- As SAG-AFTRA members get ready for a potential work stoppage – see the “prepared to strike” letter signed by the likes of Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, and Rami Malek – we briefly remember the pivotal 1960 SAG strike and the role played by then president Ronald Reagan, who failed (or chose to fail) to meet the moment.
Under president Ronald Reagan, SAG failed to meet the moment at a previous ‘unprecedented inflection point’ in the history of the American entertainment industry
Meryl Streep, Laura Linney, Jennifer Lawrence, and Glenn Close are among the hundreds of signatories of a letter sent to the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), asserting that they are “prepared to strike” at this “unprecedented inflection point” in the history of the American entertainment industry.
In their letter, SAG-AFTRA members also demand that president Fran Drescher and her fellow board members “make history” by standing firm in their negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Actors should be concerned. After all, more than six decades ago, at another critical juncture for the American entertainment industry, the Screen Actors Guild leadership (AFTRA was a separate union at the time), then under the presidency of former Warner Bros. contract player Ronald Reagan, failed to rise to the occasion.
Below is a cursory overview of the 1960 SAG strike.
1960 Screen Actors Guild strike: Hollywood’s first paralyzing stoppage
Like 2023, the year 1960 was an “unprecedented inflection point” for the American film industry: As movie attendance plummeted in the years after World War II – from 82–90 million weekly moviegoers in 1946 to 40 million in 1960 – television became an all-important source of revenue for the Hollywood studios.
Besides the production of small-screen fare, for over a decade the studios had been selling/licensing their old movies to TV stations across the United States (and elsewhere) without paying royalties to the talent involved in their making.
Among the actors, the fight for residuals reached an impasse in early 1960, shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan as a last-minute replacement for SAG President Howard Keel, who had resigned from his post to star on the Broadway musical Saratoga.
On March 7, SAG followed in the footsteps of the Writers Guild of America, which had been on strike since mid-January: With the exception of Universal and United Artists, which had struck provisional deals with the union, feature film production was halted at the major Hollywood studios.
Among the titles affected by the stoppage were Elizabeth Taylor’s BUtterfield 8 (Metro-Golwyn-Mayer), Marilyn Monroe’s Let’s Make Love (20th Century Fox), and Gina Lollobrigida’s Go Naked in the World (also MGM). In her autobiography, Lilli Palmer recalls The Pleasure of His Company (Paramount) being interrupted in mid-production, with no one knowing whether filming would ever be resumed.
Veteran actors (once again) stabbed in the back
Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan – who had previously held the SAG presidency from 1947–1952 – the actors strike lasted about five weeks, until April 18.
SAG members overwhelmingly chose to return to work (6,399 to 259 votes) after being sold the following agreement: Actors would receive residuals only for films beginning production after Jan. 31, 1960; as for movies made between August 1948–January 1960, in lieu of paying residuals the studios would disburse a one-time lump sum of $2.65 million (far less than the originally proposed $4 million) for the creation of the guild’s first Pension and Welfare Plan.
Now, what about movies made before August 1948?
Back in 1951, SAG, then also under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, forfeited any royalties on movies that went into production before August 1948 in exchange for the promise of negotiations for royalties on movies made after that date – “negotiations” that would ultimately lead to the 1960 strike.
In sum: Apart from specific contracts, actors seen in big-screen releases prior to August 1948 – e.g., Gone with the Wind, King Kong, It Happened One Night, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, Meet Me in St. Louis, Going My Way – were never to receive a penny in compensation from the major studios for the selling or licensing of their movies to television (or other future media ).
As for the 1960 deal, apart from specific contracts, those who had worked between summer 1948–early winter 1960 had better be satisfied with the pension fund because that would be all they would ever get.
Those who – whether stupidly or dishonestly – praise Ronald Reagan for his leadership during the 1960 negotiations highlight the fact that most SAG voters accepted the deal and that residuals are still being paid to actors featured in movies made after January 1960.
What these people choose to ignore are the inconvenient facts.
For instance, two months after selling the deal to his fellow performers, Reagan resigned from the SAG presidency. Shortly thereafter, he also resigned from the SAG board to join forces in a production deal with the multi-tentacled Music Corporation of America (MCA) and its subsidiary Revue Studios.
As it happens, Reagan’s agent had been Lew Wasserman, MCA president since 1948, and a socially and politically influential figure – perhaps the key player in the 1960 strike negotiations – who, back in the mid-1950s, had found Reagan, fast on his way to has-beendom, a steady gig as the host (and eventual co-owner, which made Reagan a de facto producer) of MCA’s television anthology series General Electric Theater (1953–1962).
There’s more: In 1952, also during Reagan’s SAG presidency, MCA had received a unique waiver allowing it to act as both producing company (via Revue) and talent agency.
And let’s not forget that after shelling out $50 million in 1958, MCA became the owner of the vast majority of Paramount’s residuals-exempt film library from 1928–August 1948. That turned out to be a hugely lucrative investment: By 1965, MCA had earned $70 million from the television sales/licensing of these 750 titles.
But, but …!
Oh, but Ronald Reagan’s big-screen work also came out before 1960! He wouldn’t have acted in a manner that would have harmed his own interests, would he?
But he didn’t.
To the contrary. After all, whether in the early 1950s or in the early 1960s, Reagan had far loftier ambitions than the receipt of mere residuals for a movie career that mostly consisted of stuff like Smashing the Money Ring, Tugboat Annie Sails Again, and Bedtime for Bonzo.
The ones who had to pay for his ambition (possibly mixed with a dose of incompetence) and for the acquiescence of most of SAG’s negotiating committee members were Hollywood’s veteran actors – the very same stars and supporting players that classic movie aficionados enjoy watching on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
“Ronald Reagan SAG President: Failure (or Refusal) to ‘Meet the Moment’” notes
Mickey Rooney lawsuit
 In 1981, the year after the second general SAG strike – actors wanted residuals for home video releases – four-time Oscar nominee Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms, 1939; etc.) filed a class-action lawsuit against eight Hollywood studios, demanding residuals for his film work prior to February 1960.
As per Rooney, also joining him in the lawsuit were “several hundred” veteran movie actors, among them Rock Hudson, Paul Newman, Glenn Ford, Lana Turner, Van Johnson, Dana Andrews, Jane Powell, Shelley Winters, and Barbara Stanwyck.
The suit apparently didn’t go very far, as years later Rooney was voicing his disgust to the Los Angeles-based theatrical weekly Drama-Logue:
“What I’m angry about and will always be angry about is the terrible blow actors were dealt when our supposed union negotiated our rights away from receiving monetary compensation for all the work done before 1960. Why didn’t the union protect us? Ted Turner [who had acquired the RKO, Warrner Bros. (pre-1950), and MGM (up to May 1986) libraries, and later founded TCM] gets the money and the performers get an actors’ home to get sick and die in.”
 In his 2011 autobiography, The Garner Files: A Memoir (written with Jon Winokur), James Garner says that “Ronald Reagan wasn’t qualified to be governor [of California from 1967–1974], let alone president. I was a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild when he was its president. My duties consisted of attending meetings and voting. The only thing I remember is that Ronnie never had an original thought and that we had to tell him what to say. That’s no way to run a union, let along a state or a country.”
Be that as it may, Reagan clearly got what he wanted.
And it must be noted that, as found in Kathleen Sharp’s Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood (see below), James Garner, Dana Andrews, Walter Pidgeon, Rosemary DeCamp, Leon Ames, Conrad Nagel, and Charlton Heston – among other SAG board members, some of whom belonged to SAG’s negotiating committee – were also represented by MCA.
Here are this article’s key sources regarding the relationship between Lew Wasserman and Ronald Reagan, the 1951 and 1952 Screen Actors Guild agreements, the 1960 SAG strike and Reagan’s role in it, and the sale of Hollywood feature films to television:
- Thomas W. Evans’ The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (Columbia University Press, 1994).
- Douglas Gomery’s “Television, Hollywood, and the Development of Movies Made-for-Television,” from Regarding Television: Critical Approaches – An Anthology, edited by E. Ann Kaplan (University Publications of America, 1983).
- Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable (University of Illinois Press, 1999).
- Hollywood in the Age of Television, edited by Tino Balio (Routledge Library Editions, 1990).
- Dan Moldea’s Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob (Viking, 1986).
- Kathleen Sharp’s Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003).
Additionally, details about Ronald Reagan and his labor and political activities in the late 1940s can be found in Salon’s “Ronald Reagan: Informant,” excerpted from Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).
U.S. weekly movie attendance figures via Encyclopedia.com, citing the U.S. Census Bureau.
Mickey Rooney’s Drama-Logue quote via Alvin H. Marill’s Mickey Rooney: His Films, Television Appearances, Radio Work, Stage Shows (McFarland, 2004).
See also: GQ cravenly pulls article critical of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan Brother Rat movie image: Warner Bros.
Bette Davis and Gary Merrill All About Eve movie image: 20th Century Fox.
“Ronald Reagan SAG President: Failure (or Refusal) to ‘Meet the Moment’” last updated in July 2023.