Despite denials by candidates, the bitter election of officers at the 56,000-member Screen Actors Guild that began last Friday seems to be an indirect referendum among the nation's actors on the popularity of President Reagan, who once served as president of the union.
Mail ballots, to be counted Nov. 4, will decide not only the union presidency but also the members' choices for one-third of the 99 members of the board of directors.
One of the candidates for the SAG presidency, Academy Award winner Patty Duke, is an outspoken opponent of Reagan's policies, much as Ed Asner, the liberal, incumbent SAG president, has been. Asner is not seeking reelection and is backing Duke.
Her chief opponent, television actor Ed Nelson, has the strong backing of fellow Reagan supporter Charlton Heston.
A key issue in the election is Asner's role as a political activist and his efforts to get SAG to make political endorsements, something that it has never done. Duke's opponents assume thta she also would support more political involvement.
If SAG members elect Duke, "they will just get an Ed Asner in skirts," complained Morgan Paull, longtime foe of Asner and chairman of the union's conservative faction known as Actors Working for an Actor's Guild.
The latest liberal-versus-conservative fight in the union came two weeks ago, when a majority of the union officers voted to support a nine-month, cross-country, anti-war march by 5,000 demonstrators next spring. The march is sponsored by a new organization, People Reaching Out for Peace, or Pro-Peace, whose backers include actors such as Paul Newman and Martin Sheen.
Nelson objected to the union's endorsement of the march, saying that he and other opponents of it "got some information about the march, and we found that they are voicing anti-American policy slogans, such as 'Down With Star Wars.' "
He argued that the march represents another example of efforts to "politicize" the union.
Sponsors of the event call it the "Great Peace March" and say its bipartisan goal is to force government leaders to dramatically reduce and perhaps eliminate nuclear weapons.
The march became an internal union issue not only because it was endorsed by SAG officers but because Pro-Peace filmed a public service announcement about it on Oct. 5. An estimated 2,000 marchers performed in the preview film.
To comply with the union's rules, Pro-Peace had asked SAG to waive the minimum wage requirement because the film, and the march itself, are nonprofit operations. Members of SAG had already expressed a willingness to appear in the filmed preview without getting the union's daily minimum wage of $333.25.
Although the SAG board endorsed the march, it was unwilling to go one step further and waive the minimum wage requirement. The march was regarded as political activity, and waivers are normally granted only for charitable, nonprofit events.
Actors supporting Pro-Peace are asking SAG officers to once again review their request for a waiver. If it is denied again, as expected, the actors will be paid the guild minimum wages, supporters said.
Normally, such an incident would have gone unnoticed. Waiver requests come up frequently and are considered routine. Also, the actors can donate their salaries to Pro-Peace anyway, so the waiver is not a critical issue.
But foes of Asner and Patty Duke, hoping to demonstrate the union's current political activities, issued public statements of their opposition to SAG's support of the march and to the waiver request.
Supporters of Patty Duke feel that she will be helped in her campaign for the union presidency by the harshness of the comments from Nelson, Heston and others and by efforts to make Reagan's policies an election issue.
The battle between liberals and conservatives within the union has gone on for some time. Last December, conservatives in the union won 11 of the 12 seats up for election in the Los Angeles region. Nelson says the current election could give the anti-Asner forces a board majority.
Although Asner is not up for reelection, his policies are issues in the current election because of his strong support of Duke.
Heston last week accused Asner of being "excessively confrontational" on national political issues, even though Nelson has complained that "Asner has not been militant enough against management" on union contract issues.
Asner never hesitates to voice his often controversial opinions on almost any subject. But his four years as a union leader have been notable for their lack of confrontations with management. There have been no SAG strikes during his two terms. The last SAG strike was in 1980, before he became president. Even so, he has managed to win economic gains for actors in all four of SAG's major contract negotiations during his tenure as union president.