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Little Respect

What's A Union President Have to Do to get A Around Here?

The Screen Actors Guild's Bill Daniels Must Deal With Political Infighting, a Bloated Bureaucracy and Tensions With Other Unions. To Say Nothing of the Possibility of AnotherActors Strike.

March 25, 2001|JAMES BATES | James Bates last wrote for the magazine about former Walt Disney Studio chief Joe Roth

As Bill Daniels guides his sea green Jaguar XJ6 through suburban Studio City, he hardly looks the part of someone who scares the bejesus out of most people in Hollywood. Approaching age 74, the familiar actor's face is warm and grandfatherly, betraying none of the hard lines you might expect for a man leading the 100,000-member Screen Actors Guild into a new era of militancy.

It's the morning of Valentine's Day. Daniels drives past a camel and a man dressed as an Arab as a crew of workers films a Gogurt commercial in his neighborhood. He parks on crowded Ventura Boulevard, a half block from his destination, a red leather corner booth by the window at Art's Deli. "This is where it all began," he says as he slips behind the table and orders bran flakes topped with banana slices and nonfat milk.

More than a year earlier, Daniels had sat in the booth for a three-hour lunch with a half-dozen actors he'd never heard of. They complained that their venerable Screen Actors Guild had become a pushover for Hollywood studios and Madison Avenue advertisers. Actors weren't being paid fairly, and the union wasn't standing up for them, they said. SAG seemed to embody the conventional wisdom of the 1990s in Hollywood--that entertainment industry unions no longer had the nerve to strike, nor the resolve to hang together.

As the actors lunched, time was growing short. SAG elections were just weeks away. The little band had begun a guerrilla e-mail campaign to voice its demands, but it needed a respected actor to head its slate of reformers in the election. Oscar-winner Jon Voight had considered the post, but turned it down because his acting career had taken off again.

Daniels had already said he wasn't interested in the job, but agreed to meet with the actors because they wanted his advice about potential candidates. He was nearing an idyllic retirement, planned for Montecito, after working for nearly 60 years compiling a long list of credits that included playing Dustin Hoffman's father in "The Graduate," two Emmys for his part as Dr. Mark Craig on "St. Elsewhere," the voice of David Hasselhoff's car K.I.T.T. on "Knight Rider" and, for the previous seven television seasons, high school principal George Feeny on the teen sitcom "Boy Meets World." He had made it clear he didn't want to end that career in the role of a union leader. Besides, he was, in his own words, "not a very good member at all."

But the more he listened, the more upset he became. Finally, he turned to his wife, actress Bonnie Bartlett, and asked: "Is this something I should do?" The decision that followed is why Hollywood hasn't fretted this much about its labor relations in a generation. Daniels entered the race talking tough. He labeled SAG's leaders "pussycats," he promised to "go to the wall" for actors, and he declared that "there's nobody in this town who frightens me."

It worked. Daniels upset incumbent Richard Masur in the November 1999 election. What's

more, a slate of like-minded actors was swept into seats on the SAG board. The newly aggressive union soon waged a strike against advertisers over contracts governing the making of television commercials. A debate continues in Hollywood--and among SAG members--over whether the painful six-month strike helped or hurt the union.

This spring, Daniels and SAG are to sit down with the most powerful entertainment conglomerates on the planet to negotiate a new film and TV contract before the current one expires July 1. If the bargaining fails, the result could be a strike that shuts down Hollywood, costing the Los Angeles economy as much as $250 million a week in direct costs, according to the L.A. County Economic Development Corp.

Any time the stakes are that high, studio executives, agents and other Hollywood unions will be anxious. But what has them doubly nervous is Daniels--and not because he's become a Jimmy Hoffa-style tough union leader, or one of the MBA-types that lead many of today's unions by using sophisticated campaigns to wage war. He is neither of those.

Instead, Hollywood is running scared because it doesn't know what Daniels is, or wants. He might be a radical who will lead actors off a cliff. Or perhaps he's a puppet of a militant group of rarely employed actors who have seized control of the union. He certainly says little at board meetings, often letting others run the show. Or maybe he's the kind of president needed to ready SAG for the future.

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