Ever since he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild last year, the jowly—and sometimes growly—Ed Asner has spent as much time dodging brickbats as he has building up his union. His woes started last February when the liberal Asner, 53, stood on the State Department steps in Washington, avowed his support for El Salvador’s civil war victims, and gave them a $25,000 check, privately raised, to provide medical supplies. Asner didn’t stress that he was speaking as a private citizen, not SAG’s prexy. That, he admitted, was “a slight goof.” In the ensuing furor a recall petition was launched, but finally dropped, and Asner’s Lou Grant series was axed by CBS. The actor claims pressure from the sponsors of the show, anxious over his politics, contributed to its demise. During the one-month recall campaign Asner was picketed, and conservative Charlton Heston repeatedly accused him of “politicizing” the union. This month, though, Ed won a big one: In an L.A. election that pitted the Guild’s official slate of 13 candidates for the board of the 54,000-member union against one supported by Heston, Asner’s liberals swept all 13 seats.
The flamboyant politics of the feud have often camouflaged a more serious division within SAG ranks over whether the union should merge with others, such as the Screen Extras Guild, and strengthen its ties with the AFL-CIO. A Heston group called Actors Working for an Actors Guild, or AWAG, opposed SAG’s stronger involvement with the AFL-CIO, opposed sharing their union with non-actors, and insisted the SAG board could not espouse political positions. Heston was riled last November when SAG gave $5,000 to the striking air controllers’ families. “Those people made $45,000 a year, for Chrissake!” he fumes, noting that three-quarters of SAG’s members earn under $2,500. “Everyone thinks of the Guild in terms of Redford, Newman, Asner and me, but we’ve got people starving to death.”
In the board elections, AWAG’s slate included Don Defore and Ron Ely and was publicly backed by Robert Stack, Ricardo Montalban, James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and ex-Senator George Murphy. Asner and Company countered in classic Hollywood style with more and bigger names: 86 stars, including Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Jon Voight, Henry Winkler, Jane Fonda and Sammy Davis Jr., publicly supported the liberals. “SAG is essentially a union and must regard itself as such,” Asner argues. “Wages and working conditions are the paramount concerns, but a union can and should think in terms of civil and human rights.”
Although Asner lined up some all-star backers, most of his board candidates were less famous. Among those newly elected was One Day at a Time’s Pat Harrington Jr., who says adamantly, “To isolate ourselves from American labor, which seems to be what Charlton Heston is suggesting, is suicide.” He accuses Heston of sowing “mischief and confusion” by claiming to speak for SAG’s membership.
Heston vows to keep fighting and plans to lobby more members, only a third of whom voted in the election. This election, though, was a clear victory for Ed Asner. After his El Salvador pronouncements he received death threats, while right-wing groups labeled him a “Communist swine” and “the Jane Fonda of Latin America” (“I had no idea I was so cute,” he joked). “I was amazed at the support I got from the public,” Asner says, “and at the number of people in the industry who did not wish to be identified with me.” But, he adds quickly, “I can’t stress too strongly that this is not my victory. It’s a victory for the progressive philosophy the Guild has embodied. The election is a repudiation of the nay-saying conducted against the Guild and its policies this past year.” That analysis may or may not be accurate. But, this being Hollywood, of course there is likely to be a sequel.