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Rancor Moves to Center Stage in Actors' Strike

As the dispute moves toward its fifth month, hostility deepens on both sides of the Hollywood picket line.


Irwin Keyes has the type of rubbery, comic-strip features that Hollywood casting agents refer to as a "great look." His square-jawed, pop-eyed visage has served him well over 25-odd years as a commercial actor, landing him parts as a nose-picking cowboy thug, a lunkheaded Neanderthal who gets bonked from the sky by a keg of Budweiser and a gluttonous Goliath slain by David for refusing to share his Subway sandwich.

A couple of years ago he even won a Clio, the TV commercial industry's top award, for his gothic-Method portrayal of a 14th century hunchbacked messenger in the Dark Ages before Southwestern Bell. "It was really cute," says Keyes' actor-wife, Vicki.

But the Keyeses, like thousands of fellow performers across the country, now find themselves assigned the role of anonymous bit players in a rancorous Information Age epic where the possibility of a happy ending grows fainter by the day.

As the Hollywood commercial actors' strike against the advertising industry grinds into its fifth month--one of the longest actors' strikes in U.S. history--anger and anxiety are spilling over on all sides of the picket line. With the actors' unions and their ad industry opponents hunkering down, the labor dispute that began May 1 over the industry's desire to pay actors a flat fee with no residuals for appearances in network and cable TV ads has curdled into a sour cocktail of bitter accusations and wounded friendships.

In Greater Los Angeles, home to about 60,000 of the Screen Actors Guild's 97,000 members, the strike's hyper-real emotional atmosphere has bled into the personal realm, touching actors, producers, casting agents, camera operators, electricians, even caterers. Heated rows break out at West Hollywood dinner parties. Longtime colleagues refuse to speak with one another. Friends who attended each other's weddings now go out of their way to avoid contact.

Although advertisers so far have hesitated to yank their big-name Hollywood pitchmen in favor of no-name replacements, the strike's foot soldiers must rely on strength in numbers, while growing painfully aware that the ad industry apparently doesn't prize their talents as much as they themselves do.

"In the last two weeks the anger has been building. You can see it in people's eyes, you can see it in their actions," says casting director Tom Reudy, who, like many in his business, professes to be "stuck in the middle" of the strike. "It's very difficult because no one expected this strike to go on like this."

The two sides are scheduled to meet in New York on Sept. 13, their first formal encounter since two days of fruitless talks in late July, but no one involved sounds remotely hopeful of a truce. Instead, many are dreading a grueling rerun of the 22-week Writers Guild strike against producers in 1988, which was blamed for hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. Hollywood buzzes with speculation that the strike could presage an even more costly dispute next spring when contracts expire for the 12,000-member Writers Guild of America and the TV and film industry.

The strike's asphalt-pounding choreography has transformed people like Irwin and Vicki Keyes, who keep house in Santa Monica with their cat Squeaky and never paid much heed to union affairs before, into activists, fighting for what they see as their right to make a fair-wage living in a fast-changing industry. While a handful of marquee Hollywood talent, including Elliot Gould, William Baldwin and Charlton Heston, have marched and leafleted, the strike is largely being waged by rank-and-file grunts like the Keyeses who wish more of their glamorous colleagues would go grab a picket sign and hit the streets.

"We still have not given in, and I'm proud of us," said Vicki last week while taking part with her husband in a candlelight vigil that was intended to, but failed, to catch Al Gore's eye. "This is not an easy thing. Strikes are just the pits."

Which isn't to say the current dispute has bottomed out yet. Officials of the two striking unions, SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA), cite figures that the ad industry is losing between $1 million and $2 million a day on the strike, while the permit-issuing Entertainment Industry Development Corp. reckons commercial production in L.A. County has dropped 66%. But the industry asserts that it's countering the strike by simply shifting production to other parts of the country and Canada to elude picketers.

"The industry is producing a full complement of excellent commercials," says Ira Shepard, labor counsel for the committee that represents the Assn. of National Advertisers and the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies. "The victims of the strike are people blindly following the union's leadership."

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