EXCLUSIVE: The Screen Actors Guild exists to collect wages and benefits and disperse them to dues-paying members, but a Deadline investigation begs a multimillion-dollar question: Why are so many living and deceased thesps owed unclaimed residual checks worth $40 million, money that is drawing interest for the union’s general fund? The roll call of Who’s Owed is a Hollywood Who’s Who, including more than 75 Oscar-winning actors or their estates and dozens of Emmy winners who likely are unaware they are owed residuals. A union spokesperson tells Deadline the union is working to locate those members, but it is difficult because people change agents and don’t notify the union, or they move and mailed checks are returned by the post office and never cashed.
Still, could it really be that hard to find some of these performers? Deadline found that if you threw a rock on the red carpet of any major industry event, chances are you’d hit somebody SAG owes money to.
Like: reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, and Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, and former Oscar host Steve Martin. Or Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, Jodie Foster, Warren Beatty, Jay Leno, Sally Field, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, Channing Tatum, James Franco, Jim Carrey, Sharon Stone, Owen Wilson, Justin Timberlake, Melissa McCarthy, Julianne Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Zac Efron and Andrew Garfield.
The music side of the ledger of Who’s Owed reads like a wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Marvin Gaye, Louis Armstrong, Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Tupac Shakur, Don Henley, Diana Ross and Van Morrison.
Among the deceased whose estates are owed money: Johnny Carson, Mae West, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Buster Keaton, Richard Burton, James Gandolfini, Peter Sellers, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Burns, Rita Hayworth, Julia Child, Roger Ebert, Howard Cosell, Andy Warhol. Former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford are on the list (they and some of the other famous names are not SAG-AFTRA members, but their likenesses were used in productions and checks were cut). Reagan and Heston are among the eight former SAG presidents whose estates are owed money. Thousands, living and dead, are listed on SAG’s unclaimed residuals site. The amounts owed are undisclosed (SAG would not tell us), but everyone on the list constitutes an active or deceased member that the union somehow hasn’t been able to locate.
How does the Guild explain such absurdity?
A SAG-AFTRA spokesperson tells Deadline that the union is doing the best it can to locate performers who are owed unclaimed residuals. “Since people move and addresses change, residuals checks are occasionally returned to the union as undeliverable by the postal service, or if it is unclaimed for some other reason, and the checks are deposited into a custodial fund where the funds are held until we identify/locate the proper payee.”
The union collects more than $900 million a year in residuals and sends out some 3.5 million residuals checks annually, while maintaining the list of those who could not be tracked down. SAG also has difficulty finding the legal beneficiary of a deceased actor’s estate. What about the big stars, whose agents phone numbers are on file at union offices? Or how about simply walking a pile of checks to the SAG Awards, dishing them out as the stars walk by?
“There are a number of reasons why that process may be difficult and can take some time – even when the potential recipients are well-known,” said the union spokesperson. “We may be holding money in trust for ‘known’ performers for several reasons, including a bad address or as a result of mail returned for other reasons; unresolved estate issues, or an inactive or dissolved loan out corporation which may request and be pending action on the part of the member. Quite often, residuals may be waiting simply for a recipient or their agent to formalize a change of address.”
When SAG can’t locate members owed residuals, the money can sit in a custodial account for decades– until the performer or a representative of the performer’s estate contacts the guild. One reason that they might not have been motivated to locate missing thesps can be found in the union’s constitution. SAG-AFTRA is “not obligated to pay interest” on any of the unclaimed residuals it’s holding for members it can’t locate, and “may charge and deduct a reasonable fee to cover its expenses of collection, distribution and administration.” In other words, the union is allowed to keep the interest on the tens of millions of dollars in unclaimed residuals it holds, and may charge its members or their estates for the cost of tracking them down.
More telling, the constitution also states that if a member or beneficiary doesn’t come forward within three years of the receipt of the funds, the union can keep the money and the interest. It goes into the general fund. If someone comes forward later, they will pay that money out of the general fund.
The volume of unpaid residuals has swollen since the SAG-AFTRA merger. In 2010, AFTRA alone had $7.7 million in its “Unable to Locate” residuals fund. But the union spokesperson has some good news for the many people reading this story who might be wondering why they haven’t been paid.
“Due to our merger and several other factors, we’ve seen a more than 100% increase in the number of checks processed to performers – from 1.5 million several years ago – to approximately 3.5 million last year,” said the union spokesperson. “We’re thrilled to be shortening the processing times even as we enhance our efforts to locate potential recipients of unclaimed funds.”
I discovered this anomaly by looking into the specific case of the late Andy Kaufman, the Taxi star whose life was memorialized in the Milos Forman-directed Man On The Moon. It’s been 30 years since Kaufman died (or so they say), and all this time SAG has been collecting his residuals. The guild says it wants to pay his family the money it’s been holding for him, but for some reason, it hasn’t been able to find them.
Well, I found them with a couple of phone calls, and SAG’s residuals department should be getting a call from his heirs any day now. After I saw Kaufman’s name on the unpaid residuals list, I used the World Wide Web and quickly found several members of his family, including his daughter Maria. She said she was unaware that the guild was holding her father’s residuals, and that she will definitely be reaching out to the guild’s residuals department.
While some might eyeball the star list and ask if they really need to collect unpaid funds, consider that the list also includes many who are not wealthy. Even worse, the list includes the estates of several child actors who died tragically young and whose families might actually find the money useful. Actors on that list include Brad Renfro, Sammi Kane Kraft, Michael Cuccione, Lee Thompson Young, Rusty Hamer, Ashleigh Aston Moore, Bridgette Andersen, Anissa Jones and Oscar winner Bobby Driscoll.
At the risk of name-dropping, here is a sample but rather lengthy list of recognizable names who are owed money and should make that same call to the guild’s residuals department: Julie Christie, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Connelly, Tatum O’Neal, Dorothy Malone, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, William Shatner, Lily Tomlin, Ted Danson, Burt Reynolds, Roseanne Barr, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Lisa Kudrow, Stockard Channing, Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Liotta, Rosie O’Donnell, Jim Parsons, Eugene Levy, Robert Vaughn, Robert Blake, Keenen Ivory Wayans (and some of his siblings), Danny Thomas, Peter Boyle, Fred “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” Rogers, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Clive Owen, Jason Alexander, Joseph Fiennes, Bill Paxton, Don Johnson, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Kathleen Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Alyssa Milano, John Hurt, Daniel Radcliffe, Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Joan Collins, Brian Dennehy, Linda Blair, Isabelle Adjani, Jet Li, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Dempsey, Virginia Madsen, Lauren Hutton, Tom Arnold, Mimi Rogers, Matthew Modine, Terence Stamp, Mike Binder, Rosanna Arquette, Ryan Reynolds, Rene Russo, Crispin Glover, Luis Guzman and Frances Fisher.
Among the other estates who’ll want to call SAG: Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, George C. Scott, Robert Mitchum, Alec Guinness, Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, Roy Rogers, John Gielgud, George Burns, Art Carney, Mickey Rooney, Peter Falk, Ray Milland, Cliff Robertson, Ernest Borgnine, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, Paul Muni, Paul Scofield, Fredrick March, Victor McLaglen, Paul Lukas, Harold Russell, James Dunn, Barry Fitzgerald, Van Heflin, Donald Crisp, Walter Brennan, Thomas Mitchell, Joan Fontaine, the first Best Actress Oscar winner Janet Gaynor, the first Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard, Fay Bainter, Jane Darwell, Anne Revere, Miyoshi Umeki, and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar in her first film role playing the mother of James Dean in East Of Eden. And let’s not forget Jack Palance, whose daughter Brooke is married to actor Michael Wilding, whose mother, Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor, also is on SAG’s list. Former SAG presidents Dana Andrews, Leon Ames, Walter Pidgeon and Robert Montgomery are owed money, as is Montgomery’s daughter, Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery. Former SAG presidents Barry Gordon and Patty Duke, who herself is an Oscar-winner, are also on the list. The families of deceased Oscar winners including Greer Garson, Jane Wyman, Loretta Young, Gloria Grahame, Shirley Booth, Ruth Gordon, Jason Robards, Peter Ustinov, Ed Begley, John Houseman, Edmund Gwenn, Martin Balsam, Red Buttons, John Mills and Haing Ngor are also owed money. Other estates on the list: Sharon Tate, Rock Hudson, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, Janet Leigh, Bob Hoskins, Leslie Nielsen, Ricky Nelson, Cory Monteith, David Carradine, Margaux Hemingway, Eddie Fisher, Butterfly McQueen, former SAG board member Morgan Paull and Star Trek original cast members DeForest Kelley and James Doohan.
Let’s not forget the comedians. They include George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Redd Foxx, Sam Kinison, Flip Wilson, Phyllis Diller, David Brenner, Alan King, Richard Jeni and Phil Hartman. Living comedians who have money coming include Jim Carrey, Don Rickles, Zach Galifianakis, Dana Carvey, Kathy Griffin, Martin Lawrence, Harry Shearer, Cheech Marin, George Lopez, Jay Mohr, Sinbad, Al “Call Me Senator” Franken, Steven Wright, Gilbert Gottfried, Bobcat Goldthwait, Samantha Bee, Larry Miller, Billy Connolly, Kathleen Madigan and Sara Benincasa.
“Our Trust Research team is constantly scouring online resources to locate correct contact information for people who may have residuals due them,” said the union spokesperson. “In the case of estates and other matters where payment may be subject to the identification and verification of the appropriate payee, our team tracks each case and follows up to make sure the appropriate paperwork is completed to facilitate the release of funds in a timely manner. This constant attention and effort devoted to locating the recipients and getting funds out to them is ongoing and takes place day in and day out.”