For most of Los Angeles, Shaquille O’Neal has reached superhero status by leading the Lakers to their first NBA title in a dozen years, but for the Screen Actors Guild, he’s simply a strikebreaker.
O’Neal became the most prominent SAG member to defy the union by taping an “I’m going to Disneyland” spot Monday night, moments after leading his team to a Game 6 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Officials with SAG, which has been on strike against advertisers since May 1 along with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, said O’Neal went ahead with the ad even though his reps had been notified several times in recent weeks about the work stoppage.
“We are very disappointed about the ad,” said Todd Amorde, chair of the unions’ joint strike strategy committee. “In a strike situation, there are no special circumstances. A scab is a scab.”
But O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato, said his client viewed the spot as a public service announcement because he donated the proceeds to charity. “He does not view this as an ad but an aberration,” said Armato, who added that O’Neal supports SAG’s strike.
But SAG is unlikely to be impressed by O’Neal’s contention. Retired Gen. Colin Powell made a similar argument about a nonunion spot for his charity last month and that shoot was actively picketed by unions.
“Attempts to portray this in a charitable light do not negate the fact that it’s struck work,” said SAG spokesman Greg Krizman of the O’Neal spot. “He has insulted working families across the country. It seems to me that he’s wealthy enough to bankroll any charity he pleases.”
Disney, which has taped similar theme-park ads at the end of championship games since 1987, began running the O’Neal spots on Tuesday.
Trouble for union
O’Neal’s defiance of SAG may force the union into the uncomfortable public position of disciplining or expelling one of the world’s most popular sports stars from its ranks. Up until Monday, the highest-profile celebrities besides Powell to become strikebreakers had been sprinters Michael Johnson and Marion Jones and pro footballers Terrell Davis, Eddie George, Keyshawn Johnson and Kurt Warner.
By taping the ad, O’Neal also became the first member of the National Basketball Players Assn. to break ranks. That union had told members in early May to refuse to shoot ads unless the production was covered by an interim agreement, which allows union members to work under the last terms proposed before negotiations stalled in mid-April.
Atlanta Hawks star Dikembe Mutombo refused to shoot an ad last month that would have paid him in the six-figure range.
Krizman said O’Neal should not contend that the spot represented a unique situation. “He certainly has no financial need and he’s worked through us before on movies, videos and commercials so he cannot claim that he was unaware of the strike,” he added.
About 200 union members also staged a noisy demonstration Tuesday outside the Ford Dealers Advertising Assn. of Southern California, accusing the group of racism in the shooting of a Lincoln-Mercury TV spot shot in Palm Springs that used an Anglo stunt driver in blackface to portray an African-American driver.
“Had Ford signed the interim agreements, they would have avoided the racist ‘paint down,’ ” said Anne Marie Johnson, a regular on “JAG” and chair of the SAG/AFTRA equal employment opportunity committee. “Ford’s action is doubly insulting because it not only insults and ridicules African-Americans in general, but coming in the midst of our strike, also targets our loyal union members.”
‘Ridiculous’ says agency
Ad agency Young & Rubicam, which handled the ad, called the accusation “ridiculous” and said the makeup was used merely to conceal the driver.
“This is clearly an attempt by SAG to bolster their strike to gain publicity inappropriately,” said David Murphy, president of Y&R Advertising in Irvine. “They know better than anyone that it is standard practice to conceal the features of the driver in a car commercial shoot. The focus of car commercials has always been the car and not the driver.”
Unions also picketed Tuesday at Universal Studios, where several commercials were shot, and at Eastman Kodak in Hollywood over its failure to sign an interim deal. The unions claim more than 1,500 interim agreements have been signed but advertisers insist that no major companies have done so.
In another development, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists pledged it will not accept struck work even though an arbitrator ruled last week that SAG and AFTRA’s interim contracts cannot be used in Canada. ACTRA said the ruling means its performers will work under terms of the 1997 contract.