Cooke fiasco most frustrating to outgoing Guild topper

If he had to do it again, he wouldn’t.

William Daniels, who became the 22nd Screen Actors Guild president as a novice two years ago, admitted he never would have run if he had been aware of all the discord within SAG.

“Had I known about all the contentiousness, I probably would have said, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Daniels told Daily Variety in an interview Wednesday. “The worst part of this has been the infighting — the feeling that people are wanting you to fail. So you wonder, ‘Where do the interests of the members come in?’ and it gets lost in the fray.”

Daniels, previously best known for playing Dustin Hoffman’s father in “The Graduate” and Dr. Mark Craig on “St. Elsewhere,” has become indelibly imprinted on Hollywood’s consciousness. First, he angered agents by opposing a deal to ease financial-interest restrictions; then he led SAG and AFTRA on a bitter six-month strike against advertisers, setting off a frenzy of strike fever; and finally, his “there is a deal to be made” mantra turned out to be right when the actors unions and studios agreed to a film-TV pact without a strike.

Daniels, who decided in July to not seek re-election, freely admits he was unprepared for the role of SAG prexy. His decision to run, made at Art’s Deli in Studio City, came on an impulse after dissident members sought advice about who should challenge two-term incumbent Richard Masur.

“There was a real feeling of disenfranchisement and there was a series of fairly weak contracts,” Daniels recalled. “In my foolhardiness, I said, ‘How about me?’ “

Tough in the trenches

The courtly Daniels turned out to be a surprisingly tough campaigner, attacking Masur for being secretive and a “pussycat” in negotiations, then stunning Hollywood by winning. Masur supporters have given him the most trouble since then.

“You get attacked and it’s disturbing, but you go on and get a thicker skin,” he said. “When I first came on and people said I was too old with no experience — quite true, by the way — that was painful because I’d expected more cooperation and did not get it.”

After one feverish board meeting, Daniels pressed a high-profile member about becoming more involved and was told, “I want to spend time with my grandchildren, not these children.'”

While striving to remain impartial, his tenure has taught him not to take the rancor personally. “I’ve bumped into some of my most outspoken opponents and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know why we’re carrying on like this,” he said. “What they’re saying is we’re on different sides of the political fence. So it becomes less painful when you know where it’s coming from.”

Burned by Cooke

Daniels, who is eager to return to acting when his term ends in early November, stressed he has no regrets about presiding over SAG. His biggest frustration has been not the infighting but the John Cooke fiasco, which he said he still doesn’t understand.

Cooke was hired June 25 and departed unexpectedly 10 days later after a letter signed by nine board members questioned his authority as CEO. While Daniels said the letter was “inappropriate,” he remains baffled — as do most board members — as to why Cooke did not seem to realize that such disagreements were typical among SAG leaders.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know what went wrong,” Daniels mused. “It was a shock that threw me for a loop for a number of weeks. The best face I can put on it is that if he felt that way, it’s for the best that he got out early.”

As for accomplishments, Daniels is proudest of the two contracts. “Negotiations have been the most fulfilling part of this job — putting more money into the pockets of actors,” he said. “I remember thinking, this is what it’s all about, never mind the politics and infighting.”

He noted the TV-film negotiations were far more pleasant than last year’s “strum and drang” of bargaining with advertisers. Besides being effusive in praising the negotiators for both sides, he also credited the strike with giving the unions credibility at the bargaining table.

“I think the strike gave them pause,” he said of the studios.

Familiar faces

Daniels also was pleased that high-profile members such as Elliott Gould, Tess Harper and Valerie Harper are seeking office. “Board members should be working actors,” he asserted. “They saw me step up and knew I was taking a lot of heat and did not have to do this.”

Daniels also disclosed that he does not expect the 107-member national board to reduce its size before he leaves office, even though he has warned that a dues increase may be inevitable if the panel does not cut expenses.

The board has twice delayed a plan to cut the seats to 62 and boost Hollywood’s share of the board from 46% to 53%, due to vituperative opposition in Gotham and the regional branches. The next vote is set for Oct. 13.

“One of the parts of the board’s dysfunctionality is its size,” Daniels said. “They keep putting it off because they don’t want to bite the bullet. Sometime or other the board is going to have to be reduced to a reasonable size that can get things done.”

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