Taking a turn away from glitz and glamour, leaders of Hollywood’s actors unions declared Monday that their top bargaining priority will be improving conditions for thesps earning under $70,000 annually.

“This negotiation is about actors who are in dire danger of disappearing,” Screen Actors Guild chief negotiator Brian Walton said at a news conference at SAG headquarters. “There is a problem. There is a crisis.”

He noted that less than 2% of SAG’s 98,000 members earn more than $100,000 annually.

SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which start negotiations at 2 p.m. PDT today with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, took a star-free approach to outlining their proposals and presented two dozen middle-income actors instead. Many of those were negotiating team members such as Karen Austin, Anne-Marie Johnson, David Jolliffe, Matt Kimbrough and Robert Silver.

“We think that you shouldn’t have to make a killing to get by in this business, that you should be able to make a living,” said AFTRA negotiating committee chief John Connolly. “We love our stars just like the rest of the world, but we are not stars. We’re people just like you who have family responsibilities, put kids through school, pay mortgages and car payments on time. We’re here to speak for the working-class actor.”

Tom LaGrua, chief of SAG’s negotiating committee, stressed that the actors have taken a clear and concise approach to the talks by removing peripheral issues from their proposal and thus producing the smallest list of demands in recent negotiations.

In recent months, SAG has been stressing the need to sweeten minimum TV-film pay — currently at $617 daily, $2,147 weekly — because of the ongoing trend by producers to pay all actors other than stars “scale” plus 10% to cover agent commissions.

Event came a day before the imposition of a media blackout on negotiations. It featured the customary tweaking of industryites who have focused on the probability of a SAG/AFTRA strike, now viewed as much less likely given the recent tentative Writers Guild of America deal.

“We’ve been saying since last October to anyone who we met that there is a deal to be made,” said SAG prexy William Daniels. “Until recently, the entertainment industry and news media have not shared our optimism.”

Walton and AFTRA counterpart Stephen Burrow said the two unions, which face a June 30 contract expiration, will seek hikes in minimums, improved residual formulas, tougher language to cover members on foreign shoots, Internet jurisdiction and pledges for increased diversity. Burrow specifically complained about producers’ avoidance of hiring actors under the over-scale provisions of the current contract; Walton noted that SAG reps will seek pledges from studios to halt runaway production.

‘Partnership and loyalty’

“There are basic questions of partnership and loyalty,” Walton declared. “The work that used to be done here is now done elsewhere in order to save $2. We will ask what have you done (about runaway production) and how come you have been so ineffective.”

But Walton and Burrow remained vague on details, noting that the AMPTP will not see the SAG/AFTRA document until today when talks start. While praising the recent deal signed by the WGA as a building block, they said it will not be used as a cookie-cutter model and stressed they will push for a contract that is more front-loaded than the writers guild’s.

“We would like to see more of the money move more rapidly into the pockets of actors,” Walton said. “We are going to be very flexible as long as these problems get solved.”

Walton, who led the WGA during its five-month strike in 1988, declared he was “enormously encouraged” that the negotiations will not be about egos.

“It may not be as exciting as the possibility of a strike,” Walton said. “We want to see this as an exercise in problem-solving. And if the other side is prepared to do that, this is going to be very boring for many of you.”

In response to the news conference, AMPTP prexy Nick Counter said, “With the WGA agreement to be used as a template, the producers are prepared to mold that agreement to address the unique needs of actors. We embrace Bill Daniels’ statement: ‘There’s a deal to be made.’ ”

Strike not out of question

Still, no one at the event declared that a strike is completely out of the question. And Walton and Burrow predicted that negotiations will probably go down to the June 30 deadline and could extend for several days beyond.

Remaining unanswered were lingering questions of whether SAG will grant strike waivers to low-budget films, and whether guild members will still be allowed to engage in publicity and promotion work if a strike is called. SAG has received hundreds of waiver requests, and Daniels, who has a seat on the negotiating committee, has declared he favors granting waivers on a case-by-case basis.

LaGrua and Daniels had no comment Monday on those issues.