Supporters of Brian Walton, the outgoing exec director of the Writers Guild of America West, showered him with compliments and good-natured ribbing Tuesday evening, three weeks after the guild’s board voted to dismiss him.
The tribute at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills did not attract a full house, though, and the somewhat forced event masked deep fissures in the guild as contentious board elections approach.
All those attending, including four former WGAW presidents, the current president, Daniel Petrie Jr., and a handful of network and studio executives, put the best face possible on Walton’s ouster, which many in the guild see as a blunder that could easily have been avoided.
“What a splendid turnout,” said George Kirgo, the evening’s host, “considering we’re here to pay tribute to a man who can’t do a damn thing for us any more.”
Walton will leave his post, which he has held for 13 years, on Sept. 1, following the defeat of a members’ referendum that sought to alter the terms of his employment contract.
Divisions in the guild, which are bubbling to the surface once again as candidates for the board stake out their positions, were exemplified by the absence from the Walton tribute of former WGAW presidents David Rintels, Frank Pierson and Brad Radnitz and former board member Lynn Roth, all of whom are running for seats on the 19-member board. Also absent were board members Ann Marcus and Victoria Riskin.
Those paying him homage took digs at Walton’s loquaciousness and perennial tardiness, but praised his exuberance and determination. To start out the evening, the audience was shown a video, prepared for a WGAW awards show in 1991, of Walton doing a song-and-dance number as a burrito salesman.
Fay Kanin, a former vice president of WGAW, called Walton “a walking set of paradoxes.
“In a mainly illiterate world, he reads Shakespeare,” she said. “He’s an unreconstructed Bruce Springsteen fan. And once he gets to a meeting, he doesn’t know when to go home.”
Former WGAW president Del Reisman, speaking on a videotape sent from Paris, said Walton “on occasion exasperated us, on occasion drove us crazy,” and that audiences often despaired of Walton ever finishing his speeches. With a smile, Reisman warned his colleagues that, because Walton would most likely run behind schedule, “you never want to agree to be on a plane” with him.
When Reisman finished speaking, Kirgo turned to Walton sitting in the front row and said, “Del would be happy to know you were 10 minutes late tonight.”
Kirgo also read tributes faxed by writers’ guilds in Britain and Australia — and New York. “Strange that we would have a message from the Writers Guild East,” he joked, an allusion to a protracted war between the eastern and western guilds that followed the defeat last fall of a members’ contract with producers.
Former board member J.F. Lawton said Walton “really brought the guild kicking and screaming into the modern age,” referring to the former lawyer’s championing of the Contract Adjustment Committee, which in contract negotiations sought compromise rather than the threat of strikes. Some members believe the CAC diminished the union’s bargaining strength.
Writer and director Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams,” “Sneakers”) brought the most laughter to the evening, saying among other things that Walton must have committed some crime that got him sentenced to “13 years of community service; he should have chosen prison.”
Walton, addressing the audience after they gave him a standing ovation, said that, for once, he was speechless — almost.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the last 13 years — and not just that they’re over,” Walton said. “I loved this job. It has called upon skills, and it has forced me to grow.”