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Playing his role off field, off screen

Doug Allen gave up an NFL career to work as a labor negotiator. Now, he's representing the Screen Actors Guild.

September 02, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

As a rookie linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, Doug Allen was so aggressive, even in practice, that his teammates had a nickname for him: "Slugo."

That was quite a compliment considering the talent on the team, which included all-star O.J. Simpson. But it was Allen's fearlessness off the field that caught the attention of his peers, who tapped him to be the team's alternate representative for the NFL Players Assn. during a preseason strike in 1974.

Despite a warning from Bills owner Ralph Wilson that the selection would be bad for Allen's career, he embraced the role. After two seasons, he quit football altogether to take a job organizing political campaigns for the AFL-CIO before returning to the league to eventually become the assistant executive director at the players association.

"It was much more in line with how I wanted to spend my life," said Allen, who was chosen this year to head the Screen Actors Guild. "The labor movement appealed to me because it makes a difference in people's lives."

That conviction will be put to the test next year when Allen enters crucial contract talks on behalf of nearly 120,000 actors. As the union's chief negotiator, Allen will play a pivotal role in forging a deal with producers and averting a potentially debilitating strike that could shut down movie and television production.

He'll square off against another former football player, the studios' scrappy chief negotiator, J. Nicholas Counter III.

Labor tensions have escalated amid concerns that talent will be shortchanged as digital technology and the Internet upend Hollywood. Although the actors' contract expires June 30, studios already have accelerated production in anticipation of walkouts by actors as well as writers, with whom they are currently in rancorous negotiations.

Allen is no stranger to labor unrest, having weathered several strikes at the NFL, including a three-week walkout in 1987 that helped establish the free agency rights of players to chose which teams they play for.

"Strikes are blunt instruments and they are battles of attrition for everyone involved, but sometimes they are necessary when management is intransigent and unreasonable," said Allen, the eldest son of a social worker mother and a hospital administrator father.

He says he's hopeful actors can reach a deal without a strike. "I'm looking forward to achieving what I think will be a historic watershed in labor relations in this industry," he said.

Allen's hiring itself was a watershed, marking the first time SAG had tapped someone from outside of the entertainment industry to run the union. Allen also took a pay cut when he accepted the $450,000-a-year job. A federal filing lists his 2006 salary at the players association at $1.9 million. But he said that included a retirement payout and that his actual salary was only modestly higher than his current one.

Allen, who presides over a staff of more than 400, says he wanted the challenge of helping unify the organization and has always been drawn to the entertainment industry. Allen once played John Proctor in a high school production of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" and even considered applying for a drama scholarship at Columbia University. Ultimately, he chose to play football and study industrial relations at Pennsylvania State University, where he was a starting linebacker on the school's undefeated 1973 team.

Besides, he says, "there are a lot of similarities between actors and football players. They're performers who are in a highly competitive business who are only as good as their last performance and who are represented by agents."

The 55-year-old union chief is SAG's third leader in six years, replacing Greg Hessinger, who was ousted after a slate led by Alan Rosenberg swept control of the board. Like his predecessor, Bob Pisano, Hessinger had clashed with a faction of the union that wanted to take a harder line in negotiations.

So far, Allen has managed to avoid such conflicts, thanks to an aggressive effort to improve communications between the union's leadership and its diverse rank and file.

Rosenberg and Allen have crisscrossed the country, meeting hundreds of members and helping to ease tensions between Hollywood and various regional branches. He's also expanded the union's organizing department to sign up new productions.

"Doug Allen doesn't speak the language of employers; he speaks the language of workers, unionists and performers," said Rosenberg, who is seeking a second term as president. "He's a great communicator."

As a welcoming gift, Rosenberg presented Allen with a framed copy of a Buffalo Evening News article about him as a rising star on the Bills, which is propped up in a corner of his office in the Miracle Mile district.

The wavy blond mane has given way to a pointed shaved head, but he retains the broad shoulders and swagger of a man who isn't afraid to knock heads and speak his mind.

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