Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International   |   March 12, 2002 at 6:57 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, March 12 (UPI) -- Actors Ronald Reagan and George Murphy made exceptionally successful politicians, but the current crop of thespians is having a more difficult time.

Both Reagan and Murphy were president of the huge Screen Actors Guild. But that kind of step to big-time politics is questionable in 2002.

Take the current travails of SAG president Melissa Gilbert who was forced to win the office twice in three months because a dissident group in the guild thought the original vote in November was tainted.

Gilbert, 37, won the first election fair and square in November and took over the reins of the 98,000-member union after beating actress Valerie Harper for president.

Harper, 61, claimed foul because of a technicality allowing New York guild members to vote after the close of the Hollywood contingent balloting.

Suddenly, it was something like a bloodless tong war with adorable Laura Ingalls of "Little House on the Prairie" versus Rhoda Morgenstern, the shrewish neighbor in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Gilbert spent her first three months as SAG proxy dealing with the defeated but defiant Harper demanding a re-election.

Harper should have stayed in bed.

Harper succeeded in having Gilbert's election nullified, even though the original returns favored Gilbert 45.3 to Harper's 39.4 percent.

So at a cost of more than $100,000 (which SAG could ill afford), guild members voted again last month in greater numbers than in the first election.

The second time around Gilbert thrashed Harper 56.5 percent to 33.4 percent.

God forbid there should be a third election for the two-year term.

Neither election was a popularity contest, but a test of SAG's pugnacity in threatening another strike against studios and independent producers for more money and other considerations.

The most recent SAG strike, which paralyzed Hollywood movie and TV production for weeks, was a costly flop.

Supported by then SAG president William Daniels, the ill-fated strike failed in its unrealistic goals, costing actors millions in wages and seriously depleting guild coffers.

Gilbert ran on a platform more amenable to agents, studios and filmmakers than Harper's hard-line approach in dealing with Hollywood's tough power brokers.

Voting SAG members clearly favored a less confrontational SAG president, opting for less grandiose demands and supporting a leader who will work in harmony with the bosses.

However, Gilbert's presidency will be no bed of roses. Elliott Gould was elected recording secretary and Kent McCord was elected treasurer.

Both men strongly supported loser Harper who will retain her seat on SAG's unwieldy 107-member board of directors where Gilbert can expect more opposition and bickering.

There is a probability the cumbersome board will be reduced to 69 members to streamline SAG decisions and make the guild more effective.

On the other hand, Gilbert should find plenty of support from members in asking financial contributions from producers to the SAG's health and pension funds for members whose agents misappropriate funds.

Following her re-election, Gilbert said, "Our membership has once again spoken.

"I'm honored to have been trusted by the SAG membership. With the re-run election now behind us, I welcome focusing on the crucial issues at hand including the proposed Association of Talent Agents agreement, which is being voted on by the board of directions, and the May 1 enforcement of Global Rule One."

The Global Rule provides that anyone in any country hiring members of the guild for television or movie work will pay that actor according to SAG minimums and other provisions of guild contracts.

Candidate Harper finally acknowledged Gilbert was indeed the choice of the SAG electorate -- without mentioning her name.

Harper said, "I want to sincerely thank everyone who supported my candidacy. In this election, re-run in a fair and uniform manner, the real winner is the democratic process.

"I am grateful to everyone who participated in it. As a member of the board of directors, I look forward to immediately focusing on the crucial issues facing the membership of our guild."

It would appear that Gilbert could take Harper's words at face value.

While a total of 91,054 ballots were mailed to eligible voters, only 37,742 members saw fit to vote, only 41.4 percent of the total were returned.

Yet that total was one of the highest returns of election ballots in the guild's 69-year history. Last November's election drew only a 28.1 percent return.

Said one disillusioned member, "Actors don't make good politicians even though they may play the part to perfection.

"What this union needs is some rough and tough labor leaders who know how to deal with fat cats and big bosses in suits.

"How can an actor in the middle of negotiations bicycle between a good role in a film and attend meetings in a labor dispute and do good jobs in both?"

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