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Casting the Leads in SAG a Challenge

Warren Beatty once toyed with the idea of running for president of the United States. Now, some people in Hollywood have suggested the veteran actor and filmmaker consider another high-profile office: president of the Screen Actors Guild.

For Beatty, that's an effortless call.

"It would be easier to run for president of North Korea," he said in an interview.

There's good reason. In addition to being the entertainment industry's single largest talent guild, SAG has a reputation in Hollywood for being its most dysfunctional. A SAG-commissioned study last year by consultant Towers Perrin went so far as to label the union "schizophrenic."

Now, SAG is seeking to cast what some believe are two of the most thankless roles in Hollywood: a new president as well as a new top operating executive.

Running SAG means overseeing a union of 98,000 actors, nearly 90% of whom don't work, at least not as actors. Unlike their counterparts in the writers and directors guilds, actors who haven't worked in decades can hold office and vote.

Running SAG also means answering to a board of 106 directors--bigger than the U.S. Senate--whose meetings can be as peaceful as a food fight. One finance committee meeting in March at the Sheraton Universal Hotel became so disruptive that Los Angeles police officers were summoned to break up a dispute. A board member had called them after SAG officials asked hotel security to remove her from the meeting because, they argued, she was not a committee member.

"It's just a bitch of a job," said Charlton Heston, SAG's president from 1965 to 1971.

Although the executive directorship is a paid staff job, the presidency is a volunteer position usually filled by a well-known actor.

Headaches aside, the presidency is one of the highest-profile labor posts around and provides a national platform to the officeholder.

Past presidents include Heston, Edward Asner, Patty Duke, James Cagney and Eddie Cantor. Some used it as a springboard for successful political careers, including the late Sen. George Murphy and SAG's most famous ex-chief, Ronald Reagan.

Last week, President William Daniels said he won't run again after a rocky two-year term, acknowledging, "It was a tough two years. . . . and I'd like to get back to acting." So far, the best-known candidates to replace him are two actresses who starred in hit TV shows: Valerie Harper of "Rhoda" and Melissa Gilbert of "Little House on the Prairie."

Both say their top priority is to end SAG's infighting.

This week, executive search firm Korn/Ferry will launch another search for a top manager after a recently hired executive quit before his first day on the job.

Spooked by SAG's divisiveness, former Walt Disney Co. executive John Cooke abruptly bailed out of the $390,000-a-year job just 10 days after his appointment was announced. Cooke's departure came after a group of dissident board members questioned whether, under SAG's constitution, he could be granted wide-ranging chief executive powers. Cooke considered such authority critical to quickly revamping the guild.

"I thought he was the lottery ticket," said Gary Epp, a SAG vice president who headed the search committee. "Now I'm rereading the numbers."

Korn/Ferry will sell candidates on the job as a classic "turnaround" opportunity. "I can't tell you strongly enough how that is a great inducement to high-powered executives," Korn/Ferry partner William Simon said.

But anybody taking on the job had better be thick-skinned.

"The person who becomes national executive director has got to be prepared for some major rock and roll and has got to enjoy the rough-and-tumble and relish diversity," advised Brian Walton, who was SAG's chief negotiator during the recent contract talks and also had a similar executive director job at the Writers Guild of America for 12 years.

SAG's divisions cut across geographical, philosophical and professional lines. Los Angeles and New York members are continually in a struggle over where the union's power should lie. Working and nonworking actors are at odds, as are pragmatists and extremists. Film actors have different needs from TV actors, as do actors and extras.

At least half a dozen Web sites have been hatched encouraging moderates and militants to blast each other at all hours of the day and night. So vitriolic has sniping gotten that three members were brought up this year on now-dismissed charges of "conduct unbecoming a member," in part for criticisms of the current regime made via e-mail. Among other things, the e-mail argued that last year's strike against advertisers was unnecessary and that SAG officials should have ended the walkout sooner.

One Web site, RadioFreeFacts, vows to be "extremely critical of the autocratic actions that have been taken by the current SAG administration, and will continue to point out abuses of the democratic process as they come to our attention."

Another site, SAG Activist, which supports SAG's current administration, urges that critics "be voted out of office. . . . If they want to go form their own union, you won't hear this Web site complain."

The current battles in part reflect still-open wounds from SAG's 1999 election, when Daniels ousted incumbent Richard Masur with a slate that accused the old regime of being too soft. Since then, supporters of both have acted as if the election campaign still rages.

In the wake of SAG's recent agreement with studios on a new TV and film contract--which members will vote on over the next few weeks--Masur issued an e-mail questioning whether Daniels is wrongly getting credit as author of the pragmatic statement "There's a deal to be made." The phrase was uttered repeatedly during the talks, and some familiar with the negotiations believe it helped blunt strike fever. (Masur attached to the e-mail a trade publication article crediting the phrase to retired mogul Lew Wasserman.)

Still other tensions linger from SAG's painful six-month strike last year against advertisers, which has cost members $100 million in earnings so far and which moderates believe was a failure.

Daniels and others in the current regime acknowledge that SAG is plagued by infighting as well as an overall image problem as a group of misfits. Daniels attributes that in part to how the public views actors.

"There's a perception that actors suffer from being spoiled, immature and overpaid," Daniels said. But, he adds, the reality is that most actors barely make a living acting.

Like Daniels, virtually every SAG president has been bedeviled by embedded conflict going back decades.

Asner recalls "a lot of disruption within the boardroom" during his tenure as president from 1981 to 1985.

"I had supporters who would give me problems because they expected to own me, and if they didn't own me they would give me more problems than my detractors. And detractors within and outside [SAG] were constantly attacking."

Still, even some SAG critics applaud the guild and its members for showing discipline during recent contract negotiations with the studios. Under strict orders from top negotiators to keep union politics out of the bargaining room, SAG kept a lid on its internal woes and even abided by a news blackout.

"These negotiations were a model of how a union should operate," Walton said. "Politics were banned, factions were ignored, and the focus was always on the mission: to advance the interests of performers."

SAG officials believe that similar discipline will be needed if the guild is ever to tackle its most pressing challenge: overhauling the operation. Towers Perrin concluded that SAG was a mess financially and organizationally and recommended that its unwieldy 106-member board be cut to around 40.

SAG's Epp said recommendations in the report could shave as much as $8 million from the union's $50-million budget. He added that 75% of the budget goes toward payroll and maintaining a far-flung network of 26 offices across the country. SAG officials are still finding surprises, among them pricey new digs in New York that could cost more than $50 million over 20 years.

In addition, member services need to be drastically overhauled. Residual checks have been known to take as long as four months to be processed.

"We had actors doing their taxes using W-2s for checks they hadn't received yet," Epp said.

Walton is confident that despite all of the union's problems and disharmony, the job of forging consensus and unifying the membership is doable.

"This organization is a sleeping giant, and if someone can bring it together, it would accomplish wonderful things for actors and for the entire industry," he said.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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