SAG president tackles issues in and out of film

Despite being such an embattled and seemingly divisive figure, SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg hasn’t lost his sense of humor. At the end of a recent volatile board meeting, he told reporters, “I’m thrilled that Doug (Allen) is still our lead negotiator. If I were more rested, I’d be even happier.”

Given the controversies, large and small, that seem to continue unabated on his watch, humor is probably a key survival instinct.

When an email went out in early January suggesting SAG members boycott nominees who had supported voting “no” on strike authorization, Rosenberg said, “Nobody should let guild politics (influence) how they vote in the SAG Awards, because the awards are designed solely to celebrate great work by actors.” It was only the most recent firestorm to be quelled during his tumultuous tenure.

After spending the first half of his career playing what he labels “bad guys and gangsters,” he’s spent the second half playing a lawyer in series ranging from “L.A. Law” to “Civil Wars” to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” With a soothing, honeyed voice, Rosenberg gives even shady lawyers a disarming, trustworthy quality.

“It’s something I really do have an affinity for,” says Rosenberg, once an aspiring lawyer. “I also enjoy it. Not necessarily in the real world, but on television and in the movies, law is inherently dramatic. You don’t have to reach too far inside to create drama.”

Some might view Rosenberg’s kinder, gentler attorneys as running counter to the firebrand reputation he has established as SAG’s president.

As the Screen Actors Guild’s 24th elected leader, Rosenberg has taken a tough contractual stance with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers at a time when the economy couldn’t be on shakier ground.

When confronted with the radical label, however, Rosenberg begs to differ. “I really don’t see myself as a radical, any more than I see myself as a radical for being against the war in Iraq,” he says. “I think being against that war is the rational place to be. All I am is a unionist. I believe in this union and love all the things that have been fought for and gained for me by this union, and I want to uphold those things.”

Although Rosenberg has become a lightning rod for the town’s worries about the possibility of a strike, he has repeatedly insisted it’s a course he’d like to avoid. With an increasing number of members opposed to a strike authorization, and control of the national board having shifted last fall to a more moderate coalition, the chances of a strike have lessened considerably.

Among past SAG presidents, Rosenberg might be viewed as more in the mold of Ed Asner — well known for his leftist leanings and who played a prominent role in SAG’s 1980 strike — than, say, Rosenberg’s predecessor, Melissa Gilbert.

“I love Ed Asner and I love (past SAG president) Kathleen Nolan,” Rosenberg says. “They’ve been an inspiration and a help. But Ed Asner is my role model.”

Another role model was his late brother Mark Rosenberg, 2½ years his senior, who like Alan was very active in protesting the Vietnam War. Both worked closely with the Black Panthers, helping open the organization’s office in New Haven, Conn., when members Erica Huggins and Bobby Seale were on trial for the murder of a colleague. (Their cases were eventually dismissed.)

“I just talked to (founding Black Panther member) David Hilliard’s son about a week ago,” Rosenberg says. “I think they’re a wonderful organization, and I was a big supporter of theirs.”

(Rosenberg’s brother, who would go on to become a literary agent to such writers and directors as Alvin Sargent, Paul Brickman and John Badham before becoming president of production at Warner Bros. in the early ’80s, died of a heart attack while producing the movie “Flesh and Bone” in Texas. He was 44.)

As a pre-law student majoring in political science at Case Western Reserve U. in Cleveland, Alan “always had an affinity for lawyers and the law.” Equally compelling, from a very young age, was Rosenberg’s desire to act on Broadway. After he graduated from Case Western in 1972, he immediately enrolled at Yale Drama School. Frustrated by the program’s curriculum and what he described as his “unrequited love” for classmate Meryl Streep, he left after a year and a half.

Rosenberg struggled for the next three years in New York, working part time as a cab driver and, as he says, “acting in plays for no money” before he landed his first union job.

Those early years proved so trying that he reconsidered his desire to be a lawyer, having applied to, and been accepted by, Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in Greenwich Village and Rutgers. But just before taking the plunge, he landed the lead in a play alongside Morgan Freeman and a young Jimmy Smits. “I had such a good time doing it, I realized I wasn’t done with acting,” Rosenberg recalls.

SAG presidents often are so consumed by the duties of the office that acting careers are put on hold. But Rosenberg played a significant role in last year’s “Righteous Kill,” portraying a Manhattan police investigator opposite Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Rosenberg also has continued to be active in theater, having appeared with S. Epatha Merkerson in “Come Back, Little Sheba” at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theater last year (Variety called the performances “superb”) and is returning to his old stomping grounds at Case Western in February to direct a play with students there.

“I love doing theater,” he says, “I’d never want to give it up.”

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