If Brian Walton were an actor--like the tens of thousands he represents at the bargaining table--they'd call his performance a virtuoso comeback.
In four months, Walton, 53, has gone from Hollywood outcast to arguably the most pivotal figure deciding whether actors and studios resolve their differences at the bargaining table as their labor contract expires June 30.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Walton profile--The headline in a Business section story Saturday incorrectly referred to Screen Actors Guild negotiator Brian Walton as a mediator.
Walton, once a top Writers Guild of America official, was about to leave Los Angeles and relocate to Paris when the Screen Actors Guild tapped him in February to be its chief negotiator.
"Life is a serendipitous highway. You get off at a certain exit for no particular reason, and what you see when you get off is sort of what happens," Walton said.
And this latest exit is a road both familiar and wrought with potential bumps.
SAG hired Walton because he was a seasoned negotiator capable of forging a deal without striking. So far it seems to be working.
Talks are moving slowly but show no signs of imploding even though the two sides remain apart on money. This week, talks were marred by a tense blowup about a suggestion that SAG monitor the sale of TV programs by media giants to their own cable and broadcast networks to make sure actors get a fair cut of the proceeds. Although sharp words were exchanged, the disagreement is unlikely to derail the talks.
Nonetheless, questions linger in Hollywood as to whether SAG can remain united enough to continue empowering Walton. SAG's nearly 100,000 members have been divided for nearly two years into moderate and militant camps that openly snipe at each other, raising fears that the union's chronic disarray could undercut Walton.
"Brian Walton has got to have the hardest job in town right now," said Alan Brunswick, a labor relations lawyer with Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
For Walton, unexpected detours such as the one that led him to SAG are more the norm than the exception.
The adopted only child of a butcher and his wife, Walton as a teenager left his native London for Utah after converting at age 14 to Mormonism, which he no longer practices. He attended Utah's Brigham Young University on scholarship, where he was student body president.
He once sang in the forgettable rock group Brian and the Fantoms and even played a union boss in a 1988 "21 Jump Street" TV episode.
But it's as a lawyer and guild leader that he became one of the most important and controversial figures in Hollywood's labor movement in the last two decades. Walton was a lawyer working on securities and antitrust issues when he was recruited in 1986 as Writers Guild executive director.
Two years later came a watershed event when Walton led writers on a 22-week walkout. That brought criticism from both sides: Moderates called the strike unnecessary, while radicals alleged Walton didn't get enough. The bruises tempered Walton's negotiating.
"The one thing I came away with is it's real easy to go on strike, but it's not easy to end one," Walton said. "It's really hard to make a deal unless both sides understand each other."
As a result, Walton became an outspoken advocate of negotiating well in advance of contract expirations, arguing that writers achieved better results without deadline pressures and because he believed studios would pay a price to guarantee labor peace. Other unions adopted the tactic, leading to calm labor relations in the 1990s.
"There are those who believe you negotiate by putting your fist right in somebody's face and say 'I'm going to smack you if you don't give me what I want,' " Walton said. "And there are others of us who believe you can get much more by negotiating in a calmer climate."
Despite clashes, Walton won respect from studio executives.
"There's no learning curve for Brian Walton," said Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer, who sat across the table from Walton back in the 1980s when the studios were negotiating with the writers. "I think he's an extremely smart guy, and he understands the issues very well. We always found him fair and practical, and he got the big picture--that we're in a codependent relationship and we all need to make sure the ball gets advanced."
But a growing number of writers accused him of being too cozy with studios.
"As a union, can you be taken seriously about possibly going on strike when you hire a negotiator who says strikes are futile and outmoded?" said writer and longtime Walton critic Larry Gelbart.
Last Days at WGA a Lack of Confidence
Walton's critics say he also became too autocratic in running the guild, taking the criticism personally to the point where board meetings erupted in shouting matches.
"In the last few years, he lost the confidence of a growing number of writers who believed he had become intensely personal in dealing with them," former WGA President Del Reisman said.