Legacy series records union’s fightin’ words

More than 65 SAG interviews taped to date

Whether navigating a possible merger with AFTRA, addressing the crisis of runaway production or monitoring hours and conditions on the set, SAG is on the front lines of the battle to advance the interests of the working actor.

But it wasn’t always so.

Until 1937 there was no guild. It took courageous, clandestine organizing on the part of a handful of actors who rebelled against the studio system — and the crucial involvement of stars who lent their support — for the journey to empowerment to begin.

The rich history of early Hollywood and the labor movement is being preserved in an ongoing series of video interviews through a project called Legacy Documentation.

“We’re recording the history of the Guild from the unique perspective of the people who made it happen,” says Marcia Smith, exec director of the SAG Foundation, which funds and administers the project.

“Many of the newer SAG members don’t realize what this town was like when there was a studio system. They don’t know about the hours people worked and the way they were treated, or that there was no such thing as pension and health. They don’t know that the pioneers of this union had to work in secret, and that studio heads would send goons to break up the meetings.”

Prexy participation

More than 65 interviews have been taped to date, including past SAG presidents Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Ed Asner, Dennis Weaver and Patty Duke. Captured are reminisces of dramatic times such as then-mob-controlled IATSE’s attempts to take over performer unions in the 1930s and the tumultuous 1950s, which included the guild’s first three strikes (1952, 1955, 1960), blacklisting during the Red Scare, the battle for filmed television jurisdiction and the creation of residuals.

Also remembered is the birth of the union, in first-hand accounts from actors such as Ann Doran (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), who became a charter guild member when the SAG office consisted of “an orange crate, a chair and a telephone.”

“When we got up enough nerve and enough people, we had a meeting, and then we came out of the closet. It had its effect on the producers — they were scared,” recalls the actress, who went on to serve 20 years on the SAG board. “We were petrified, too, because they said ‘you’ll never work in pictures again.’ Well, we weren’t working very much anyway but even then, it was scary.”

Charter member Gloria Stuart (“Titanic”) recalls the guild’s beginnings in an interview conducted by James Cameron.

“When the time came, we voted to strike, and it was very iffy what was going to happen,” said the actress, who worked under studio contract in the 1930s. “But then three major stars at Metro — Gable, Lombard and Garbo — said they would walk out if Mr. (Louis B.) Mayer did not sign the contract. We had a contract the next day.

“It was a great victory, but it took us a long time.”

Available for viewing

Intended as an educational tool for historians, actors, guild members and fans, the tapes can be viewed on-site at the SAG offices at 5757 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. Audio versions and print transcripts are also available.

Priority has been given to documenting the elderly; both Rod Steiger and Red Skelton gave their final interviews as part of the program in the weeks before they died. But among notable omissions is former U.S. and SAG prexy Ronald Reagan.

“I’m not sure why that happened,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, we missed a lot of important people, since we can’t be everywhere at once, and there are financial restraints.”

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