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Richard Masur Interview

Richard MasurForget 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 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 SAG's jurisdiction.

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 the industry.
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 Guild?

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 community?

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 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 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 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 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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