The day after Charlton Heston’s death, I received a barrage of emails from old friends about the demise of my once-sworn enemy. Back in the 1980s, when I was information director of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Heston considered me to be the Red Menace. But when I first came to Hollywood, I could never have imagined that Moses himself would soon play a starring role as my nemesis.
SAG — the film and television actors union — claimed both Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston as former presidents. While many guild members loathed Reagan for collaborating with the House Un-American Activities Committee to blacklist fellow actors, Heston had few detractors; he was acknowledged both for his admirable service as head of the union and for his participation in the 1963 March on Washington as a supporter of civil rights. But Heston’s views gradually listed rightward, and he welcomed Reagan’s ascendancy to the presidential throne.
The union, meanwhile, was headed in the opposite direction, which explained my own unlikely presence on the set. While SAG had traditionally hired entertainment publicists to run its PR department, a younger and more liberal leadership recognized that multinational corporations were replacing the old studio autocrats in a climate growing ever more hostile to unions. They asked the AFL-CIO to recommend a labor person for the job, and they, in turn, called me. As the crusty PR director at the AFL put it, “You’re the only person we know who’s both smart enough and crazy enough to take this job.”
At the time, I worked at the Service Employees International Union, which represented janitors, nurses’ aides, and public employees. But there was a touch of show biz in my past: my dad was a musician, my mother sewed concert gowns for young singers, and I had been brought up on afternoon matinees at the old Thalia movie theater on the Upper West Side. I packed for L.A.
Most of my friends thought I was crazy rather than smart. The Screen Actors Guild was viewed as a weird cul-de-sac of labor, not a “real union,” like auto, steel, or even the Service Employees. But Dick Greenwood, my old friend at the machinists’ union, reassured me. “That’s where our future is,” he told me, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, “and anyway, the labor movement lives in you as much as in the union. You’ll carry it with you wherever you go.”
And Greenwood was right; those labor skills came in handy. During a three-month strike in 1980 against the movie corporations, we engaged the press and the public in a vibrant dialogue about the plight of actors and the changing economics of Hollywood. Subsequent to signing a new contract, Edward Asner, an outspoken liberal, was elected president of SAG, much to my delight.
Not everyone was as pleased. Not long after, as if in defiance of the union’s new direction, the guild’s awards committee decided to honor Ronald Reagan with its annual award. The recipient was usually kept secret until the presentation at the union’s annual meeting. But when I was asked to oversee the engraving of the award nameplate, I balked. Ronald Reagan had only months earlier fired the air traffic controllers for defying federal law to go on strike, and big business, sensing a friend in the White House, was gleefully putting the screws to unions everywhere. I held Ronald Reagan personally accountable. I sent a letter to the union’s executive committee suggesting that they might want to review the awards committee selection — and called my parents to warn them that I might soon be unemployed.
Hollywood is a town where internal secrets are savored along with one’s morning coffee; my deed was soon splattered across the front page of the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety — and Charlton Heston was demanding my immediate termination. Fortunately, Ed Asner and the board were not of that mind. No award was given that year, and I got to keep my job. But I also kept Heston’s animus. As Asner emerged as a leader of progressive trade unionism, confronting the Reagan administration about the murder of labor leaders and human rights workers in El Salvador and supporting union struggles at home and abroad, Heston and his surrogates began an unremitting attack on Asner. And although Ed’s strong commitment to justice needed no prompting from me, Charlton Heston continued to rail against my bad influence and regularly called for my resignation.
It is now more than two decades since I left SAG, but my friends never forgot my run-in with Moses, and I continued to hate his shrill conservative pronouncements. However, as I sat in the darkened movie theater and watched Michael Moore badger a diminished Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, I recognized that I no longer bore him a personal grudge. He’d become just another elder living with his choices and facing his mortality. Furthermore, I realized, Heston had inadvertently paid me one of the greatest compliments of my life. At the height of the hostilities, Harry Bernstein, the legendary labor reporter for the Los Angeles Times popped into my office. “I just saw Heston,” he chortled, “and he called you Red Emma. He said you were the Emma Goldman of SAG.” Heston, of course, meant it as a scorching indictment. But, as Harry had suspected, I was astounded, flattered, honored. Someone had actually compared me to Emma Goldman, the freethinking anarchist and labor heroine who knew that a good revolution left room for dancing. For the rest of his life, Harry affectionately called me Red Emma, and for the rest of mine, I’ll remember not just Heston’s intentional aspersions but, even more, his unwitting benediction.
Kim Fellner works in the labor movement. Her book, Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino (Rutgers, 2008), will be published this summer.