In a stunning blow to the Screen Actors Guild, John F. Cooke Thursday quit as SAG’s new CEO and national exec director.
The announcement — made in a statement through Cooke’s PR firm rather than through SAG — blindsided guild officials, who only Tuesday concluded difficult film-TV contract negotiations with the studios.
Cooke, who had been unanimously named June 25 to the top post, tied his exit to disenchantment with the factionalism on SAG’s board, blaming. nine members of SAG’s 107-member body for putting him in a position where his power was not clearly defined.
“It would be inappropriate for me to accept the SAG position without clear authority to act on all the issues that are before the SAG management and organization,” Cooke said in a statement.
A June 26 letter to Cooke by the nine board members objected to the unprecedented step of his being named CEO in addition to national exec director.
While saying that they were “delighted” at his appointment, they also asserted that the board’s action in amending the SAG constitution was “hasty” and “irresponsible” because the constitution stated that the SAG president is the CEO. It asked that he not accept the CEO title until a “thoughtfully” drafted amendment could be approved.
Several signers of the letter, including 4th Natl. VP Eileen Henry, Keri Tombazian and Paul Reggio, all told Daily Variety they were “shocked” at Cooke’s departure and pointed out that their letter said they fully supported his being given the CEO title once their suggestion had been followed.
“I wholeheartedly supported both the hiring of John Cooke and utilizing our constitutional procedure endowing him with the title of CEO, as the letter demonstrates,” Tombazian said.
“In no way was our letter meant to discourage him from being the CEO,” said Reggio. “I thought it was extremely important to keep the powers of the presidency intact.”
Reggio said the letter had been drafted with the help of former SAG prexy Richard Masur to take advantage of Masur’s knowledge of the constitution. Masur lost a bitter election to William Daniels two years ago, and has been critical of Daniels’ leadership.
Cooke, who had planned to begin working at SAG next week, said the guild needed to get its own house in order before seeking a CEO. He specifically said SAG needed to implement the recommendations in last year’s Towers Perrin report — which recommends sweeping changes such as reducing the board size to 40 as part of $8 million in cost cuts from the $50 million budget — before tapping a new leader.
Towers Perrin had painted an unflattering picture of SAG as inefficient and mired in internal bickering, summing up in two words: “organizational chaos.” The report has added fire to the feuding within SAG, pitting supporters of Masur against Daniels partisans, who backed the cuts.
SAG has been without a national exec director since January, when Ken Orsatti retired. Top execs are former national associate exec director John McGuire, who has been designated a senior adviser, and interim Hollywood branch exec director Jerre Hookey.
“To search for a leader without the ability to give him or her a clear CEO mandate is a recipe for failure,” said Cooke, who had been transitioning out of his post as a top exec at the Getty Trust.
Cooke said his contract with SAG designated the title of CEO/national exec director and specified authority and responsibilities “traditionally held by a person with the CEO title.”
“My wish is that there could have been more definitive discussions between the search committee negotiators and members of the full board, thus not leaving a constitutional question,” he said.
Cooke also said, “I have no hard feelings toward anyone in this matter. I wish nothing but the best for SAG.” Cooke was not immediately available for further comment but a spokesman said he will not reconsider. As
Cooke, who cuts a sort of ambassadorial figure, had created a strong initial impression at SAG. He had always told friends that he wanted to be in a government post.
Prior to joining the Getty two years ago, he had been an exec at Disney for more than a decade and had headed the Disney Channel. Well-groomed and impeccably mannered, he had always seemed slightly out of step at Disney, no less SAG, and some industryites had talked about him as a possible successor to Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti.
Ironically, the June 25 announcement of Cooke came amid proclamations of unity among Guild leaders. “I love challenges and I love the industry,” said Cooke in accepting the five-year deal. “I’m about as happy as anyone can be in Los Angeles.”
In an upbeat afternoon news conference at SAG’s Hollywood headquarters, Cooke joked that day, “I’m told that this is the last time in my life I will ever get a unanimous vote.”
Cooke subsequently attended one day of the SAG film-TV contract negotiations but stressed he would not become actively involved in the talks. Cooke, 59, said at the time he was willing to serve as chief negotiator for other upcoming contracts.
The likely next step is that SAG’s search committee, headed by prexy William Daniels, will have to tap another candidate from half a dozen finalists, whose identities remain confidential.