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History of the Screen Actors Guild

By Lin Parkin

December 4, 2007

Comments (3)

SAG LogoEver wondered about how the Screen Actors Guild came to be?

Learn about the history of the Screen Actors Guild and discover little known facts about SAG in this article composed from information available on their website.

Prior to the Screen Actors Guild

Before 1933, if you wanted to pursue acting, you were in for hard times. Actors were subjected to substandard working conditions and exploitation from the production studios. There were no restrictions on the number of hours they were forced to work or meal breaks they were allowed to take. Studios behaved as if they owned the actors, telling them what to think, what morals to have, even who to marry. Actors were often forced to sign seven year contracts, and had no choice in the roles they played.

A group of actors collectively formed SAG in 1933 after years of being subjected to this kind of treatment. It was a meeting of six minds that got it all started. Before long, just three months after the first meeting, the founding council was born. This consisted of four first officers including President Ralph Morgan, Vice President Alan Mowbray, Secretary Kenneth Thomson, and Treasurer Lucile Gleason. There were 17 actors on the board of directors; among them was Boris Karloff who reportedly joined after the grueling hours spent on set of Frankenstein.

The Screen Actors Guild's first President, New York lawyer turned actor, Ralph Morgan walked away from his practice to pursue acting in 1908 at the age of 24.


A Sign of Things To Come

"It really makes my blood boil to hear of the way Mrs. Neill is being treated - There is absolutely no excuse for it - Mrs. Neill in my opinion is just as clever as Miss Sarah Truax - and in many parts would be a great deal better...It is only just another example of treatment of the actor by the manager in this country - it is the one blot on the art of acting - And either there will be a remedy very soon for this evil, or else acting as an art will be wiped out entirely in this country - It will be reduced like everything else to a purely commercial basis with the actor on about the same level as the trained animals in the circus - The only terrible difference being that the animals have no hearts to break , and the actors always will have - God help them -"

Ralph Morgan, Age 26
~ 1910


The Idealist

The largest actors' labor union before SAG was the Actors Equity Association. Always an idealist Ralph joined the Equity union in 1914. He received his first union experience in his early years as a member when he participated in the actors strike of 1919. In 1920 he was elected to council and in 1924 he served for a short time as President of Equity.


Dealing With Production Studios

Up until SAG was formed no union had been able to overcome the heavy hand of production studios. In his last two year term, 1938-1940, as president of SAG, Ralph enacted the first Agency Regulations, dealt with the often overlooked issues of background actors, and fought off the tyranny of Chicago mobster Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, and his Hollywood cohorts, who were trying to gain rule over all national actors' unions.


National Labor Relations Act

In 1937 SAG won battle with studio giants by finally getting them to sign the National Labor Relations Act. This was a major mile stone of empowerment for actors. With the new ability for actors to negotiate their own contracts, Jimmie Stewart set a standard for the industry that is still enforced by actors to this day, agreeing to work on a film for a percentage of the gross profit.


First President Ralph Morgan was a critical player of change for the industry and continues to be a role model for the council to this day.

There have been 24 acting presidents of SAG to date, including many names you might remember such as Ronald Regan (who served two terms), Charlton Heston, Melissa Gilbert and, current president, Alan Rosenberg.


SAG Headquarters

SAG is headquartered in Los Angeles, California and currently has twenty branches nation wide that represent over 120,000 professional actors from film, television, industrials, commercials, video games, voice overs, and other forms of new media. Since 1995 SAG has held the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards that honors only fellow members for their outstanding work in films.

The guild exists to help actors find safe, reliable working conditions, negotiating and enforcing fair compensation, providing pension plans and health benefits. SAG acts as one voice for all. Membership with SAG is a rite of passage for professional actors, and is not something to be rushed into. Actors need to study their craft through acting classes and workshops, perform in a variety of productions, and gain valuable experience to build a solid resume.


Joining SAG

In order to be eligible for SAG membership you must fall into one of three categories; Principal Performer on a SAG production, Back-round performer on a SAG production, or a member in good standing for at least one year with an affiliated union and have worked as a principal performer in at least one of that unions productions. In all cases you must provide proof of employment in the form of original pay stubs when you apply for membership.

Both union and non-union members may check the SAG database to find out if their production is signed to a SAG contract. You can also check with your local branch representative. To view the database or to find a local representative visit www.sag.org

Productions signed to SAG contracts must provide certain standards for all employees on the production set, including, fair compensation, breaks, and a safe working environment with special considerations for children on set. They must hire a certain number of SAG principal performers and back round performers before signing any non union members on to their project.


Benefits of SAG Membership

There are many perks to being a SAG member. SAG negotiates minimum earnings and working conditions that all production signatories must abide by, members earn credits toward a pension plan and health benefits for each job they work on, workshops are offered and taught by professionals in the industry, members, their families and the community benefit from The SAG Foundation, members only casting directory, and discounts on entertainment, car rentals, medical visits, prescriptions, real estate, legal services, and more.


SAG Membership Fees

The total initiation fee for membership in SAG is $2,335 including the first semi annual dues. Dues are calculated annually, but are paid in two installments. In addition to this SAG members pay a certain percentage of all individual earnings. To find out more about the terms and cost of service for membership with SAG visit their website: SAG.org

On October 25, 2007 SAG received the special honor of the first union to be awarded with a Star of Excellence on Hollywood Boulevard.

*** Source SAG - www.sag.org***

About The Author

Lin Parkin lives in London, Ontario, Canada where she is an Account Manager and writer for Voices.com, the #1 online market place for voice overs. Voices.com is home to over 15,000 voice actors from around the world representing over 100 languages and services over 60,000 clients who need voice overs recorded for their projects.

Image © SAG

Related Topics: awards, Chicago, child, Hollywood, industry, Los Angeles, New York, Non-Union, union, videogames


Comments


    James Cagney also played a very important role in the creation of SAG :)

    Posted by:
    • Ed Mace
    • December 5, 2007 11:28 AM

      Is SAG recommended for writers? I'm a playwright and aspiring screenwriter.

      Posted by:
      • damiek barrow
      • February 1, 2008 8:49 AM

        For as liberal as Hollywood is, it is amazing the number of conservative SAG presidents.

        Posted by:
        • Russell Schiwal
        • March 8, 2011 12:11 PM

Leave a Comment



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