Thomas R. O’Donnell, the longtime leader of Teamsters Local 817, which controlled the transportation for every movie, TV and Broadway production in New York, has died of a heart attack at age 83. According to reports, he passed away in Montana, where he went after his Massapequa home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
I met Tom back when I started at Weekly Variety back in the 1990s, and I closely covered the studio boycott of New York City. The majors totally froze out production in an attempt to bring the unions to their knees and make shooting here more in line with other cities. While O’Donnell was as tough as any Irish guy you would ever meet — he joined the union right after serving as a Navy frogman — I felt that Tom was the unsung hero in ending that ugly conflict. He used his clout to convince his members and leaders of other unions to find common ground with the studios, where in the past those unions had been pretty inflexible. Being a Teamster driver after that was still a good gig, but as I recall, the Teamsters and IATSE all gave reasonable ground in areas like overtime, weekend work and other areas. That led to a reinvigorated production business that continues to this day, and eradicated the perception that it was too expensive to shoot in New York. I’ll always remember Tom for that, and for being a stand up guy. His son, Thomas J. O’Donnell, runs the local now.