Writer-producer David Rintels and his wife, Vicki, were driving to their Brentwood home late Monday night when they heard the news on the radio: The tide at the Writers Guild of America contract vote was shifting against approval of the contract.
When the voting at the Hollywood Palladium had begun around 8 p.m., indications were that the new contract negotiated by producers and writers would be approved by the membership. Rintels had already sent in his proxy vote.
But now, according to the radio, support for the contract appeared to be fading. Fast.
Rintels, a member of the negotiating team, turned his car around, raced across town and dashed into the meeting. By then, what had been heralded as a quick and painless ratification was turning into a protracted and angry confrontation.
The Emmy Award-winning writer of such major works as "Clarence Darrow," "Sakharov" and "Gideon's Trumpet" burst into the auditorium, grabbed the microphone and made an impassioned closed-door speech urging fellow writers to turn down the contract.
"We made a bad deal," he was reported as saying. "I'm responsible and I'm voting against it."
Many of those who were still at the Palladium to hear Rintels' speech said it changed their minds. They would vote against the contract.
According to guild spokesmen, between 2,500 and 3,000 members attended Monday's meeting. When writers first entered the Palladium, many said they believed that the contract would pass easily. Some who were working when the strike was called March 4 said they had hoped to be able to return to work Tuesday. networks, anticipating a favorable vote, had indicated that production on shows halted by the strike would have resumed Tuesday.
All that apparently changed around 11 p.m. when someone asked Naomi Gurian, executive director of Writers Guild of America West, if she favored the contract. By then, however, many had left; by the time Rintels spoke, only 200-300 remained in the auditorium.
"It was the single strangest moment," writer-director Nicholas Meyer ("The Day After," "The Seven-Percent-Solution") said afterward. "Naomi said, 'I recommend the deal, but I must also tell you that it was a condition of the deal that I recommend it."'
Suddenly, everything turned around.
At least 20 guild members stormed out of the meeting, took their ballots to the lobby desk where ballots were being distributed and asked for new ballots. All of those interviewed by The Times said they were changing their votes from approval of the contract to rejection.
Writer-producer Ric Rossner was one of those who tore up his original ballot and changed his vote. His decision to change his vote, he said, was based on Gurian's disclosure and that the guild had "caved in."
Poll workers seemed unprepared for the unexpected demand for new ballots. Lionel Chetwynd, spokesman for the guild's anti-strike "Union Blues" contingent, claimed that identification was not being checked. As television cameras looked on, Chetwynd engaged in a vitriolic exchange with one poll worker, demanding that he explain the procedure. "This whole vote is irregular," Chetwynd charged, his voice rising. He said he'd refer the matter to the National Labor Relations Board.
Even before Gurian's admission from the dais, there were indications of dissatisfaction with the contract hammered out Friday in 16 hours of bargaining between negotiating teams from the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
"What we got is exactly what management wanted to give us six months ago," said one disgruntled writer early in the evening.
Said another writer, pointing to a new minimum rate schedule for screenplays: "I get better than that already."
Writer Harlan Ellison, speaking before the vote, castigated Chetwynd. "This is the closest thing to union-busting that I have seen," Ellison charged. "When Mr. Chetwynd speaks, I don't think he speaks for the guild."
Chetwynd responded sharply: "We feel it's time to go back to work," he said over Ellison's shoulder.
Those who left the contract discussion around 10 p.m. said that guild members, including president Ernest Lehman, spoke well of the contract and urged passage. Lehman was quoted by one guild member as calling for a "celebration."
But as the meeting wore on, it became increasingly apparent that substantial opposition to the contract was swelling.
According to a guild spokesman, at 10 p.m. about 15 people were waiting their turn at microphones to voice their opinions of the contract. One writer who left the meeting said, "If it keeps going, there's a real possibility they (the guild) are going to reject it."
Inside the auditorium, at least two members of the guild's negotiating committee had now spoken out against the contract. In the lobby, Allan Manings, a member of the negotiating committee opposed to the contract, insisted to an unnamed writer that more than two members of the guild's 30-35 member negotiating committee opposed the contract.
"I'll bet you a thousand dollars," he yelled, extending his hand to wager. "I'll bet you a thousand dollars. You're a liar if you say it isn't so."
Then Rintels arrived.
After he finished speaking, to a rousing ovation, the remaining members voted to recess the meeting. Chetwynd stormed out of the Palladium, exchanging expletives with another writer.
Guild president Lehman, berated by an unidentified writer for allowing guild negotiators to be pushed into supporting the contract as part of the settlement with the alliance, looked at the writer.
"Do you think," Lehman wearily asked around 1 a.m., "that for a minute we loved that deal?"