Inside the 1960 SAG Strike, From Elizabeth Taylor’s Vacation to Ronald Reagan’s Star-Studded Meeting

The last time performers and writers unions in Hollywood were striking at the same time, it might have been hard to notice. While thousands of professionals were abruptly out of work, the actors were not picketing. Movies were still releasing at a steady stream. And the 1960 Oscars, which took place smack in the middle of the shutdown from early March to mid-April, were not boycotted so much as filled with Hollywood’s biggest names. Winners like Charlton Heston were left to accept their trophies and decide whether or not to address the big elephant in the room. Mostly, they could leave that task to host Bob Hope, who called the glitzy ceremony “the most glamorous strike meeting ever” and asked the crowd, “Who else but actors would give up working for Lent?”

It’s worth remembering that while the industry has been here before, it also hasn’t—in some ways, 1960 has nothing on 2023. This year’s dual strike between the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is ramping up, with SAG-AFTRA formally joining the writers on picket lines late last week. A-listers like Rachel McAdams and Mandy Moore are braving the sweltering July heat, and zero stars have publicly given their support to the studios on the other side. Back in 1960, when Ronald Reagan was SAG president, dissent wasn’t exactly in the majority—83% of members voted to authorize the strike—but it was at times being expressed by a small pool of actors. And forget awards show attendance. The 2023 Emmys are all but certain to move from the current September Date due to an inevitable boycott, and all campaigning is prohibited by the guild, a prohibition that was not in place in 1960.

The 1960 actors strike began in the heat of Oscar campaign season. “There is no letup in the heated campaign of actors and movie studios to win votes for the Oscars,” reported The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times argued that “for a few hours, at least, the old status quo will prevail; this is the night for the stars to howl.” After Heston won best actor, he quipped, “Now that I’ve got the Oscar, I’m out of a job.”

The 1960 strikes erupted due to a familiar issue: residuals. Back then, there was no system for continued payments for film work. While streaming is the big disruptor driving today’s strikes, back then, it was television; studios had begun licensing films to the then nascent medium for additional ratings and profits. (The union’s first-ever strike took place eight years prior in 1952, also over the issue of TV and compensation.) None of that added success was shared with actors or writers because there was no precedent for it. SAG wanted percentage payments for actors in all films sold to TV Dating back to 1948—known as television’s turning-point year—as well as for all films produced going forward. The studios, with the noted exception of Universal—which cut its own deal with unions—did not consider the proposal remotely negotiable. Their only counter was zero, a standoff familiar to today.

At the start of the 1960 strike, more than 4,000 industry professionals were laid off. Several films shut down, including George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love, starring Marilyn Monroe; BUtterfield 8, the film which would win Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar the next year; and Blake Edwards’s High Time, with Bing Crosby. A few big names defied the studios by signing with SAG and independent producers, such as Frank Sinatra, to keep Ocean’s 11 moving. (During this period, Sinatra became known for an “indifference to studio authority,” as The New York Times put it at the time.) A star of Edwards’s shuttered High Time, the teen idol known as Fabian, wanted to get in on this rebellion too. His manager tried to buy the film outright from 20th Century Fox himself. Los Angeles Times columnist Hedda Hopper categorized this particular attempt in the “Now-I’ve-heard-everything department,” writing, “Fabian, who admits he can’t sing and is perfectly honest about it, has been in our industry a little more than a year.”

Independent projects are currently seeking waivers from SAG to either continue or begin filming; thus far, even studios as significant as A24 have received them. Back in 1960, the only project that filmed all through the strike was Studs Lonigan, a production by the outsider Hal Roach company that independently signed with the guild. “While we are shooting I feel good, but at the end of the day, when you leave the studio you suddenly realize that yours is the only picture being shot in Hollywood all during the strike,” director Irving Lerner said during production. “It feels weird.” Meanwhile, filming restarted on the fantasy drama The Lost World—but only for the movie’s creatures, handled by non-striking Teamsters members. “The monsters, all handmade, are permitted to perform for the camera because they are not considered actors,” The New York Times explained. This was known as the first “shoot-around”—wherein production proceeds with an unavailable actor(s)—in which filming commenced around an entire cast.

Hollywood salaries in 1960 were not what they are today, but there was still a divide between SAG’s most famous faces and its working class. After Elizabeth Taylor’s BUtterfield 8 shut down, she went on an extended vacation to Jamaica with her husband, Eddie Fisher. (They came back for the Oscars.) Back in Los Angeles, unemployment offices were overflowing.

As Fran Drescher emphatically argued last week, no amount of good-faith negotiating or star power has brought today’s studios back to the negotiating table. Seemingly, the guild has been iced out, left to strike. It’s another major point of difference from the 1960 dispute; by the end of that first week, a federal mediator had been assigned to the debate between actors and studios, and negotiations were set to resume. And this was before the guild accused the studios of stalling.

At the time, the industry was grappling with the fear of the foreign market overtaking Hollywood in film production, and there was concern that a prolonged strike would only clear the way for European producers to leapfrog the major studios being boycotted. This also meant it was more difficult for the guild to drum up wide support. The highly regarded film critic Bosley Crowther argued in the midst of the strike that actors had a “moral claim” that did not justify shutting the industry down. “It does not appear to this layman that [the actors] have a legal claim,” he wrote. “It is as if they were asking for some of the profits from a subsequent sale of a piece of real estate they had sold previously.” (The guild later printed a lengthy rebuttal in Crowther’s paper, The New York Times.)

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