Former president a polarizing Hollywood figure

With leading Republicans jostling for the right to run against Obama, the process of deification for Ronald Reagan proceeds apace. (The 100th anniversary of his birth was in February, and it’s been a busy year for commemorative activities.)

Reagan is the unifying symbol for his fragmented party, which is fascinating because, during his first run at being a president, he was a polarizing figure in Hollywood.

It was, in fact, a little more than 50 years ago that, as a two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan helped negotiate the second of what were widely regarded as sweetheart deals with his friend, Lew Wasserman, then the all-powerful CEO of MCA Universal.

In Reagan’s first term as SAG president, from 1947 to 1952, he drew fire from fellow actors for letting Wasserman’s company function as both a talent agency and a production company — the notorious “Wasserman Waiver” (at the time there were no formal prohibitions against agents producing TV shows, and Wasserman was eager to exploit this loophole). In Reagan’s second term, covering 1959 and 1960, he also managed to exempt MCA Universal from the actors’ strike (SAG struck other studios for six weeks). The rationale was that Wasserman had finally agreed to pay residuals on features sold to TV — but only those released after 1948. Further, though MCA owned feature titles, it was not as yet actually producing features (that was to start imminently).

Some of Reagan’s fellow stars felt that their SAG president was too friendly with Wasserman and his attorney, Sidney Korshak, the man who for years represented major figures in organized crime as well as in Hollywood (Korshak’s links spanned Jimmy Hoffa to Sam Giancana). Reagan had his defenders, too, but when he left SAG, there was a pervasive feeling that the community would pull together better without him.

Hollywood liked Ronald Reagan, but there was no desire to deify him.

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