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COMPANY TOWN

Ken Howard, a moderate, elected Screen Actors Guild president

He defeats main rival Anne-Marie Johnson with 44% of the vote while his coalition consolidates its power on the national board, winning a majority of the 22 seats up for grabs on the 69-member board.

September 25, 2009|Richard Verrier

Ken Howard scored his second big win this week.

Screen Actors Guild members elected the veteran character actor, who on Sunday won an Emmy for his role in HBO's "Grey Gardens," as the group's new president, capping a bitter election campaign that divided Hollywood's largest union.

Howard soundly defeated "In the Heat of the Night" actress Anne-Marie Johnson, SAG's first vice president, who was backed by the faction that swept outgoing president Alan Rosenberg into office four years ago. A coalition led by Howard consolidated its power on the national board, winning a majority of the 22 seats up for grabs on the 69-member board.

That further tilts the balance of power inside the 125,000-member union toward a group of moderate actors endorsed by Tom Hanks and George Clooney who led a revolt against the union's leadership. The group triggered the firing of the union's former union executive director, Doug Allen, and appointed former general counsel David White as interim executive director.

A similar shift at the top recently occurred at the Writers Guild of America, West, where members tapped "Southland" executive producer John Wells over "MASH" writer Elias Davis, who had been strongly supported by former President Patric Verrone. Verrone led the union during last year's three-month strike by screenwriters.

The election results could portend less combative relations with the major studios, although anxieties that have fueled labor unrest -- how talent is paid in the Internet era, for example -- remain. Compared with 2007, when the last round of elections were held, actors and writers are facing a substantially depressed Hollywood economy. Jobs for guild members have been vanishing as studios cut back the number of movies and TV shows they produce, and low-cost reality shows have displaced scripted dramas and comedies, which are key employers of talent.

Howard, who starred in the 1970s TV show "The White Shadow," advocated having SAG merge with the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, to strengthen their leverage in negotiations.

AFTRA suspended its longtime bargaining partnership with SAG last year after a dispute over turf, and then cut its cut own prime-time TV contract with the studios. AFTRA, which had played second fiddle to the larger actors union, has emerged as the go-to union for new prime-time TV shows, weakening SAG's grip in an area it traditionally dominated.

Johnson, whose credits include "That's So Raven," favored reviving the bargaining partnership with AFTRA but opposed an outright merger, saying the unions' memberships are too dissimilar. About 44,000 actors belong to both unions, but AFTRA also represents broadcast announcers, recording artists and radio show hosts.

Johnson, who was re-elected to the board, had high-level supporters including Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and former SAG President Ed Asner, who also were elected to the board.

But her close association with Rosenberg may have hurt her presidential run. Rosenberg waged an unsuccessful fight to defeat a contract negotiated by AFTRA, fiercely opposed a SAG contract that was approved overwhelmingly by members, and lost a battle to keep Allen in his job.

Howard won 47% of the vote; Johnson garnered 33%. The third presidential candidate, Seymour Cassel, who was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1968 movie "Faces," won 18% of the vote, and Asmar Muhammad, a relative unknown who also ran as an independent, captured less than 2%. Amy Aquino, a former board member who ran with Howard, was elected secretary-treasurer.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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