve at 6:30 p.m., just ahead of the store's 7 p.m. closing, when the crush of very last-minute, very aggressive gift-buyers almost drove me crazy. ("I'm not leaving until you find me a large gift box," one particularly angry and obnoxious woman announced, taking a wide-armed stance in front of my register and literally pushing other people aside. I grabbed a store runner by the lapels and begged him to find me that box.)

Still, you know what? I wasn't at all embarrassed to be capping my 30-year career in journalism with a minimum-wage job. You gotta do what you gotta do.

As for Owens, he had the last laugh. Not only did the photographer behind his "outing," Karma Lawrence, get all kinds of online hate mail, but she apologized. "So much hate. So much nastiness. Oh, it's been terrible," she said. And Owens? He now seems to be sitting pretty.

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"#GeoffreyOwens I'm about to start shootings [sic] OWN's number one drama next week! Come join us!" Tyler Perry tweeted at Owens on Tuesday, possibly referring to his long-running show, The Haves and the Have Nots.

Added Perry: "I have so much respect for people who hustle between gigs. The measure of a true artist."

Joan Oleck

Entrepreneur Staff

Associate Editor

Joan Oleck is an associate contributors editor at Entrepreneur. She has previously worked for Business Week, Newsday and the trade magazine Restaurant Business, where a cover story she wrote won the Jesse Neal Award.

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