The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and film studios on Wednesday announced their intentions to reopen contract negotiations after a three-month impasse that has been punctuated by last month’s additional walkout of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Both WGA and SAG-AFTRA are concerned about streaming residuals and the impact of Artificial Intelligence on film and TV. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Unions, Strikes, and the Public: What Matters?” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored the similarities between the current “double strike” in Hollywood and a labor action in 1960, which focused on the rapidly-expanding television residual market. The role of new technologies was also central to a 1980 actors strike, which became a referendum on the fledgling video cassette industry.
In late July 1980, the 65,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists – then separate guilds – walked out, seeking both higher base pay and residuals for pay-per-view, video cassette, and videodisk sales – a very new market. Initially, SAG and AFTRA were seeking up to 12% of profits from the new markets.
The walkout quickly paused production on several now-iconic films. The Bill Murray military comedy Stripes, the Jane and Henry Fonda father-daughter tearjerker On Golden Pond, the soapy Jaqueline Bisset literary industry drama Rich and Famous, the Jack Nicholson neo-noir The Border, and the Burt Reynolds parenting comedy Paternity were all delayed. The cast of the comedy Arthur, starring Liza Minelli and Dudley Moore, walked out of a climactic wedding scene filming at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan.
On television, the strike delayed the resolution of the famed Season 3 finale cliffhanger on top-ranked primetime CBS soap Dallas. The show’s star, the oil magnate J.R. Ewing, had been shot – seemingly fatally – by an unknown assailant, spawning a nationwide “Who Shot J.R.?” cultural phenomenon. The strike meant that the beginning of Season 4 and its much-hyped revelations might edge into the holiday season, where viewership usually declined.
The Dallas delays also sparked a debate over the necessity of striking for increased actor pay. Larry Hagman, who played J.R., was the highest-compensated actor on TV, netting a then-shocking $80,000 per episode. Hagman’s windfall, however, was not reflected in the paychecks of the vast majority of SAG and AFTRA members. 90% of SAG actors earned less than $10,000 per year, and many suffered as the strike stretched into August and September 1980.
One struggling actor, Barry Weitz, had to abandon saving up for a house he and his wife had been planning to purchase for nine years. Weitz, however, was passionate in his belief that the strike – and the pay and residuals that he hoped to secure – were worth it. “We’d give up ten houses so that actors in this town can get a little dignity,” he told the progressive magazine In These Times.
The strike cost Hollywood producers some $40 million per week and brought a diverse slate of protesting actors to the fore. The conservative, old-school Charlton Heston and the more playful Elliott Gould both walked picket lines, and Ed Asner, the acerbic star of the popular newsroom TV series Lou Grant, railed against the greed of studio executives.
Many striking actors highlighted the importance of securing residuals for the emerging video cassettes market. The technology was truly in its infancy in 1980; Cassettes cost between $50 and $90, and only 2% of American households had VCRs.
Still, actors like Jeffrey Kramer, whose role as a robot in the Andy Kaufman-Bernadette Peters sci-fi comedy Heartbeeps had been interrupted by the strike, saw the tea leaves, offering a bold prediction to the Washington Post in late July: “There’s a real feeling that this is the future for us. We’re all eventually going to have our own home entertainment centers, I think. I know it’s a new industry, but we all know it’s going to be the most lucrative of them all.”
19-year-old Rae Dawn Chong, the actress daughter of stoner icon Tommy Chong, also highlighted the future potential of the cassette market to the Christian Science Monitor in late August: “This video cassette thing is such a strong stand, it’s one we have to take, or else we’re in trouble. We have to realize people aren’t going to be going to movies as much anymore when they can stay home and watch it on a video cassette machine for free.”
Ed Asner, meanwhile, argued that the video issue was not a new cash grab from actors, but rather an application of conventional wisdom on residuals to a rapidly-changing world. In a Los Angeles Times column, Asner explained, “The practice of financial participation is not new at all: producers would merely be applying the existing policy toward residual payments to a burgeoning new field, thereby ensuring that as the entertainment industry grows our security will grow with it.”
Asner even lent his support to striking Minneapolis newspaper reporters, who were fighting for additional compensation tied to the rise of another technological innovation – the rise of electronic papers on early computer server CompuServe.
The Austin American Statesman put it bluntly in early August: “Actors’ Strike Case of Man Vs. Technology.”
The battle for Hollywood’s high-tech future soon took on new fronts. On August 19th, an out-of-work actor named Frank Verroca climbed the “O” of the Hollywood Sign in a much-publicized stunt to highlight the stakes of the strike. Also in mid-August, Baretta star Robert Blake – during picketing at Universal Studios – stopped traffic, knocking on each car window in hopes of discussing the strike with drivers.
The publicity-driven actions continued. A group of actors including Asner, Hagman, Jane Fonda, and Henry Winkler, who played Fonzi on the nostalgic sitcom Happy Days, orchestrated a September fundraiser at the Hollywood Bowl featuring country singer Waylon Jennings and comedy superstars Robin Williams and Lily Tomlin. Winkler highlighted the added importance of the strike for actors without his name recognition and income: “No fellow actor should have to go hungry. No fellow actor should have to lose their phone. No fellow actor should have their car taken from them or their mortgage foreclosed.”
And on September 7th, almost all of the actors nominated for Emmy Awards boycotted the ceremony. Syd Cassyd, who had founded the Emmys’ parent organization, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, was understanding, arguing that the stakes of the video cassette market was an appropriate reason for downsizing his show. “Yes, the show might be affected,” he conceded. “But the deeper issues must be settled. There is no right or wrong in this fight. It’s a look into the future. Next comes writers, directors, producers, et al. The video future is so huge that there is room for us all. A Solomon must settle it.”
A wanna-be Solomon was Powers Boothe, who opted to show up at the ceremony against the boycott and won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special for his portrayal of the cult leader Jim Jones in the TV movie “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.”
Boothe’s defiant attendance became the stuff of legend, particularly after Boothe offered a series of intriguingly individualistic, arguably self-serving interpretations of his stand: “This is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest,” he told the press. “I debated whether to come, but this is America, and one has to do what he believes in.”
Boothe argued that his move might even move the needle on the tense strike, saying, “Maybe my action will depolarize the situation and get people to stop thinking about this in terms of good guys and bad guys. All anyone wants is to go back to work with an equitable settlement — and as soon as possible.”
And he suggested that his journey into the mind of the mass-murdering Jones had influenced his decision to cross the picket line. “You know, what I got from the ‘Guyana’ film, what I learned from playing that guy, was that we are absolutely responsible for our own selves. If we don’t use our own intelligence and emotional life to decipher what we think is right in the world, then we have become less than individuals and, certainly in this country, less than free citizens.”
Boothe was not alone in bucking the strike. Non-actors in Hollywood, and particularly those in support roles, were economically decimated by the action. Lorimar Productions, which produced Dallas, laid off 900 of its 1,100 employees. Some 45,000 fired caterers, hair stylists, drivers, and wardrobe suppliers stood in long unemployment lines across Los Angeles.
Larry Lemaire, a laid-off film developer for Technicolor Corporation, minced no words during a press interview in the Van Nuys, California unemployment office line. “I think this strike is a crock of horse manure. The actors are only concerned about themselves. They’re shooting for the moon. Their demands are ridiculous.”
At the Hollywood Bowl fundraiser, one parking lot protester passed out shirts reading “Sloth – Avarice – Greed” in a parody of the SAG acronym and logo.
Despite the pushback, the strike barreled on. A tentative deal was struck on the video cassette issue in late September, and a full strike accord was completed in principle on October 23rd, 1980. In addition to a pay raise, actors would get 4.5% of the profits from pay-per-view and video cassette and disk sales. In a concession by actors to the youthfulness of the video cassette industry, the percentage on cassettes and disks only kicked in after 100,000 copies were sold.
Emmy’s founder Cassyd’s prediction that other industry players would follow actors in striking for a piece of the new video technologies, however, was prescient. In April 1981, the WGA went on strike to secure similar profit-sharing provisions for cassette and pay-per-view. And now, four decades later, both actors and writers – with streaming and AI standing in for the now-defunct fancy technologies of yesteryear – are fighting for their share of the new innovations once again.
For more on the similarities between the 1980 and 2023 Hollywood strikes, listen to film historian Ben Mankiewicz’s recent interview about the two actions on NPR’s Morning Edition.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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