Robert Conrad Takes His Slingshot to SAG

Aug 1, 2005  •  Post A Comment

From the ’60s through the ’90s, Robert Conrad was the consummate television tough guy. As the star of half a dozen series, including the hits “The Wild, Wild West (1965-69) and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (1976-78), as well as several dozen TV movies (many of which he also produced) and a handful of features, he was quick with a quip and even faster with his fists as he set things right and cast a spell over every pretty lady in sight. A former boxer and martial arts master, the Chicago native is vividly remembered for a series of battery commercials he did in the late 1970s. He was the guy who put a battery on his shoulder and dared anyone to knock it off.

Today Mr. Conrad is semi-retired, still recovering from the devastating effects of a 2003 auto accident that led to his pleading no contest to drunken driving charges and serving time under house arrest. He broke his skull and has been left with nerve damage in his neck and spine. He doesn’t have full use of his right hand, for now. Even at 70-something, he still talks tough, only now it is about overcoming his physical ailments. Some of his physical problems, he added, are also the result of doing many of his own stunts over the years.

His career has made him wealthy. He could stay retired in his longtime home in Bear Valley and enjoy life with his wife of 22 years, LaVelda, nine children (from two marriages and an early relationship) and 20 grandchildren. Instead, Mr. Conrad has thrown himself into a new battle, to become the 24th president of the 120,000-member Screen Actors Guild. He said he is not associated with either of the two factions that have polarized the union, but rather is in it to bring all sides together as a first step to rebuilding the power and clout of SAG.

“I’m very serious,” insisted Mr. Conrad in his first in-depth interview on his candidacy. “I have other things to do with my life than to subject myself to criticism, which I know is coming. I think the ultimate goal of getting a better, stronger union is more important than me personally.”

There is no question Mr. Conrad is the dark horse in this election, which will be decided in late September. His opponents are “Falcon Crest” star Morgan Fairchild, spiritual successor to outgoing President Melissa Gilbert and now leader of the Restore Respect group, which controls the New York board and by a slight margin the national board; and current board member Alan Rosenberg, who is married to actress Marg Helgenberger and leads the Membership First group, which controls the Hollywood board and wants a much tougher stance in negotiations with producers.

Ms. Gilbert, after winning three elections to serve two terms, announced last month she wouldn’t run again. During her four years in office she supported three major referendums, all voted down. She was involved in contract negotiations that produced some increases in pay and medical but failed to get gains in the key areas of new media and DVD. In parting, Ms. Gilbert said, “There are rifts that may very well be irreparable.”

Mr. Conrad doesn’t agree. “She had four years,” he said. “If you can’t do it in four years … maybe she was a little too accommodating.”

Mr. Conrad has never been a guild board member but has been active at times, usually supporting conservatives.

He has a production company and negotiated numerous deals over the years and knows the players, even if some of those he knows best are no longer in power. He wants to return to what he calls the glory days, when the union was run by James Cagney, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and others who in his memory brought a majority of members together. “This is one of the most powerful guilds in America,” said Mr. Conrad, pointing to the union logo. “It says, ‘actors united.’ Obviously, based on Gilbert bowing out and two candidates coming in representing factions, we’re not united.”

His issues include a better living wage for actors who work, continuing medical insurance for actors who no longer qualify for coverage in terms of income, a fair share of DVD revenues (which he said are currently “pathetic”), higher residuals from cable TV, a stronger stand on runaway production, safer conditions for stunt people and greater enforcement of SAG jurisdiction around the globe.

He thinks some actors, especially stunt people, should be able to retire at 55. He’s against a SAG merger with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. He wants more aggressive negotiations but will remain flexible. He wants to charge more to join SAG, and would support a dues hike to strengthen the guild’s position.

Mr. Conrad, a self-described political independent, said he has the backing of the entire Teamsters Union, though he was unclear about what that union might do to support him. He is not advocating a link between SAG and the Teamsters, though he would like to see some mutual cooperation.

He’d call for a strike only as a last resort and if the resources were there to do the job. “You don’t strike unless you plan on winning something really significant,” Mr. Conrad said. “You don’t threaten to strike, because that arms the opponent. What you do is negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Then at a particular time, if you’re not satisfied with the progress, then you strike and stay out as long as it takes to win.”

One point he comes back to again and again is the need for more respect for SAG and for actors. “Actors aren’t getting a fair share of anything,” Mr. Conrad said. “I don’t want it to be sour grapes. I’ve been in this union and this guild when we got respect and were treated properly and were well compensated, when the daily [minimum wage] was something you could live on and the weekly was something that you embraced. That’s not today.”

He plans to run a low-budget campaign, what he calls “groundroots.” He will spend some of his own money on the campaign as well. His primary plan is to appear at SAG forums and debates alone or with the other candidates in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

If elected, Mr. Conrad will move into a townhouse in the L.A. area, closer to most of his family. He loves being with his family. And to him, his fellow actors, stunt people and others in SAG are an extension of his family. He’s ready to be a tough guy on their behalf.

“I’m only 5 foot 8 and I only weigh 165 pounds as of this morning,” said Mr. Conrad, “so I’m not the world’s meanest guy. But I do walk around believing I’m David (as in David and Goliath). And I am biblical. I’ve got the slingshot. If you treat me nicely, I’ll treat you nicer. If you’re rude to me, put your headgear on. Here it comes.”