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Early Members: 1937
I started in low-budget westerns with John Wayne and in Gene Autry's first three features. There was no such thing as 12 hours between calls, you just slept faster. I began my career when my future agent spotted a picture of me in the newspaper for a radio show and called to see if I wanted to be in pictures. I was 15 and I'd heard of dirty old men who did that, so I hung up. He called my mother and when I arrived home that night, he was there. He told me that Mascot Studios was in trouble: their leading lady had eloped. He took me there the next day with my mother. I fibbed about my age and signed a contract. Later when he suggested that I join this new union that was going to protect me the rest of my life, I was all for it. And how right he was.
I got my first break in 1936 when I did The Plainsman, which was directed by Cecil B. De Mille. I won the part by speaking the wildest Cheyenne gibberish. It was very difficult for Latinos in those days. The roughest times came in the early '40s when Van Johnson was the leading man from MGM and every studio was looking for blue-eyed actors with light brown hair to play the American leads. All the dark people like myself were relegated to play the villains. Over the years I became friends with a lot of the Guild's officers, like Jimmy Cagney, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, and Ricardo Montalban. I know what it's like to work without a union. My first job in pictures was as an extra for $8 a day. They took advantage of you, so I'm a strong supporter of SAG.
I came out to Hollywood to do Winterset (1936), my first picture. I knew the union movement well from my days as a merchant seaman. Young people today do not realize the furor that we experienced in the early days of the Guild and Equity, of which I president. When I came to the West Coast, there was always some kind of a flurry with the studios, back then it was a little more embattled. Now it's a much more pleasant atmosphere than it was in the old rising days. Good things happened immediately after the Guild was accepted by the studios. For example, not working on Saturdays anymore! That was the most gratifying. I just think that it's settled down to what the Guild wants, the Guild gets of course, it doesn't ask for the impossible.
The first stunt I did at Warner Bros. was a motorcycle wreck. The tires were supposed to shoot out from under me, so I jack-knifed it on this dusty road and took a big tumble. When they yelled "cut," I got up, dusted myself off and started walking away. John Hudkins, nicknamed The Bear, took me by the arm, pulled me over, and said, "Son, you're never going to make any money in this business. Limp till you make a deal." It was good advice and I took it. When I joined the Guild in 1936, it cost ten dollars. I only made twenty dollars a week for working in pictures on cars and motorcycles. The Screen Actors Guild got me more money and made our sets safer. Without the Guild, back then studios would just get anybody to do a stunt.
Cecil B. DeMille was not one of my favorites to work with. He was upset because I was insolent to him on the set of The Squaw Man (1931). Apparently I had made some smart aleck remark I was just a little boy. Mr. DeMille raised his riding crop to strike me and my welfare worker and teacher interceded and told him she'd close down his set. She grabbed me and I didn't go back to work till the next day. I felt guilty because I knew that time cost money. Back then, I think the young kids were protected more by their teachers, than by their parents. I know that I was. The parents were so very fearful. Many of our families really depended on our paychecks. It was the Depression and to offend the director, especially at that time, was an act of economic suicide.
Jack Warner was the meanest executive of any studio, ever. If an actor had a contract with him and argued about it, Warner would do lousy things. He did some lousy things to Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and many others. That's why we needed a union, because of producers like that. Working conditions were rough before SAG. We had to report to an assistant director named Jack Sullivan, who was a mean bastard. Warner Bros. hired him as a "herder" for some of the big Western pictures where they used lots of extras. He carried a cane and beat it on the floor and actually herded them. We needed a strong union with strong representatives to sit at the table to look out for actors and protect them from such abuse and that's what SAG has done.
Frank "Buddy" Ebsen
I've been a union man since I was a member of the Chorus Equity in New York in 1928, so I was well aware of the fact that you had to have union protection. When I came to Hollywood and signed for a picture, I became a member of SAG. It was automatic for me. I was in a position where I negotiated the terms of my working conditions, but I could see how the rank and file benefitted tremendously as a result of SAG, economically in the whole spectrum of employment. When I was cast as the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), I almost disappeared over the rainbow because of the poisonous aluminum dust in my silvery make-up. It cost me a big medical bill. If that happened today, the Guild would have taken care of it. SAG, long may they wave.
Frank "Junior" Coghlan
In 1932 I made a serial for Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures, who was called "King of the Shoestring". At sunset, he was too cheap to bring lights and generators to the set, so he'd hold magnesium flares over our head and the fine powdery dust would come down on us. I worked in a movie at Paramount, and we kids worked from 8:00 a.m. to half past midnight. That would be impossible now. When SAG came in, they enforced the rules to make it a financial penalty if the studios didn't give us meal breaks and hours off between calls. In 1937 I was 21 and knew that a new union was being formed for actors, so I lined up at the old Hollywood Legion Stadium during that crucial strike meeting, paid my $15 initiation fee and walked away a member of SAG.
I first met Ronnie Reagan when I was doing a picture off the coast of California, on Catalina Island. He came out because he was announcing ball games for the Chicago Cubs and they held their spring training on the island. So he spent the day out there with me and my band. He said, "Gene this actor's union intrigues me. How do you go about getting in it?" I wasn't sure because I'd had a contract when I came out west to appear in a picture and had been out in California ever since. But Ronnie was very interested and said he'd come out to Hollywood too. He became head of the Screen Actors Guild and held that position for a long time. I'm a strong believer in the Screen Actors Guild. I've been a union man during my whole career.
When I worked on Amos 'n' Andy I couldn't let it bother me that the other black characters were played by whites, because what could I do? It offended me, but the only way that a black man could get a role was to go ahead and take whatever the white man would give him because the pictures and studios belonged to him. I didn't make any fuss. If I had, they would have called me a Communist and ran me out of Hollywood. There weren't many blacks in SAG when I joined, but I had to join if I had any intention of staying out here. I worked with a composer named Dmitri Tiomkin on the score for Lost Horizon (1937) and arranged the choral work for many of his scores. Tiomkin didn't give a damn what color you were so long as you could do the work.
Imagine coming off the boat from Chile and within a year working in the studios on these giant sets on great pictures. My family had lived in South America where my father was an engineer, but after the company closed, we left and got off the boat in New York. The Depression was just barely lifting and we were living a block from the L.A. Tennis Club. All of the producers loved tennis and we had a lot of invitations to play so that opened up all kinds of doors to jobs. I was signed with Goldwyn when I was 16. We were sustained by those acting jobs. SAG is one of the biggest pluses of my life because of the benefits I've reaped since I was 17. Once you were a member, you could call Central Casting, so we called all the time. I was able to work because of SAG.
When I was on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild in the early '40s, I remember Gene Kelly at every meeting bringing up the subject of a new medium called television that was going to be important. He was adamant that the Guild should do something about it right then and nobody would pay any attention to him. I have other memories of the Guild that are very glowing, except the decision made to accept a deal that eliminated all the pictures before 1960 from any residuals to the actors who were in them. That was a crushing blow to so many of us. But then there are other things the Guild has accomplished that are all simply marvelous: the working conditions and hours are great and the health plan and pension are absolutely magnificent.
I started in the business as a stunt woman in 1937. In my first movie, I doubled Dorothy Lamour in the picture Hurricane (1937). I did all of her swimming and diving scenes. We worked down in Samoa and off the coast of Catalina Island and it was delightful, but when we performed in the water, we had to use a little tent with a big heater in the center of it for our dressing room. And the other actor's double and myself, when we got cold, we'd have to go into the tent and turn our backs to each other and just change our clothes in there. The working conditions now, well, there is no comparison to back then. Now we have our own private dressing rooms and so much more.
Actors, personally, should thank an S.A.G. or a Screen Writers Guild or AFTRA or whatever they may be, for protecting them. Actors are a strange breed. They'll undercut each other just to get the part, possibly on account of the bread, or to further their career—they'll undercut each other and they'll cut each others throats. Not on purpose. But the protection comes on account of the bylaws of the Screen Actors Guild—they can't do that. So in the earlier days, before 1933, they used to do that. The nightclub actors or vaudeville actors used to undercut each other: I'll play that club date. Well, its a club date that only pays $400. Listen I'll take it for two. Which puts the other actor out of work. And that's why its good to have an S.A.G. It protects the actor all-round, contractually. It also protects the actor from the other actor. And with the actor not knowing it, it protects himself.
I was an extra in two or three Judy Garland pictures and in a couple of Shirley Temple pictures, those were some of my first screen appearances in early films. I was a little girl, but in those days before SAG, when I worked as an extra, we had to bring our own food, in fact, we had to bring everything for our comfort. One of my first memories is when we were out some place in the Valley outside of Los Angeles for a shoot and it was hot and I had to wear a coat and there were no bathroom facilities. I think kids forget, wipe those memories out, but I sure can remember that stress. But things changed after the union was formed. Now, it's like SAG's been a part of my life forever.
I danced with fire knives and played Polynesians and Indians after I left Samoa in 1919 and came to Hollywood in 1924. I made my first movie when Coolidge was president. In those days they paid seven and a half dollars a day to extras and sometimes we worked for five dollars. A lot of extras would leave the set when a scene was over, but I'd stay. When the director wanted somebody for a stunt, I'd say, "Here I am!" You'd get paid more if you spoke or stood near an actor, so I would get as close as I could to the star and speak. I joined SAG in 1937 and we paid only $11 to be a member. I was in a lot of the "Road" pictures and worked with Bing Crosby. He gave me a set of golf clubs and I sold them for a dollar and a half for car fare because I don't play golf.