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Divided SAG Elects Melissa Gilbert

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actress Melissa Gilbert late Friday won a contentious election for president of the Screen Actors Guild, defeating veteran television star Valerie Harper in a bitter contest that underscored the deep divisions plaguing the union.

Best known for her role as Laura Ingalls on the TV show “Little House on the Prairie,” Gilbert, 37, takes charge of the 98,000-member guild at a time when it continues to be divided between the pragmatic moderates she represents and a more aggressive camp backing Harper.

Gilbert received 12,280 votes, or 45.3% of the 27,730 cast. Harper received 10,692, or 39.4% of the tally. Two other candidates, Eugene Boggs and actress Angeltompkins, each received less than 10%.

Gilbert’s victory represents a near 180-degree turn from the past two years, when SAG was led by a coalition of hard-liners headed by actor William Daniels.

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The Daniels group swept into office in 1999 promising a tougher stance in negotiations with studios and advertisers. That led to a bitter six-month strike last year against advertisers that further polarized the guild between those who argued that it galvanized the union and those who said actors were irreparably hurt financially by the walkout.

Eventually, SAG hard-liners began to lose some of their support as the economy softened. This past summer, SAG agreed to a new contract with film studios in negotiations that were considerably less contentious than the talks with advertisers had been.

Despite Gilbert’s election, the results show SAG remains divided. Two of the top officers elected, Recording Secretary Elliott Gould and Treasurer Kent McCord, ran on Harper’s ticket. But First Vice President Mike Farrell was a Gilbert supporter.

In an interview, Gilbert said she wanted to try to heal some of those divisions, although she acknowledged that it would be hard. “I want to embrace all the different voices in the leadership and in the membership,” she said.

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Gilbert won’t have to negotiate any contracts with studios or advertisers because the current ones expire after her two-year term is up.

Nonetheless, she faces a daunting list of problems. One of Gilbert’s first jobs will be to repair a bitter split between SAG and talent agencies. Agents are pressuring SAG to relax rules so they can allow talent agencies to attract investors, such as advertising agencies, or to make an array of investments. Under Daniels, SAG argued that any changes would open the door to possible conflicts of interest.

SAG also needs to bolster its finances and its health plan, which were depleted during the strike. Gilbert also faces the problem of trying to help stem the flow of runaway film and TV productions to Canada and other foreign countries where costs are cheaper.

Despite the announcement of the results, it may be weeks before SAG officials can officially certify them. That’s because challenges are expected based on a snafu occurring when ballots were mailed to about 24,000 SAG members in New York by a company hired to run the election.

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The ballots lacked lines where members are supposed to sign, unlike ones sent to SAG members in Los Angeles. SAG officials privately said they expect a challenge, which would have to be filed within two weeks, but that they don’t believe the mistake is serious enough to merit overturning the results.

Harper and Gilbert were two of the highest-profile actors ever to face off for the job.

Harper, 61, is best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern during the 1970s on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and spinoff “Rhoda.” Gilbert has been an actress since age 2, with “Little House on the Prairie” her most famous role.

Rather than a head-to-head contest, the election effectively turned into a referendum on the Daniels regime. Harper argued that Daniels had united the union and galvanized it during the strike. Gilbert argued that the Daniels group was out of touch with most actors and that the strike was a disaster that cost actors more than $100 million in lost wages.

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The campaign ultimately turned bitter, with Gilbert accusing Harper of being a Daniels puppet and criticizing her for refusing to debate.

Harper and her supporters countered by attacking Gilbert, including unearthing that she once acted in a nonunion 1989 film that she also produced. Gilbert said she was ignorant at the time of SAG’s rules.

Stars lined up on both sides. Gilbert’s supporters included Tobey Maguire, Debra Messing and “West Wing” stars Rob Lowe and John Spencer. Harper’s supporters included such stars as Martin Sheen, Gregory Peck and Sarah Jessica Parker.


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