With a fractious election and feuding board members to deal with, can SAG's new president give it a lift?
The results are in for the Screen Actors Guild presidential election: Half-Pint has beaten Rhoda. To nonactors, the ’70s-TV face-off between Melissa Gilbert and Valerie Harper was a punchline-ready battle. (I knew Mrs. Garrett, and you, madam, are no Mrs. Garrett!) But to actors, the last four years have provided little humor: Their union has been mired in vicious arguments, immutable grudges, and general boardroom mayhem that make the U.S. Senate look like The Brady Bunch. And on it goes: In an appropriately chaotic grace note to a contentious campaign, a few SAG members plan to challenge the election results, saying 24,000 New York ballots (prepared by an outside firm, Sequoia Voting Systems) are void since they lacked a signature line. A union rep insists no signature is required.
Indeed, the 37-year-old former child star of Little House on the Prairie is now set to lead a board so combative that last March, VP Lisa Scarola called L.A. police when she was barred from a finance committee meeting. (No charges were filed.) ”I’ve seen a lot of screaming and yelling,” says Gilbert, who received 45 percent of the vote to Harper’s 39 percent (slightly more than a quarter of the union’s 98,577 active members cast ballots in late October). ”I heard stories about a board member jumping up and down and grabbing his crotch [in a meeting]. This is insane behavior.” Says another observer of many meetings: ”If members really knew how much time was spent on ridiculous crap, they would vote to throw everybody out.”
As president, Gilbert will have no contracts to negotiate in her unpaid two-year term. Last year SAG held a painful six-month strike — the union’s longest — before settling on a new pact with commercial producers, and this year it panicked all of Hollywood by threatening a strike before forging last-possible-minute agreements with TV networks and film studios. But the guild still faces many other issues, like trying to prevent producers from shooting in Canada and overseas locales where non-SAG locals are often cast. A recent study estimates that the money spent on foreign production this year will reach $12 billion (with none reaching the union’s pension and health funds). But this election seemed to be run less on issues than on past wounds.
Since its founding in 1933, the guild has been led by such high-wattage presidents as Ed Asner, Charlton Heston, Patty Duke, and, in his first foray into politics, Ronald Reagan. While SAG has seen strikes and periods of divisiveness through the years, there’s likely never been an era more internecine than the one that began in 1997. That year, a group of commercial actors formed the Performers Alliance to challenge president Richard Masur (My Girl), whom they thought was too accommodating in contract negotiations. By 1999, the PA had assembled a sizable following of disgruntled members and recruited William Daniels (Boy Meets World) to successfully unseat two-termer Masur. While the PA officially disbanded after Daniels’ election, many say the group continued to dictate Daniels’ decisions, especially the ones that led to 2000’s commercial strike. (Daniels, who endorsed Harper for president, would not comment for this story.)