Susan Blakely Reborn As an Advocate

Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

She was Julie Prescott, the all-American girl America fell in love with in the landmark miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.” She made us cry as tragic movie star Frances Farmer in the TV movie “Will There Really Be a Morning?” Her many movie-of-the-week credits include “A Cry for Love,” “Blood & Orchids,” and “Co-ed Call Girl.”
She started out as a model, but quickly became one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses, proving she was much more than just a pretty face.
More than three decades after she first joined the Screen Actor’s Guild, she is still in demand on TV and in independent films. However, you won’t find Susan Blakely on the set this week or next. She has put her career on hold and thrown herself into the controversial effort to merge SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, the film and TV performers unions, under the banner of the Alliance of International Media Artists.
This column isn’t about the big picture or the big players in this battle. It is about one actress who has gone through her own personal journey, vacillating from one position to another. Her story is one of many, but it illustrates the strong feelings engendered by this proposal. Few have torn apart the performing community like this one. There is real anger and a sense of righteousness on both sides.
It began for Ms. Blakely almost a month ago, when she received a letter from Mike Farrell, a political activist who until recently portrayed Dr. James Hansen on “Providence.” He wanted her to support the pro-merger position. “The letter sounded very sane,” said Ms. Blakely, who agreed to lend her name to his side, although she had never been active in union politics in the past.
Days later she ran into another longtime friend, actress Valerie Harper (“Rhoda”), one of the leaders of the group opposing the merger. “She scared me,” recalled Ms. Blakely. “She made what sounded like a lot of valid points. … I really admire her, but she got me very worried. She wanted to use my name, but I said `No,’ and then I realized I probably shouldn’t have given my name so quickly to the pro-merger side.”
Feeling confused, Ms. Blakely plunged into research into the issues, preparing to attend an anti-merger gathering. Then she got a call from another friend, actress Morgan Fairchild, who invited her to a pro-merger meeting at the home of actress Barbara Bosson. “I went and asked all of these questions, and so did others,” Ms. Blakely said. “I realized I still hadn’t read enough.”
Shortly after she attended the anti-merger group meeting at the home of actress Renee Taylor. “These people have done wonderful things for the union,” said Ms. Blakely. “They may be more militant or radical, but sometimes I like that. After hearing the opposition concerns, I felt they were using scare tactics and innuendo. And it is easy to be scared off. A lot of people won’t do what I did. They hear what their friends say and stick to that, and that worries me. That was the only answer I got about why they were against it. They have their reasons, but I didn’t find any of their reasons to be viable.”
The issue that most hit home for her was jurisdiction over digital production, which is rapidly replacing a lot of the work formerly done on film. Under the old contract definitions, most digital falls under AFTRA, which has a lower pay scale than SAG. “The truth is we had 65 pilots shot [on digital] this year, compared to five the year before,” said Ms. Blakely, who believes if the issue isn’t settled quickly, the lower rate will become entrenched as the way things work.
“I kept asking one question: Why would people be against something that’s going to help them?” Ms. Blakely said. “Even if it’s only 10 percent, why would they? The only answer I found is that these people have been together as a group, just like Democrats or Republicans. And you know how Democrats and Republicans refuse to see each others’ point of view, no matter how clear. I get so mad at politics. They sometimes refuse to do what’s best for the country if it won’t help them get elected or help their party. That, I think, is what is going down with the opposition.”
So from passive member to confused voter, Ms. Blakely was reborn as active advocate for the merger. “I really feel it is important,” she said. “That’s why, even if I have to lose good friends, even though I hope to God I won’t-although I have heard this is happening-I am fighting tooth and nail [for the merger]. I know it isn’t perfect, but what we have now isn’t perfect either.”
She spends hours each day calling and urging support for the merger. “In all my years of being a union member this is the most important issue,” Ms. Blakely said. “Our whole future is at stake. The future of our union, the future of our paychecks, it’s all at stake.”