The Associated Actors & Artistes of America, the 95-year-old labor organization through which all of the entertainment industry’s performers unions once were affiliated to the AFL-CIO, will be turning over all of its administrative functions to the AFL-CIO beginning in June. The move puts the Four A’s a step closer to going out of business, though that day might not be coming anytime soon. “Most of the functions of the Four A’s will be turned over to the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees, which covers white-collar workers,” longtime Four A’s President Theodore Bikel told Deadline. “That transfer will take place pretty soon, but the Four A’s is not going out of business. If there are any jurisdictional disputes between the actors unions, the Four A’s will still be around to help resolve the problem. But eventually, I hope that that too will be taken over by the AFL-CIO.”
Founded in 1919 during the days of vaudeville and silent movies, the main function of the Four A’s was to resolve jurisdictional disputes between more than a dozen competing actors unions gathered under its umbrella. Most of those unions went extinct years ago, however, and with the merger of SAG and AFTRA – which Bikel helped nurture – there just aren’t that many jurisdictional disputes to resolve anymore. There are still occasional flare-ups between the live performers unions – Actors’ Equity, the American Guild of Musical Artists and the American Guild of Variety Artists – but Bikel hopes that they too will one day merge into one union. “My ambition has been, and continues to be, the merger of all the live performers unions,” said Bikel, who turns 90 on May 2. Asked when such a merger might take place, he said: “As we say in Jewish folklore, ‘When the Messiah comes.’ But I trust that it can happen because it’s been shown, with the merger of SAG and AFTRA, that it can happen.”
Every actors union in America originally received its charter with the AFL-CIO through the Four A’s, but that also has changed in recent years as the role of the Four A’s has become smaller and smaller. AFTRA cut out the Four A’s as a middleman and got its own national charter directly from the AFL-CIO in 2008, and following the merger, SAG-AFTRA did the same thing in 2012. Actors’ Equity followed suit, bypassing the Four A’s altogether and receiving its own national charter from the AFL-CIO last year.
The only performers unions that still get their AFL-CIO charters through the Four A’s are the American Guild of Musical Artists, the American Guild of Variety Artists, and, with only 79 members, the Guild of Italian American Actors. Combined, those three unions represent only about 10,000 members, which is a fraction of the 214,000 actors represented by SAG-AFTRA and Equity.
Like the long-extinct Burlesque Actors’ Association it once represented, the Four A’s has become something of a relic of the distant past. It has no website or offices, and its mailing address is Apt. #3 C in an apartment building in Port Chester, NY. According to its latest financial filing with the U.S. Department of Labor, the Four A’s has no paid staff – Bikel and treasurer Thomas Jamerson work without salary. It spent zero dollars on “representational activities,” paid no taxes, and spent only $7,273 for “union administration” – Bikel’s expense account for travel, meals, lodging and the like while conducting official union business. Up until a few years ago, the Four A’s had an office at Actors’ Equity headquarters in New York City, but when Equity remodeled, there wasn’t room for the Four A’s anymore – a move that was symbolic of the Four A’s diminishing role as a labor organization.
Even its name is antiquated. Who calls themselves “artistes” anymore?
But until the live performers unions merge, Bikel has no intention of retiring. “ ‘Retiring’ – within that word is tiring,” he laughed, “and I’m not tired. I don’t believe in retirement, really.” But he does hope to see the day when the Four A’s can retire. “If I get the live performers union to merge, I can safely say that the Four A’s can go out of business entirely,” he said. “I became president to make sure it goes out of business with dignity.”
That was 25 years ago.
Bikel, who served as president of Actors’ Equity Association from 1973-82, has devoted much of his long life to helping actors and actors unions, and every actor in America owes him a debt of gratitude.
“Theo Bikel is a mensch, a tireless force for good, having served his fellow actors as union leader for more than 20 years and lending his voice to significant issues of the day,” said Nick Wyman, president of Actors’ Equity. “He has had a remarkable, multi-faceted career and there are very few who loved their union more, fought as passionately for what mattered, or honored their craft as much as Theo.”
That career also has included roles in more than 150 films and TV shows, ranging from The African Queen to JAG, and countless stage productions. He earned an Oscar nomination in 1960 for his supporting role in The Defiant Ones; the same year, he was nominated for a Tony for originating the role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway. He also has recorded more than two dozen albums of folk music.
A 90th birthday celebration, featuring singers Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow and Tom Paxton, will be held June 16 at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Leaders from many of the industry’s labor unions are expected to be on hand to express their gratitude to Bikel for all his many years of service to the cause of actors and to unionism.