Screen Actors Guild Mourns Passing of Former National Executive Director Ken Orsatti

Screen Actors Guild Mourns Passing of Former National Executive Director Ken Orsatti
Filed in: History, In Memoriam

Los Angeles (September 1, 2010) – Screen Actors Guild mourns the loss of former SAG National Executive Director Ken Orsatti, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 78 of pulmonary disease at West Hills Hospital in West Hills, Calif. Orsatti served as national executive director from 1981 through the beginning of 2001. During his tenure as NED, Orsatti also served as the Guild’s chief negotiator, a period that saw dramatic expansion of the union’s contracts and record setting earnings for its members. He was a SAG employee since 1961.

Orsatti served as a trustee of the SAG-Producers Pension & Health Plans for more than 35 years, and proudly served as a vice president of the International Federation of Actors (FIA). He successfully led a campaign to organize the advertising industry in the Guild’s Branches and helped negotiate numerous local and regional contracts that created work opportunities for thousands of members.

He helped found the Screen Actors Guild Foundation and served on its board while he worked at SAG and after his retirement. He served on the Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund (IACF) and as an officer of the California AFL-CIO.

“Ken served this union with loyalty and devotion for nearly 40 years and touched many people in the entertainment industry labor scene,” said SAG President Ken Howard. “He will long be remembered for wholeheartedly working to protect the rights of our members.”

“Ken’s legacy of service to the Guild is tremendous,” said current SAG National Executive Director David White. “The loss of his presence will be felt by all of us and he will be greatly missed. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife Patti and their sons.”

“He was not only respected throughout the industry but it is fair to say that he was cherished by many on both sides of the bargaining table,” said SAG Senior Advisor John McGuire. “Staff members across the country were especially fond of him but so were many union leaders, especially in his home state of California. Ken was gentle and kind, true to his friends, a dedicated and loving family man, and a lover of life. He leaves behind an awe-inspiring legacy of caring, leadership and friendship to inspire us all.”

Orsatti began his career at SAG as a theatrical business representative in Hollywood. In 1963, he was named SAG’s Western regional director. Orsatti was then promoted to the position of Hollywood executive director and assistant national executive director. He served in those capacities until being named the Guild’s national executive director in 1981. As SAG’s chief negotiator he negotiated approximately 20 major Guild contracts.

In telling the SAG National Board of his retirement in October 2000, Orsatti said, “It’s not easy to be leaving, but I’m leaving you as the strongest performers’ union in the world. I’m very proud of having been part of that achievement.” In 2001, Orsatti was presented with the prestigious Ralph Morgan Award, the highest service award presented by the SAG Hollywood Division. That same year, the SAG Foundation established the Ken Orsatti Scholarship for Guild employees.

He graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1952 and received a B.S. degree in business administration from the University of Southern California in 1956 and a graduate degree from USC in 1959. 

Orsatti is survived by his wife of 49 years, Patricia, and their three sons Scott, Christopher and Sean, and their grandchildren Adam, Anthony, Gianna, Kenny, Nolan and Kenzie.

The family has chosen cremation and will have a small service at Oakwood Memorial Park and Cemetery in Chatsworth, Calif. Date not yet set. 

In lieu of flowers, the family is suggesting contributions in his honor to the Ken Orsatti Scholarship fund at the SAG Foundation.
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To contribute a written memorial about Ken Orsatti to be added to the SAG archives and posted on the website, please e-mail your message to SAG Communications Executive Director Pam Greenwalt, pgreenwalt@sag.org.

 

 

REMEMBERING KEN ORSATTI

I have many stories to tell about Ken (most of them fit for public consumption), but one will have to serve for all the rest.

Shortly after I was elected President, in 1995, Ken came into my office and handed me a wooden gavel with a brass plaque on it.  Former President Charlton Heston had given it to the Guild, and Ken had been hanging on to it since Ed Asner declined to take it when Chet Migden, Ken’s predecessor, offered it to him.  For the next half hour Ken answered questions and told me stories about Mr Heston.  As he was finishing he said that he thought maybe enough time had passed and that I would like to have the gavel.  I took it and put it on my desk, where it stayed for four years.

A few weeks later there was an article in one of the trades in which Mr. Heston was quoted as being an advocate for so-called “right-to-work” laws and “financial core”.  He was described as “an outspoken, long-time foe of Screen Actors Guild”.   I went to Ken’s office and told him that I wanted to write to Mr. Heston and tell him that I didn’t believe that he was now, or had ever been a “foe of Screen Actors Guild,” merely an opponent of policies that the Guild had adopted with which he disagreed.  I hoped that would give me a chance to try to convince him that “right-to-work” laws and “financial core” were very damaging to the Guild and our members, and by doing so change his position.

Ken said, “Let me give him a call and see if he will have lunch with the two of us.  I think that would be a better way to go.”  He made the call and Mr. Heston said he would be happy to speak with me and asked us to meet him at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel for lunch.

As we arrived, Mr. Heston slowly rose to greet us (he was having a lot of trouble with his knees at the time) and thanked us both for coming.  Ken introduced us, and then sat back and let things happen.  Mr. Heston began by insisting that I call him “Chuck”, and then saying that this was the first time in decades that anyone from SAG, let alone the President, had asked to see and talk with him.  He made it clear that he was grateful and touched that we had done so.

I said that even though he and I could not be further apart politically, I believed there was much that we could agree upon, when it came to SAG and the members, and that I hoped he would be willing to help when needed.  He was pleased to be asked and said he would be happy to do what he could.  Ken and I then tried to convince Chuck that these anti-union positions he supported were damaging to SAG and the members.  We failed.  Completely.

However, over the four years I was President, Chuck and I had lunch several more times, at which I filled him in, answered his questions, and sometimes asked for his help.  He went to Washington to lobby on SAG’s behalf (at a time when both Houses were controlled by his political friends).  And during those four years he made it a point to call me and tell me when he didn’t like what we were doing at SAG before he spoke to the press.  Most often after we talked, he decided that what we were doing wasn’t so bad and said nothing in print.

None of this would have happened if Ken hadn’t brought me that gavel.  That’s the way he worked.  He was so successful as a man, a negotiator and a union leader because he always believed that talking was better than not talking, and that solutions were out there to be found.  He was a strong man, and a gentle man as well.  I was proud to call him my friend

Every professional actor in this country owes Ken Orsatti a debt of gratitude.  He was the best friend they ever had.
 
- Richard Masur

Ken was a friend, client and co-executive director. We worked together for close to twenty years. He was a man of incredible integrity, honor and loyalty who dedicated his professional life to advancing the rights of all actors. His passion, always governed by his even-handed style, was an example to me and others. My deepest condolences to his wife Patti, his family and all of SAG.
- Jay Roth

The DGA extends its deepest sympathies regarding the passing of former SAG National Executive Director Ken Orsatti.  As president of the DGA in the 1980's, I was fortunate to work with Ken on issues of mutual concern to our Guilds.  Ken was a true labor leader, a man you could count on in the fight to protect and extend the rights of not just SAG members, but all entertainment industry workers.  He will be deeply missed.
- Gil Cates

When we first met over fifty years ago, Ken and I were eager young business representatives with AFTRA's LA-local.  While our entertainment industry labor careers shortly put us on different paths, I was honored to join the SAG staff in 1984 -- beginning over sixteen years of shared experiences with Ken Orsatti. 

The hours spent together were countless; negotiations, board or executive committee meetings, caucuses, membership meetings, staff meetings, inter-union meetings --- a constant flurry of activity in an ongoing effort to better the lives of the performing professionals represented by the Guild.  There were highs and lows; there was irritation and exhileration.  There were the good guys and the bad guys.  In short, our shared Guild life was one of ups and downs but, nevertheless, a truly satisfying career experience.  Sharing that experience with Ken, along with our colleague John McGuire, made that experience very special indeed.

In our retirement years, Ken and I maintained our friendship -- getting together for lunch about once a month -- usually joined by another good friend, former SAG counsel Leo Geffner --- to talk politics, sports, and -- of course -- the trials and tribulations of the Screen Actors Guild. 

Ken loved to speak about the Guild because his passion for the organization continued to the end.
- Leonard Chassman

For nine weeks, I was lucky enough to share a small conference room in The San Fernando Valley with Ken and the others members of a SAG negotiating team. If you really want to get to know anyone try spending that length of time with him or her under those conditions. I am so glad that I did spend that time - and I got to know Ken "up close". Not only was he a great negotiator - he was a charming,  and genuinely friendly man, with a great sense of humor, always concerned for the needs of all those people he represented. It is with great sadness that I hear now of his passing, but it is also with great pride that I had the honor of getting to know him and work with him -- "Up Close".
- Larry Conroy


I'm still reeling from the news of Ken's passing and I find it hard to imagine the world without him in it.  He is so embedded in the fabric of my life at Screen Actors Guild.  It was my honor and privilege to work with and for him for over 30 years.  My fondest memories, as a member of his staff, do not come from his extraordinary leadership and negotiating skills but rather from his warmth and respect for those who were part of the team working toward the common goals of the Guild.  The very best days included staff gatherings, when after a hard day's work, we could relax and share a story and a laugh and know that life was good.  Ken was the storyteller, of course.  I will always be grateful to have known him in the best of times and to have enjoyed an ongoing friendship that I have treasured always.  My thoughts and prayers are with his beloved wife and family.   
- Clinta Dayton

Ken Orsatti: The original Trojan. Storyteller. Advocate. Unionist. Keen negotiator and teacher. My mentor and dear friend.
- Pamm Fair

The Screen Actors Guild has lost one of it's best friends and bravest, smartest warriors.  I wish I'd had a chance to see him one last time.  I would tell him "thank you." 
 
Many on the current SAG BOARD don't remember Ken properly.  I served several years on that Board with him as our National Executive Director.  I sat in several Negotiations and learned by watching him.  I spent many, many hours with him.  He had Class and Style...  And that tan...  If you cut him... he would have bled SAG...  His toughness and ability to make the tough decisions, and be willing to voice them... even when politics would have been an easier game to play, took this union into an era of growth and prosperity that small thinking and jingoistic attitudes have sharply curtailed.  He could see the forrest and the trees in it.   And he still was a fierce representative of the Board and the true needs of our members.
 
God Bless him.  He made my tenure on the SAG BOARD one of optimism, strength and unity.   We actually used to spend most of our time on the business of the guild and not in conflict with ourselves.  We must never forget what he fought for.  
 
My absolute best goes out to his family.  He is sorely missed.
- Raymond Forchion

Ken Orsatti was an absolutely invaluable force in the history of our Screen Actors Guild. He came up through the ranks starting as a Field Rep and totally identified and fought for all of us every step of the way for 40 years. I served with him on our National Board, the Executive Committee, the Pension and Health Board of Trustees and in countless negotiations.  He was our beloved leader through trials, tribulations and victories and earned everyone's respect industrywide and unionwide.

Ken loved actors and we all loved him. He had a magic touch, a tower of strength when needed and brought not only incredible wisdom and vision but human wamth and humor to every endeavor. Ken taught me and others so much about judgement and responsibility and leadership - and he was a delight to be with in any and all circumstances.  We have lost a true giant in our great union and I have lost a treasured friend and mentor.  I loved him a lot.

- Joyce Gordon

On behalf of our industry, the ANA - 4A's Joint Policy Committee wishes to express their deepest sympathy to Ken's wife and family and to his colleagues at the Screen Actors Guild. Ken was always the consummate professional and served the union's membership with great devotion and care.
- Joint Policy Committee

I would like to convey to you all my heartfelt condolences on Ken’s passing. It is a most tragic and in some way unexpected news.

Ken had been a familiar figure to me from my very start at FIA in 1990 until well after his retirement. He was a real gentleman and truly conferred the cause of performers both in the US and internationally their letters of ennoblement.
Ken was already missed after his retirement, but unfortunately now we have to rely solely on his legacy to guide us forward.

After losing my own father in May this year, I sadly know all too well how overpowering this feeling of engulfing emptiness can be. With loving and heartfelt prayers that you may soon be able to overcome this trying void in your life and in your heart, G-d bless.
- Marie-José

I only met Ken Orsatti twice, but I remember him very clearly. The first time was when I had just taken over as president of the Danish Actors´ Association and the FIA had a meeting in Malmö, Sweden. We, the Danes, arranged the “tourist day” ending in Tivoli a rarely wonderful summer evening, 26 degrees Celsius at 10 p.m., no wind and a full moon. Return to Malmö was up to the participants, and I found myself on the ferry with Ken Orsatti and one of his sons (Scott?) talking about nothing and everything and our children and the moon glowed an autostrada on the Sound.

The second time was in Geneva, where the WTO provisions about intellectual rights were discussed. We were (as you no doubt know!) not in complete agreement with the American views, but I will never forget Ken Orsatti’s will to maintain solidarity and to find common ground. And I will never forget the evening with him and his wonderful Patricia and colleagues European and American, open air, good food, good wine, good company.  
- Troels Munk

When Ken moved over from AFTRA to SAG  in 1960, I had been employed in the Chicago Joint AFTRA-SAG since 1956 (which I ultimately headed until my retirement in 1990.) These were years of profound changes  for the entire American entertainment industry
 
Though we did not meet personally until some years later  -- we did not fly around so much fifty years ago -- we established a close personal and professional relationship that lasted into his retireent.
 
Ken was a modifying and perhaps mollifying force among the varying factions  within the Guild  membership and its staff. Ken was one of the very,very  few executives who was respected , trusted and respected  not only by his colleagues , but as well as by his counterparts in the industry. This was major factor in his ability to negotiate meaningful  agreements for the Guild. 
 
Ken Orsatti served his membership  very well.
 
He was a real Mensch -- Ecce Homo.
- Herbert Neuer

In the 20 years I covered Hollywood's unions for The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, there was literally no one in Hollywood I respected more than Ken. He was a great union leader and a great man. Throughout his career, he always put the  interest of actors first. His honesty and integrity were beyond reproach. He  was a really tough negotiator, but he was not a "tough guy." He was funny and cheerful and kind. He used to joke that one day, when we're all in Heaven, he wanted me to tell him who my source was that gave me SAG's board  minutes. If there is a Heaven, I'm sure that Ken is there now trying to negotiate a better deal for the angels.
-  Dave  Robb

It's with great sadness that we received news this morning of Ken's death. The SFA remembers with affection the many opportunities we had over the years to work together, during our visit to LA, during Ken's visits to Paris and the other cities in which FIA held meetings. The contacts were always productive, and fun.

We know that American performers will always be beholden to the tireless work of Ken over so many years, and those of us in other countries appreciated his commitment to international cooperation and solidarity, expressed particularly through his activity within FIA.

Please express our condolences to his family and friends, and to all the colleagues, active and retired, who labored side by side with Ken in our common cause.
- Catherine Almeras and Jimmy Shuman

I worked with Ken Orsatti for 27 years. For more than half that time, I was honored to be one of his trusted associates. Ken was an outstanding leader both in times of prosperity and in times of challenge. He was known for his equanimity and his spirit of justice and honesty. Always affable, Ken was a loyal friend and a realistic, but highly persuasive labor leader.

I feel the personal loss of Ken’s friendship and the deep loss for SAG of his matchless knowledge and experience. Never has the union had a more charming and wise executive. He was unique and irreplaceable.
- John H. Sucke

I will always remember Ken Orsatti’s dedication to the Stunt community. His advocacy on their behalf was my introduction to his leadership, his commitment and his love for all actors in the Guild.  His fairness and dedication to our contracts, our working conditions, to his staff and the Board will forever be a blueprint for labor union  leaders and for those of us who work for and serve the Guild. Most of  all, he was a gentle and kind man to all he met.
- Kim Sykes


Lorna and I had the pleasure to know and be friends with Ken and Patty for many years - 35 as I recall.  And I had the positive experience of working with SAG when Ken was Executive Director from 1984 to 1988.  Ken symbolized everytrhing good about the Guild for me - he was a part of Hollywood history; a strong labour leader; excellent negotiator; a stabilizing force; and a hell of a nice guy.  Ken - you will be missed, as will your endless supply of stories.  Lorna and I send our heartfelt sympathies to Patty and the boys, and their families.
- Stephen Waddell

Ken brought class and wit and dignity to the Screen Actor's Guild for so long, positioning it as the Rolls Royce of entertainment unions.  His dedication and respect was the engine to every hard won negotiation. I had the good fortune to serve for many years both Los Angeles and New York and being able to do with Ken at the helm made for a enriching experience, educating me about this profession in ways I might have missed out on. I imagine not a lot of the membership is ever quite aware of the leaders and visionaries who work for our rights and our futures as performers, but Ken was pivotal to unmeasurable benefits for performers that will reach into the future. I will hoist a martini to his memory with great love and gratitude.
- Claudette Sutherland

On behalf of Australia’s performers may I convey our deep sympathy and commiseration for you all on the passing of Ken Orsatti.  We were truly both shocked and saddened by the news.
 
Ken was a true campaigner for the rights of performers and in particular SAG members.

His commitment, wisdom and the generosity with which he bestowed it will be missed by all in the international performing community.
 
Our sympathy goes to your family at this difficult time.
 - Simon Whipp

A message to FIA members:

Dear FIA colleagues,
We are saddened to inform you that Ken Orsatti, who served as a FIA Vice-president and was National Executive Director for the Screen Actors Guild for many years, recently passed away. Although I personally never got to meet him, I learned a lot about him from you and know how much he was respected for his work and commitment to the cause of performers, both nationally and beyond. I feel I can say that we all have lost a dear and dependable friend.
Kind regards,
Dominick Luquer