What Reagan Did for Hollywood

When he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan staged a showdown with studio executives—and won the creation of the residual payment system that lives today

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In this March 30, 1947 picture, Lois Maxwell, 20-year-old Canadian-born actress who would star as Miss Moneypenny in 14 James Bond movies, receives her Screen Actors Guild member card from the guild's new president, actor Ronald Reagan. (AP Images)

Tonight, the Motion Picture Association of America will honor the film career of Ronald Reagan with a tribute in Washington, D.C. The participating film studios include Paramount, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers. Ironically it was these exact studios (plus MGM and Columbia) who, 51 years earlier, were engaged in a contentious high-stakes negotiation with Ronald Reagan. The outcome of that bitter 1960 showdown altered the economic fortunes of tens of thousands of film actors.

As the country winds down its celebration of the Ronald Reagan Centennial, there seems to be a growing consensus that Reagan was, for better or worse, a significant president. Personally I am convinced that he is vastly underrated, and I have more than seven billion reasons to support my argument, though not a single one of them is related to his eight years as U.S. president. Let me explain.

In the fall of 2000 I was hired to act in the film Legally Blonde. I portrayed a member of the admissions board that voted to admit Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) into Harvard Law School. I had four lines and my lone scene took just a few hours to shoot.

Eleven years later, in October 2011, I received a check from the Residuals Department of the Screen Actors Guild for the amount of $48.40. This was just the latest in a series of "Legally Blonde" residual checks that I and the other cast members have regularly received since the film's theatrical release in 2001.

Reagan joked that he was simply "trying to negotiate for the right to negotiate."

It is now accepted orthodoxy that union film actors get residuals. But it wasn't always that way. For decades, residual payments for actors did not exist; film actors were paid for their work, and that was it. The studio owned the film and could release it again and again, anytime and anywhere, with no thought of further compensation for actors.

There are, of course, many people who worked diligently to secure residuals for film actors. But at the top of the list is President Ronald Reagan. Not the U.S. President, but the union president. Here's what happened.

Back in 1937, Ronald "Dutch" Reagan was a popular baseball radio announcer and local newspaper columnist based in Des Moines, Iowa, when he travelled to California to cover the Chicago Cubs spring training camp. While in Los Angeles, he met a talent agent who arranged a screen test for Warner Brothers. The studio was impressed by Reagan's on-camera presence and offered the 26-year-old a contract at $200 per week. So goodbye sports—hello Hollywood.

Reagan moved to Los Angeles in June of '37, just weeks after the film producers accepted the fledgling Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as the actors' official union. On June 30th he paid his $25 SAG initiation fee and became "a union man." By 1941, Reagan had joined the the SAG board of directors. He soon rose to 3rd Vice President, and was ultimately elected President in 1947.

Just ten years after arriving from Des Moines, Reagan now led the union representing the biggest movie stars in the world. He was subsequently re-elected for five consecutive one-year terms.

During his first tenure as SAG president (1947-1952) Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, was instrumental in securing residuals for television actors when their episodes were re-run. However, motion picture actors were still shut out of residuals and did not receive any compensation when their studio films aired on TV.

As more and more movies were telecast (The Wizard of Oz was first shown on TV in 1956), film actors felt they were being deprived of a significant source of income. With every new contract the issue was tabled until, in 1959, the actors had had enough. They demanded residual payments for future telecasts and retroactive residuals for films shown on TV between 1948 and 1959.

The producers had a short answer: no. In fact, they were desperately looking for ways to cut production costs, not increase them. Between 1946 and 1959, domestic movie attendance plummeted over 65 percent as more and more Americans chose to stay home and watch television. As a result, the movie industry was in a tailspin and hemorrhaging money.

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Wayne Federman is an actor, comedian, and writer known for his roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Step Brothers, 50 First Dates, and various television shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, X-Files, and The League. He was the head monologue writer for NBC's Late Night Night with Jimmy Fallon.

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