Ed Asner, a Man for All Causes, Wins a Tough New Role as Chief of Ronald Reagan's Old Union

UPDATED 11/23/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/23/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

The story sounds like a Depression epic: A potbellied, gruff union rebel, having clawed his way out of the Kansas City slums, mans the picket line faithfully during a long strike. Later, furious at the settlement, he wins control of the union.

This story is a little different. The hero is Ed Asner, who earns $60,000 a week for his CBS Lou Grant series, and the union is the white-collar-and-French-cuffs Screen Actors Guild. Yet, having won the SAG presidency in a hotly contested election two weeks ago, Asner, 52, remains militant. "I want the Guild to be identified with the labor movement," he says. "The rollback in unionism in this country is a dangerous thing. It spells disaster for workers—and actors are definitely workers."

For several of Asner's predecessors, the SAG presidency has served as a road-show tryout for a larger political stage. George Murphy tap-danced his way from SAG headquarters into the U.S. Senate. John Gavin, another alumnus of the office, recently became the American Ambassador to Mexico. And Ronald Reagan, who served as SAG president in 1947-52 and 1959-60, also has managed to find work in the federal government. So the election of Asner—a liberal activist who says he has wanted to become a politician since his teens—has raised the inevitable question: Is he aiming for the White House? "God forbid," answers Asner, who also denies rumors that he'll run for the Senate.

Asner's politics bear no relation to those of his most famous forerunner. A member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a left-wing group allied with the Democratic Party, Asner has campaigned strenuously for the Equal Rights Amendment, protested U.S. involvement in El Salvador and picketed with striking air traffic controllers. As SAG president, though, he plans to pick his crusades more carefully. "I'm trying to be politic," he says, "so I can still speak out on issues that trouble me without people thinking I'm taking a stand for SAG. It's hard."

Until last year's strike over actors' fees, Asner, who once worked on a General Motors assembly line in the Midwest, had not been particularly active in the Guild. But the agreement that settled the strike included a provision that allows cable TV stations to broadcast programs for 10 days before paying any residuals to the actors. That angered Asner, who said of the contract: "I think it stinks." The issue led him to challenge the union's incumbent president, William (The Patty Duke Show) Schallert. But there was more to Asner's platform than that. Within his two-year term, he hopes to merge SAG with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the Screen Extras Guild (SEG). There also are bread-and-butter issues; more than 80 percent of SAG's members earn less than $10,000 a year. "The working conditions and unemployment for professionals in this union are horrible," Asner says. "Too many people have the idea that actors are dilettantes."

Now charged to go beyond dissent and work for change, Asner admits he is somewhat daunted. "I really didn't think about some of the implications of this job," as he puts it. "I shot off my mouth and now I'm going to have to do something about it." It will not be easy, especially for an actor committed to two more seasons of 10-hour days on the Lou Grant set. Nor can President Asner expect as much support as he got during his campaign. "Mariette Hartley sent me a very nice telegram that was sort of indicative," he says with a sportsmanlike shrug. "It said, 'You put me on one committee and I'll deck you.' "

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