The SAG-WGA Double Strike of 1960: How Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Ronald Reagan, Desi Arnaz and More Guided Hollywood Back to Work

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis held a packed union meeting at their Beverly Hills home. Desi Arnaz poured his heart out in an open letter to the industry while Lew Wasserman worked the numbers quietly behind the scenes. And it was none other than future Oval Office occupant Ronald Reagan who led the Screen Actors Guild through the war in 1960, the last time that Hollywood experienced such a season of labor strife with actors and the Writers Guild of America on strike at the same time.

And it was already a tumultuous time for the industry. In 1959, Congress and the Justice Department were deep into their investigation of “payola” corruption involving music labels and radio station owners. Congress also held hearings that year on the notorious TV quiz show scandals (see 1994’s “Quiz Show” for a primer).

For Hollywood, the “Mad Men” era began with strike fever. Coverage of the brewing labor conflicts played out in the pages of Hollywood-based Daily Variety and the New York-based weekly Variety as contract expiration deadlines approached for SAG, AFTRA and WGA in January 1960. Then and now, the rituals around the collective bargaining process are remarkably the same.

Each union developed contract demands, created strike funds, held member meetings and floated trial balloons in order to rally around key deal-breaker issues. And verbal sparring ensued. Studio leaders pointed to the high failure rate of movies amid a changing marketplace. Page one stories in the last two issues of Daily Variety for 1959 set the tone for the coming year.

Spyros Skouras, 20th Century Fox president, vowed to wage “a struggle to the death” over the actors and writers demands in an interview published on page 1 of the Dec. 30, 1959, edition. He even suggested that Fox might fold its tent in the U.S. for a while and work in Europe if Hollywood was hit with a prolonged work stoppage.

The following day, Michael Franklin, executive secretary of the WGA West, shot back with an interview that drew the banner headline on the New Year’s Eve edition: “WGA to Skouras: Join ‘Struggle.’ “ Franklin’s message to management was: Take some responsibility and come to the table yourself if you want to avoid a work stoppage.

“When subordinates are doing the actual negotiating and their superiors are not involved, it becomes easy for the superior to say ‘Tell ‘em no,’ but if the company presidents were to sit down across the table from us and become aware of the problems and issues involved the results could be more fruitful,” Franklin said.

One big difference in the creative community then and now was that the collective bargaining process was far more diffuse. SAG and the WGA both negotiated separate contracts for film work and for TV work, with separate bargaining agencies for the studios. Broadly speaking, the Association of Motion Picture Producers represented the largest studios and production groups for film-related contracts. The Alliance of Television Film Producers handled duties for small-screen deals. That’s a sharp contrast to the past 40-odd years, when virtually all Hollywood union contracts flow through the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Adding to the confusion in filmdom, unions were more likely back then to negotiate deals with individual studios and production companies, or in some cases clusters of small and medium-sized producers that banded together to negotiate as a unit. United Artists in this era served as a distributor and bargaining agent clearinghouse for numerous indie producers, hence references in Variety stories to “the UA indies.” All of that made it harder for industry insiders to keep tabs on the state of work stoppages and contract talks at any given time. While contracts that run in three-year durations are the industry standard these days, 60-odd years ago the time span of pacts seemed to range from three to six years.

When all was said and done in 1960, SAG waged a four-week walkout against film producers (Universal was a big exception) from early March to early April. The WGA walkout started Jan. 17, 1960, against most of the major studios and large production companies. It ran for 155 days on the TV side and 147 days on the film side. Picket lines and other public demonstrations had been a factor in Hollywood’s intense strikes and labor conflicts in the 1940s, but there wasn’t much in the way of picket activity for writers and actors in 1960.

Going into contract talks that began on Jan. 4, 1960, SAG was clear on its two main priorities on behalf of its members, which then numbered about 14,000; (today, SAG-AFTRA represents more than 160,000 members).

The union wanted to establish a pension and health fund commensurate with plans the WGA and Directors Guild of America secured in contract battles throughout the 1950s as the television industry emerged. SAG was also laser-focused on “the post-’48” — or its demand for a cut of the revenue that studios were then poised to rake in by selling movies made after 1948 to television networks. At first Hollywood studios balked at the notion of licensing their top-flight recent movies for television broadcast. But by the late 1950s the money on the table was too big to ignore for studios that were struggling. In one way or another, Hollywood’s major unions all had “post-’48” battles.

As SAG and the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) got into what Variety called “bare-knuckle, shirtsleeve negotiations,” the industry was riveted when superstar couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (mom and dad to Jamie Lee Curtis, who was about 14 months old at the time) decided to open their Beverly Hills home to an informational meeting for nervous actors.

The meeting was called by “Miss Leigh,” Daily Variety reported in the banner story of its Feb. 11, 1960, edition, because as Curtis told our reporter, “We felt there had not been enough explanation by the guild of the details of the negotiations” and that actors want more specifics on “what we are striking for.”

For SAG, the meeting was a triumph. “Actors Meeting Backs SAG 100%” was the banner on the Feb. 18, 1960, edition. Reagan and Jack Dales, the legendary SAG national executive secretary, solidified the A-listers’ support over the course of two hours and 15 minutes with a tough crowd of 100 stars including John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews. None other than David Niven served as chair of the meeting. Journalists were invited into the Curtis-Leigh home but were not allowed to attend the meeting itself. Per the reportage of “Just for Variety” columnist Army Archerd, Curtis popped into the reporters’ holding pen periodically to give updates a la “Lions-39, Christians-37.” Archerd also had the dish that Jack Lemmon got the time wrong and showed up just as the meeting ended. Beverly Hills police were summoned to help direct traffic around the evening meeting. Curtis and Leigh shelled out for what were described as “parking boys” to handle the cars. “It’s our contribution to the strike fund,” Curtis quipped.

Charlton Heston and James Garner were among the notable stars on SAG’s negotiating committee. SAG and the AMPP held bargaining sessions on and off during the strike, and ultimately came to an agreement without too much outside squabbling. However, the studios played hardball and used the force majeure card early on to shutter select films, even before the strikes were formally called.

In the end, the studios held the line on SAG’s demand that actors receive 2% of the revenue received from TV licensing of post-1948 movies. But SAG achieved every other major contract demand, including a royalty payment system for TV licensing revenue for films produced after Jan. 31, 1960. It also secured studio bucks for the formal establishment of its pension and health fund. SAG’s victory came just as the WGA and DGA opened the doors for members to join their hard-fought P&H benefits plan on March 31, 1960.

For SAG, the studios committed to contributing an extra 5% of all film and TV salaries into the health pension fund. Plus, in something of an exchange for not getting a cut of the post-1948 movie revenue windfall, the studios kicked in another $2.6 million in total payments in recognition of seasoned actors “past service” to the industry.

Reagan was cheered at a SAG membership meeting at the Hollywood Palladium on April 18, 1960, when the pact was formally ratified by SAG members. At the event he no doubt honed the political skills that would lead him to become governor of California just six years later, followed by two terms as U.S. president. Reagan explained the union’s capitulation on the post-’48 revenue fight at the Palladium meeting. He did so in blunt terms that were not kind to SAG’s industry sibling IATSE.

“When one guild [IATSE] asks for double what everyone else gets, even though they admitted they had no right, we knew that to continue that demand would mean disaster for some producing companies. So, with an eye on the health of the industry, we gave up the demand,” Reagan said, as Daily Variety reported on April 19, 1960. (Two months later, Reagan would resign from his post as SAG president to avoid conflict of interest concerns after he signed a deal to produce TV shows.)

After the actors settled, the WGA stayed in battle mode on multiple fronts for about eight more weeks. The WGA’s negotiations were complicated by the fact that guild members, the WGA negotiating committee and the WGA board were at odds, and that dysfunction led to the guild to reject not one but two settlement agreements with producers. By May, the famed Lew Wasserman of MCA/Universal fame was working behind the scenes to find an alternative path for compensating screenwriters for the TV revenue flowing in to studios. WGA negotiating committee member Donn Mullally presented Wasserman’s complicated proposal to members as “the greatest step forward in the history of writing in Hollywood,” as reported in the May 20, 1960, edition of Daily Variety.

Still, by month’s end the WGA and both bargaining entities – the AMPP and Alliance of Television Film Producers – were back to trading barbs. After a dispute over a deal term definition at the 11th-hour, producers hastily broke off talks and withdrew their lastest offer entirely. Producers accused the guild of duplicity; the WGA countered that the sudden nixing of the offer was a “propaganda move” to unsettle its membership.

“The Guild as always stands ready to negotiate at the bargaining table. If the producers feel a genuine concern for this industry and for the other crafts and unions affected by this strike they will abandon these childish attempts to manipulate the Writers Guild of America membership and will come back to the bargaining table like responsible and grown up men,” the WGA said in a statement, as reported in the May 27, 1960, edition of Daily Variety.

On June 6, 1960, a heartfelt plea to both sides for movement came from producer Desi Arnaz, the co-star of “I Love Lucy” who also headed the prosperous Desilu production banner. In an open letter to writers and producers published in Daily Variety, Arnaz urged the sides to find a way forward for the greater good. The hugely successful Cuban bandleader and actor turned producer and entrepreneur made suggestions of how to get to the finish line on a deal, and he offered to host talks in the bucolic environment of his farm in Corona, Calif.

“We must find the ‘key’ and find it fast because the danger of a deadlock increases with the length of time spent in trying to break it, and with the increasing number of people becoming involved with it,” Arnaz wrote in the letter that began “Amigos.”

In late May, the WGA and both bargaining entities – the AMPP and Alliance of Television Film Producers – were trading barbs and hastily breaking off talks and withdrawing proposals for what seemed like the umpteenth time.

Arnaz’s words seemed to help grease the wheels toward the inevitable settlement. For film writers, a wrinkle that came up late in the strike was the union’s insistence that the studios restore screenwriter contracts that were suspended or during the strike. Warner Bros. was the last holdout, drawing the line at restoring a deal for Karl Tunberg, a veteran screenwriter. (It was eventually restored.)

As of June 13, 1960, scribes were free to resume work for 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia and Disney, among other. shops. The WGA had already reached deals with Universal International and the UA indies in February.

A week after the film writers settled, a six-year TV contract came in for a landing with ratification by the membership. The deal included minimum hikes and other gains including a commitment to assemble a “fact-finding committee” to develop formulas to allow “writers to participate in worldwide grosses,” aka international revenue, as Daily Variety reported in its June 20, 1960, edition.

A WGA spokesman brought the curtain down on a long period of chaos for the scribe tribe by hailing the significance of the deal after nearly six months of sacrifice by WGA members.

The pact that ended the strike “marks a milestone in the history of labor-management relationships. Responsible persons on both sides working toward the perpetuation of our industry, have worked out a formula beneficial to both sides; one whose concept is designed to increase revenues for writers and production companies, above and beyond present levels,” the spokesman said.

History would prove him right.

(Pictured top: Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Desi Arnaz, Ronald Reagan and Lew Wasserman)

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