A 1930s headshot of Screen Actors Guild founding member Olivia de Havilland.

Former Screen Actors Guild founding member Olivia de Havilland, whose legal action against studio overreach set a precedent which echoes to this day, died at age 104 on July 26, 2020.

Courageous and confident from a young age, by the time she was 19 de Havilland was a movie star, under contract to Warner Bros. She leapt to film fame in 1935 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Captain Blood. She took another proud step the following year by joining the as-yet-unrecognized Screen Actors Guild, and served on its board of directors from 1941-42 and as treasurer from 1947-48. During World War II, de Havilland promoted the sale of war bonds, toured military hospitals and joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan of stars, which crossed the country raising money for the war effort.

Perhaps best known for her 1939 role as the gentle, soft-spoken Melanie Wilkes in one of filmdom’s most famous pictures, Gone with the Wind, she proved anything but passive when it came to managing her career.

SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said of her, “Olivia de Havilland was not only beautiful and talented, she was a courageous visionary and an inspiration to generations. She was a founding member of Screen Actors Guild in a time when organizing and joining a union was often a dangerous enterprise. She sued her studio, Warner Bros., in 1943 for extending her contract past its original seven-year expiration date. SAG-AFTRA members will be forever grateful to Ms. de Havilland for her contributions to the founding of our union and the protection of its members. She was a marvel and a legend. Rest in peace.”  

The victory, to which the Screen Actors Guild legal counsel contributed, came to be known as the de Havilland Decision.

Her legal battles did not harm her career. She went onto win two Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). Her last of many acting awards came with her 1987 Golden Globe for Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986). 

In 2014, the SAG-AFTRA Honors and Tributes Committee awarded de Havilland with the Founders Award, in honor of de Havilland’s pioneering spirit, dedication to the union and commitment to fellow members. 

de Havilland, a resident of Paris since 1960, is survived by her daughter, Gisele Galante Chulak. Her younger sister, actress Joan Fontaine, predeceased her in December 2013 at age 96.

In 1994, she was interviewed for Screen Actor magazine about her studio lawsuit case and her career, which can be found here.


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