the entertainment news stories of million-dollar paychecks. There was
a time when singing, acting and dancing was less glamour and riches and
more like a sweatshop. Kitty Carlisle can recall the hard years. "I can
remember working thirty-six hours straight through the night. Nobody could
say anything and nobody did. We worked as long as the studio wanted us
to work. We were all in it together. Like people stuck on a lifeboat,"
said the former actor. That was before the American Labor Movement hit
Hollywood. The Screen Actors Guild guided the trade through the turbulent
growing pains and political turmoil of early moviemaking and provided
performers with an advocate that has continued to shine into the current
golden era of blockbuster filmmaking. The first president of the organization,
Eddie Cantor had an amazing amount of foresight in 1934 when he said,
"When I am gone and forgotten the Guild will still be here. Other willing
hands will take up the torch and carry it forward. If you stand together
you can not lose. The guild is for you. And you must be for the guild.
Stand together." Richard Masur, the President of the Screen Actors Guild
has picked up that torch and caries it today. In Masur's own words, "In
1933, when sound was still a new feature in movies, and television no
more than an amusing idea on a drawing board, actors in the burgeoning
film industry were lucky to earn $15 for a very long day. That marked
the year of the founding of the Screen Actors Guild, and in the more than
60 years since, the Guild has continued to bring dignity and respect to
the professional screen actor by guaranteeing a living wage and a safe,
supportive working environment." Imagine working on a film with unrestricted
hours, no enforced turn-around and no required meal breaks. Imagine working
under a seven-year contract that you cannot break and more than likely
will be forced to renew, for a producer who can tell you who you can marry,
what your morals must be, even what political opinions to hold. This was
Hollywood for actors in 1933 under the studio system. Rebel against the
studio and you were in for a hard time, better to quit while you're ahead.
It took a lot of courage to
join a union back in the anti-labor climate of Hollywood in the 1930s
when SAG began ñ especially a union for motion picture performers. When
a ragtag group of theatre-trained actors began a whispering campaign at
a private men's club known as The Masquers in 1933, it was an uphill battle.
Members had to use passwords, backdoors, and secret alleyways to elude
studio detectives. With AFL recognition in 1935, the organization became
an affiliated union, but it wasn't until mid-1937, when the studios accepted
While the Guild had won actors
better working conditions, the studios still basically "owned" their stars.
As there was a tacit agreement among studios not to raid each other for
talent and actors had no control over which roles they played. That all
changed when Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, refused to live by the
status quo. Bette Davis, tired of the inappropriate roles Warner Brothers
was forcing on her, rebelled and was suspended without pay. When Warner
Brothers issued an injunction against her working anywhere else, Davis
sued and lost, but a rebellious precedent had been set. After her triumph
in Gone With the Wind in 1939, Olivia de Havilland followed suit
and was put on six-month suspension. When Warner Brothers refused to release
her from her seven-year contract at the end of its term she sued and won
in the landmark "de Havilland Decision" which ended the term contract
system. A few years later, the Supreme Court dealt another fatal blow
to the studios in its anti-trust Paramount Decree, which ended motion
picture industry monopolies, clearing the way for independents to enter
the trade. Suddenly, actors had the power to control their own careers.
When Jimmy Stewart negotiated to work on Winchester '73 in 1950,
for a percentage of gross receipts, he set a precedent for star deal power
that is still in force today. With the advent of television, the studio
system was dealt its final blow. SAG was able to win rights for actors
through its first commercials contract in 1950, residual payments for
television reruns in 1952 and, in 1960, after a strike, residuals for
films shown on television. With the implementation of the Pension and
Health Plan, won in the 1960 negotiation, and residual gains, SAGs role
in filling the studio system void and finding the means to empower its
members was well on its way.
Today, the freedom and power
for stars brought about by the demise of the studio system, is evident
in the fact that most stars have their own production companies becoming,
in essence, their own mini-studios. The actor who produces, directs, initiates
his/her own projects is no longer a phenomenon but an accepted part of
From the clandestine meetings of a group of valiant character actors in
the 1930s to the present, the Screen Actors Guild and the people who represent
it have become a powerful voice for performers. The Guild's headquarters
reflect that genesis, from a modest one-room office in Hollywood over
60 years ago to its current modern facility in Museum Square that accommodates
nearly 200 employees. The Guild has come a long way over the years with
the establishment of 20 distinctive branches around the country all serving
actors. That great accomplishment and the history of the six national
offices are testaments to SAG's journey. ABILITY sat down with Screen
Actors Guild President Richard Masur to discuss the role he is playing
in ensuring diversity and accessibility in the trade today.
CHET COOPER: How long have you been president of the Screen Actors
RICHARD MASUR: This is my second two-year term and I'm under a
year into that second term.
CC: How did you get involved with the deaf and hard of hearing
RM: I have been on the periphery of the deaf community for about
twenty-five years. That is when I met Linda Bough who was the actress
on Sesame Street in New York while she was doing a play and a daytime
drama. She was the first deaf actor to make it as a regular on a television
show. We had a mutual friend on the cast of the Broadway show I was working
on who had worked with the National Theatre of the Deaf and who now runs
that organization. His name is Billy Reese. When we were rehearsing I
asked Billy to teach me how to sign. So he taught me some signs and the
letters and how to spell. Once you learn how to spell then you can ask,
"How do you spell?" First you learn a set of letters without any sound
to relate them to ñ they are just combinations recalled by memory. There
is no relation to sound for deaf people. It is a totally different mental
process. Spelling is very easy to practice yourself whereas signing is
not. So I would sit on the subway riding around New York and I would spell
whatever I would see. When I watched a movie I would spell words as they
came up. I got fairly fluent with my spelling but since I was practicing
alone I wasn't learning how to read signs. I can ask questions. When I
am around a deaf person for about an hour I start relaxing and it starts
coming to me easier. Right now I'm pretty rusty though.
CC: So how did you go from spelling to signing?
RM: Linda and I got to be friends and one day Billy couldn't meet
us for lunch one day and I was in a situation where I had to really concentrate
on signing. I had to. The more things we did together the better I got.
We were both there about another month before my show closed until her
job was up and she went back to Connecticut. We saw each other on and
off. I lost track of her for a time. And
then I was flying up to New York one day and there was a woman sitting
across the isle reading a book and finger spelling. I assumed she was
deaf and at one point she looked over and we signed "hi" to each other
and signed a bit back and forth. She said, "Are you deaf?" and I said,
"No". And then I asked her the same and she said, "No". She was going
to visit friends at the national theatre for the deaf and she said "You
should come up and visit." So I did and I saw Linda there again and got
reconnected. But picking up the signing again was very tough. I
actually then went on to direct an after-school special where one of the
characters was deaf. They hired me without even knowing I had any connection
to the community. I then came into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as the
board liaison for the committee for performers with disabilities. I convinced
Phylis Fr, a deaf actress who did Children of a Lesser God, to
run for the board and she made it. She was the first deaf person ever
on the board of directors of the guild. I think it was very difficult
for her to sit through some of our very long meetings, which would run
over five hours. That is a very long time to concentrate on signed translations.
But she did a wonderful job and chaired the committee for people with
disabilities for the time she was here.
CC: How has this history effected your work with SAG?
RM: I know deaf people. I have discussed the issues with them I've
also thought about them a lot so I have some insights that go a little
further than people who haven't had contact with the deaf community. So
much of what defines culture is Language. Take Canada for example, francophones
and anglophones are defined by their language. The difference between
deafness and any other disability is that there is no way to put yourself
in a position of knowing what it would be like because you can't stop
yourself from hearing your own breath or your own heartbeat. You can not
remove sound entirely from your life. You can get a sense of what being
blind is like by closing and covering your eyes which provides a source
of empathy because we can all project ourselves to that. But people who
think they can project themselves into deafness are mistaken because you
can't. And I'm not talking about imagining what a deaf person's whole
life is like I even mean just realizing what it is like for an instant.
CC: How does SAG work to ensure that opportunities for people
with disabilities are there? What is your stance on casting roles that
include a disability by actors with disabilities?
RM: We have very specific language in our contracts. It all has
to do with access and not requirements. The reasoning behind that is we
represent 100,000 actors, performers, singers and dancers. Being an actor
myself I realize that all actors believe they are qualified to play any
role. If you showed me a script with a black woman character I would tell
you that I could do it. That is what we do. We act as if we are someone
else. No one will ever argue that someone could have played Helen Keller
better than Patty Duke. It was an incredibly demanding role and I don't
think anyone can argue that it was a false performance. On the other hand
could anyone have played the role Marlee Matlin did in Children of
a Lesser God and done any better ñ of course not. Our contract language
says that if you have a character with a disability, indicated in the
script, then you have an affirmative responsibility to audition actors
who have that disability. If you have a character that is blind you have
a responsibility to seek out blind actors.
CC: It sounds a lot like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
RM: Yes it was modeled after that legislation. You have to give
access to people with disabilities but there is no requirement to hire
them. What I mean by affirmative obligation is that producers must take
the necessary steps to include opportunities for people with disabilities
and a vast majority of them do. Occasionally we will get a report that
something has been cast with a high profile person playing the role and
no one was auditioned. There are cases for example where there is no reason
not to hire a deaf actor but where that hasn't occurred because the producers
wanted a big name. At this point there are no penalties for violations.
I know members of the deaf community have been pushing for that but I
don't know what that would accomplish. No penalties would be sufficient
to make them change the process. Instead it is a moral obligation. You
have to give people the opportunity to prove themselves. It is complicated
for deaf actors. There are deaf actors who don't speak or speak very little.
They can never compete for roles where speech is required where Marlee
can. Most profoundly deaf people have speech that is very difficult to
understand. Access is a problem all around ñ women, seniors, and minorities.
For example the box office value of a woman once she gets past forty and
a man past fifty really starts declining. This kind of discriminatory
behavior is unfortunately occurring all over the place. The deaf community
is in a favorable position because they have a national theatre and training
groups of their own to get them started. Deaf actors have often acquired
very valuable skills and experience before they get their break. On the
other hand, I empathize with the blind community. They have had their
problems breaking through because many in the industry believe that anyone
can recreate that experience ñ which is unfair. I don't know too many
sighted people that have the experience reading Braille.
CC: Where do you see the best opportunities to get a start?
RM: Believe it or not with the advertisers. They see that there
is a market out there and they know they can sell products. For example,
the first time McDonald's put a deaf person in a commercial they saw a
jump in sales. I think that happens with other kinds of disabilities and
products and that is something that is being realized more and more. In
terms of dramatic programming or theatrical motion pictures, what I've
found is that the industry is becoming more aware. Adjustments are being
made. Christopher Reeve as you know just remade Rear Window. It
is going to be very interesting to see the reactions to that. Christopher
is the first real movie star who then acquired a severe spinal disability.
After that accident I told Chris, "You should talk to people about playing
a lawyer. There is no reason that you couldn't do it. Try to change people's
perceptions of it." But I think this is a great role. It is a natural
remake of the film. At the same time Chris brings something new to it.
In the original Jimmy Stewart has a broken leg so he is only temporarily
in that situation looking out his window while recovering. That won't
be the case in the remake it is an entirely different issue in the background
of the film.
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