The Screen Actors Guild has honored “Titanic” thesp Gloria Stuart, the only surviving board member from the first days of guild in the 1930s, with its Ralph Morgan award for service to the Hollywood Division.
Saturday’s emotional presentation at the Sportsmen’s Lodge was highlighted by a whispered acceptance speech by the 99-year-old actress.
“I’m very very grateful,” Stuart told the capacity crowd of more than 400. “I’ve had a wonderful life of giving and sharing.”
Longtime SAG board member Paul Napier, best known for originating GM’s Mr. Goodwrench character, also received the Morgan award Saturday. Napier, who has served on 26 SAG negotiating committees, admitted in his acceptance speech that Stuart was the main attraction at the event, the division’s annual membership meeting.
“What an honor it is to be sharing billing with the legend, Gloria Stuart,” he added.
SAG president Ken Howard said of Stuart, “She’s a marvelous example of who we are and who we’re trying to be.”
Stuart was introduced by “Titanic” castmate Frances Fisher, whonoted Stuart had been part of the first SAG board meeting in June 1937, 23 days after the guild signed its first contract with the studios. Other members at that meeting included James Cagney, Frederic March, Frank Morgan, Robert Montgomery and Edward G. Robinson.
Fischer said Stuart turns 100 on the Fourth of July, prompting the audience to sing “Happy Birthday to You.” The presentation featured a clip reel of Stuart’s work in “The Invisible Man,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Titanic.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Stuart recalled that the first of her 77 credits came in 1932 on “Street of Women,” starring Kay Francis.
She became involved with SAG soon after for two reasons — she’d attended UC Berkeley, where she’d been impressed with Robert Oppenheimer’s leftist politics; and she became distressed by what she saw as unfair working conditions on the sets.
“I was a contract player at Universal, so you had to be ready at 8 a.m. promptly — which meant you’d have to be in hair and makeup at 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” Stuart said.
“Then you worked ’til 7 or 8 at night, so actors like me were being taken advantage of.”
Stuart was SAG member No. 873 and logged 45 credits by 1946. She left acting for three decades, raising a daughter and pursuing painting, decorating and printing. She returned to showbiz in 1975 in “The Legend of Lizzy Borden.”
She said Saturday she was particularly impressed that SAG has lasted 77 years and now includes more than 120,000 members.
“I’m just overwhelmed by all this,” she added.