Leaders of SAG-AFTRA tried to sanitize director Amy Berg’s explosive documentary about the sexual abuse of child actors in Hollywood, threatening to sue her if she didn’t remove all references to the union from An Open Secret, which opens in a platform release in three cities beginning today. It may be the first time a Hollywood union has ever threatened to take legal action against a filmmaker over the content of a film.
“This firm is litigation counsel to SAG-AFTRA,” wrote attorney Douglas Mirell, in a letter to Berg and the film’s producers, dated December 3, 2014. “Demand is hereby made,” the letter states, that “no…references to SAG, to SAG-AFTRA, or to any SAG-AFTRA committees be included in any portions of this documentary.” Mirell’s letter was copied to David White, the guild’s national executive director; Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief operating officer and general counsel; and Pamela Greenwalt, the guild’s chief communications and marketing officer, who all knew about its contents.
The guild leaders, through their outside litigation counsel, demanded that Berg delete all references in the film to the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee. They also wanted Berg to remove all references to one of her main target’s longtime connection to that committee. And they demanded that Berg cut a large portion of her interview with the co-founder of BizParentz, the organization that has done more than any other to raise awareness of child abuse in Hollywood. They even demanded that Berg cut a scene showing the front of the union’s building and the large “SAG-AFTRA One Union” logo emblazoned on it.
But Berg stood her ground. She refused to cut SAG-AFTRA out of her film, and the union did not carry out its threat to sue. At least not yet. And now it claims that it didn’t threaten to sue. The correspondence, obtained by Deadline, says otherwise.
The relationship between Berg and the union had been rocky from the start. She and the film’s producers, Matthew Valentinas and Gabe Hoffman, had been looking into the sexual abuse of child actors since 2011 and had uncovered some disturbing information about Michael Harrah, a manager of child actors and a former child actor himself who’d been a longtime member of the SAG Young Performers Committee, which he co-founded in 1975 and chaired from 2001-2003.
Berg contacted SAG-AFTRA to set up an interview with Harrah, but the guild offered two other committee reps instead – actress Elizabeth Sarah McLaughlin, the chair of the committee, and Leslie Slomka, the committee’s staff liaison. But Berg held firm; she wanted Harrah. It was going to be an ambush.
“Ms. Berg’s colleagues were less than forthcoming and forthright when asked the reasons why they wanted to interview Mr. Harrah,” Mirell later wrote in an email to Alonzo Wickers IV, the attorney for Berg’s Disarming Films. “While prevaricating about the content and topics of their desired interview, Ms. Berg’s colleagues ultimately refused SAG-AFTRA’s offer to interview either of these two women; instead, they insisted upon interviewing only Mr. Harrah. Once this adamant insistence upon speaking only with Mr. Harrah became clear, SAG-AFTRA’s role was limited merely to coordinating the logistics of that interview.”
A guild rep was on hand during the interview, and when it was over, so was Harrah’s long service to the guild. Berg sat down with Harrah for the interview at the union’s offices in Hollywood on March 26, 2014. He abruptly resigned from the committee a few days later. “Mr. Harrah voluntarily resigned as a member of the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee within a matter of days following the interview,” Mirell told Wickers. “No public statement by SAG-AFTRA accompanied Mr. Harrah’s voluntary resignation from that committee.”
Harrah, the film reveals, had questionable relations with some of the child actors he once represented; some of them even lived with him at his home. During the interview, Berg asked him if he is “attracted to young boys.”
“Not particularly, no,” he replied.
Joey Coleman, a former child actor who was once Harrah’s client, presents evidence in the film that appears to contradict that – a taped telephone conversation in which Harrah acknowledges that he’d made “unwanted” advances towards him when Coleman was a kid.
“I didn’t like when you tried to have me sleep in your bed and touch me and everything,” Coleman told Harrah on the phone. “I hated that.”
“Yeah, and that was something unwanted I shouldn’t have done,” Harrah replied, unaware that he was being taped. “And there’s no way you can undo that. But it certainly is something I shouldn’t have done.”
Harrah told the filmmakers, however, that he doesn’t remember having ever done anything improper with Coleman. “I don’t know what Joey is remembering, but I don’t remember anything that would have caused him to feel that way,” he says in the film. “All I can say is that as a result of the situation he was in, not only with me but with others, that that was how he perceived something. It’s certainly wasn’t anything I intended. And that was going to be my response to it.”
Harrah, who has never been charged with any crimes against children, told Deadline that he hasn’t seen the film, but said that “the allegations, as I understand them, are not true.”
Asked about his taped phone conversation with Coleman, in which he appears to acknowledge having done “something unwanted,” Harrah said: “I did not acknowledge that. I didn’t say what they claim I said.”
Asked if he ever had sexual contact with a minor, he told Deadline: “It’s just not something I think I should respond to. If I deny it, people are going to say, ‘Of course he would say that.’ No matter what you say, this is an emotional question and people make up their minds without listening to the facts. No matter what I say, it won’t sound right. There’s no way to answer ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ I am an easy target. I’m a single man, I’ve never been married, and I work with children. I do not believe that I have ever harmed anyone.”
In the film, Harrah says that he had been molested when he was a child actor, but was vague about the details. “I suppose somebody did, but I would be hard-pressed to remember anything specific,” he said. “But it was not uncommon, let’s put it that way.”
A former child actor who served for many years with Harrah on the Young Performers Committee said he was surprised by the allegations against Harrah. “It doesn’t fit with the Michael Harrah I know,” he said. “No one ever came forward to me and said that Michael was trouble. He’s an unusual person, to say the least, but his contributions to the welfare of children were genuine. He counseled many young people.”
One of Harrah’s other former clients, a former child actor who is identified in the film only as James G., recounts how Harrah had invited him to come live at his home while trying to break into show business. “You know,” he says in the film, “being up sometimes really early to go to these auditions and stuff, that’s when Michael Harrah approached me and said, ‘Well, you can come stay at my house with the other guys that are there.’ He had three other guys stayin’ in the house that were his clients.” The kids’ ages, he said, were “from 10-11, to 16-17, but I still thought it was rather odd, you know, that someone would let their 10-year-old son move in with, at the time I think, a mid-50s-year-old man.”
“Many of the kids that I worked with,” Harrah says in the film, “couldn’t have even been able to take advantage of being in the industry had they had to have their families move here with them.” Even so, he said, “I do see the possibility that things can be misinterpreted, and I try to be very aware of that. No matter how closely you’re working with someone, and you do work closely with clients in these situations, there still has to be that professional line in there where you say, ‘We’re not stepping over this.’ ”
Harrah told Deadline that there are currently young people “in their 20s” living with him. Asked if 11-year-old kids had ever lived with him, he said: “There have been kids that come and go.”
In the film, he also attempts to explain how child molesters are sometimes misunderstood. “So much of what goes on in these situations happen almost by accident,” he said. “You get the idea that someone out there was a child predator and they were preying on children and everything they did was to steer the child into this. A lot of the ones that I at least was aware of, they just sort of fell into it.” And this is the advice he says he’s given to child actors who have been molested: “Where I’ve had the opportunity to talk to someone about it and said, ‘Look, this is not a terrible thing unless you think it is. It’s just something that happens to you in your life.’ ”
Berg also got Harrah to admit that he had not complied with California’s Child Performers Protection Act, which requires criminal background checks on managers, publicists and photographers who have unsupervised access to young performers.
“I have to confess that I haven’t signed up yet myself and I should go and do that,” he told Berg. “I don’t know. Is it going to be effective? We have yet to see. There’s nobody running around saying to me, ‘Have you signed up yet? Why not?’ ” Indeed, that’s the main problem with the well-intentioned law – no one is enforcing it.
Asked if he’d signed up yet, he told Deadline: “I haven’t. I suppose I should. I don’t know. The great thing about laws is that passing them is easy; doing something about them is another story.”
A few weeks after she interviewed Harrah, Berg spoke with SAG-AFTRA’s Greenwalt. She wanted to know what, if anything, the guild planned to do about the troubling allegations she’d uncovered. Greenwalt followed up with an email, telling Berg that the guild is “not a law enforcement organization, nor do we have the power to investigate crimes,” and telling her that she should contact the proper authorities.
“I write to respond to the question you raised during our conversation yesterday,” Greenwalt wrote. “Although you did not tell us when you originally requested that we assist you in contacting one of our members for an interview, you apparently had information about alleged wrongdoing relating to a specific individual whom you eventually interviewed. In our conversation yesterday, you implied that unspecified inappropriate acts may have been committed by this individual with several unidentified child actors. If this is true, SAG-AFTRA would share the horror and outrage that any legitimate institution in our industry would have against such criminal conduct. At this point, you have presented no information or evidence of such wrongdoing. If you have such information or evidence, we strongly urge you to take it immediately to the appropriate law enforcement authorities so that they can investigate promptly and pursue the matter vigorously and prosecute, as appropriate, to the greatest extent the law allows. In our view, delaying reporting of meaningful, substantial information in the interest of furthering documentary production is an unwarranted risk to any children involved.”
Greenwalt told her that “as a labor union, SAG-AFTRA negotiates and enforces collective bargaining agreements on behalf of our members and advocates for legislation and administrative policies benefitting the industry and our members. This has historically included particular efforts to protect young performers’ financial security and ensure their safety on set.” She assured her, however, that if the police turn up any evidence “that SAG-AFTRA believes can be incorporated in our efforts to protect our members in their work environment, be assured that we will act on such.” The guild, however, has no jurisdiction over child actors outside the workplace, where the vast majority of reported cases of sexual abuse of child actors has occurred.
“SAG would prefer an extremely narrow definition of the term ‘workplace,’ ” the producers said in a statement to Deadline. “Being at the home of a member of their Young Performers Committee, a founding member, prominent person, for work purposes, for lessons, or on their way to an audition or something, is a more realistic definition of the term.”
Berg told that she called the cops on Harrah, but there is no record of it. “First, I would like to assure you that we immediately brought all appropriate information to the attention of law enforcement when it originally became available to us,” she told Greenwalt last June.
Harrah told Deadline that he has not been contacted by the police. Asked if the LAPD had received any complaints about Harrah, Rose Gaeta, a detective with the LAPD’s sexually exploited child unit, told Deadline: “We don’t have anything on file that anything has ever been reported to the Los Angeles Police Department.”
In her letter to Greenwalt, Berg said: “I understand that SAG-AFTRA is not a law enforcement agency and lacks the power to investigate. It is heartening that SAG-AFTRA is committed to act on any evidence revealed in the course of such an investigation. While SAG-AFTRA is certainly limited in its ability to investigate criminal acts, I believe it is still quite reasonable to ask whether SAG-AFTRA plans to pursue any sort of internal investigation or review of the actions performed by Mr. Harrah in his official capacity.”
Berg told her that “An investigation or review would seem appropriate given that the allegations relate to actions taken against young performers. Mr. Harrah’s work for SAG-AFTRA has encompassed policy and regulatory issues directly concerning the well being of young performers. Specifically, there has been an allegation that during an official meeting, while serving as vice-chair of the Young Performers Committee, Mr. Harrah acted to prevent SAG-AFTRA resources from being used to aid a police investigation into allegations of child abuse occurring within the entertainment industry.”
Asked if he’d ever lobbied to keep the union from spending resources to assist to assist such a police investigation, Harrah told Deadline: “I don’t recall anything specific.”
Berg, who is on a mission to force the industry to crack down on the abuse of child actors, urged the union to get more involved. “I would greatly appreciate hearing how SAG-AFTRA plans to act moving forward,” she told Greenwalt. “Additionally, I would like to immediately begin a conversation about the subject of young performers’ welfare in general and the steps that SAG-AFTRA can take to help solidify their safety. While supervision is available on set, unfortunately, professional relationships and trust can be exploited outside of a well-supervised and strictly professional context. As the premier professional organization advocating for and educating young performers about their right to a safe working environment, what does SAG-AFTRA do to ensure its youngest members are educated about the issues and risks they can face, even while pursuing their career off of a set, to ensure the safety they deserve?”
Greenwalt replied on September 18, telling Berg that the guild had yet to receive any information from her about Harrah’s alleged misconduct – nor a phone call from the police – and that the guild was not about to embark on a “witch hunt.”
“We are still waiting for your response to our direct request to provide us with any evidence or information you may have that supports your claim of wrongdoing,” she wrote. “To date, we have not received supporting evidence. With such evidence, SAG-AFTRA will take all appropriate steps available to us to investigate and/or to remedy a situation of possible harm facing a young performer, including cooperating with the appropriate authorities investigating the matter. We will not, however, embark on an unfounded witch hunt based on rumor and innuendo. We can only consider taking action if we have evidence or information that supports the allegation. We therefore reiterate our request for any evidence or additional information you may have that supports your allegation and we continue to urge you to go immediately to law enforcement and deliver to them any and all evidence at your disposal so that an appropriate investigation can be undertaken right away. Please note that it is our understanding that in order to avoid interfering with any active law enforcement investigation(s), internal investigations should be coordinated with law enforcement. As mentioned, SAG-AFTRA has not been contacted by any law enforcement agency relating to this matter. Therefore, we would appreciate you advising us of the law enforcement agency and/or individual you have contacted so we can reach out to them before taking additional action.”
In a statement to deadline, Greenwalt said: “When this production was first brought to our attention, we specifically requested that the producer provide to us any information she had about potential bad acts and urged her to immediately take her information to law enforcement. She failed to present to us any information about her allegation. We are also unaware of any action taken by the producer to report this information to the police. Whether or not she did, we remain unaware of any action triggered by, or investigation commenced by law enforcement as a result of her allegations.”
Law enforcement never got involved, but after An Open Secret screened at the DOC NYC film festival in November, the lawyers did. “SAG-AFTRA has received information from individuals who have seen one or more versions of An Open Secret that this documentary includes an interview of Michael Harrah overlaid by a chyron that identifies Mr. Harrah as a member of the SAG Young Performers Committee,” guild attorney Mirell told Berg’s lawyer. “Please be advised that Mr. Harrah is not now – and was not at the time this documentary was screened – a member of, or in any other way affiliated with, the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee. Whatever allegations may have been leveled against Mr. Harrah have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with SAG-AFTRA or any of its committees. However, since this chyron is clearly meant to suggest otherwise, demand is hereby made that any and all versions of An Open Secret be immediately re-edited to delete this chyron’s reference to SAG and that no other references to SAG, to SAG-AFTRA, or to any SAG-AFTRA committees be included in any portions of this documentary.”
Berg, however, refused to re-edit the film. “We have been advised that we do not need to make any edits to the film that SAG-AFTRA requested,” the producers said in a statement to Deadline. “Michael (Harrah) was current at time of the interview, which is how we believe he should correctly be labeled. We do note clearly in the end that Michael Harrah later resigned…We were never given the date when Harrah officially resigned from SAG-AFTRA. We were only told ‘within days’ of the Harrah’s interview with Amy Berg.”
In a statement, to Deadline, SAG’s litigation attorney Mirell doubled down on his threat to sue. “As the producers’ attorneys conceded to me, there is no connection between SAG or SAG-AFTRA and any alleged misconduct,” he said. “In fact, we received a commitment from the producers’ attorneys to edit out the inaccurate information of which we were then aware, and to make any additional edits to the documentary to prevent any possible claim of a connection between SAG or SAG-AFTRA and any alleged misconduct. If it turns out that the producers did not live up to this commitment, our firm has been authorized to pursue all appropriate legal remedies.”
SAG-AFTRA is mentioned early on in the film when Harrah says, “I’m one of the founding members of the then-Screen Actors Guild Young Performers Committee – now SAG-AFTRA – and I have been a chair of the committee in the past. Now I’m just a foot soldier.”
The union’s leaders wanted that removed from the film.
About halfway through the film, the union’s Hollywood headquarters are show with a man walking in front of the big SAG-AFTRA One Union logo near the front door.
SAG-AFTRA wanted that out, too.
The union is mentioned again when Anne Henry, the co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, and one of the industry’s leading advocates for the protection of child actors, related an incident that took place during a meeting of the Young Performers Committee in March 2005 after the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Bob Villard, a famous publicist and acting coach for many well-known child actors, who’d recently been arrested on child molestation charges.
“In a Screen Actors Guild meeting,” Henry says in the film, “we were all serving on the Young Performers Committee at the time, which is a national committee at the Screen Actors Guild, and another parent brought a news article from the LA Times that described Bob Villard’s arrest, and the fact that the LA Police Department was looking for additional victims for Villard, and said, ‘I request that SAG look into the idea of distributing this article or putting out an alert or something to their members, that it seems like a safety-related thing that we maybe should let everyone know.’ And Michael Harrah had a very odd reaction that day. He vehemently opposed SAG getting involved. Harrah did not feel that SAG should be stepping forward, even in the wake of the LA Police Department asking for more victims. So SAG did not step forward and send the news out that day.”
SAG-AFTRA leaders wanted that removed from the film as well.
As Henry tells her story, the viewer sees an image of the SAG-AFTRA website’s “Safety Tips” for the parents of child actors. The union also insisted that that be cut out of the film.
“I’m disappointed to hear that SAG-AFTRA officials initially felt the need to keep the truth from their members, and surprised that they would attempt to censor any film,” Henry told Deadline. “I trust that staffers now realize that SAG, as an organization, was victimized by predators, just as many of the parents and children in the film were. Predators use organizations like SAG to give themselves legitimacy, which they use, in turn, to get access to children. The protection of their brand should be secondary to the protection of their members. I am hopeful that all industry organizations, including SAG-AFTRA, will embrace the idea that they are vulnerable, and that they will view this film as a learning tool for their staff and members.”
Asked if he ever spoke out against the union offering assistance to a police investigation into allegations of child abuse in the entertainment industry, Harrah told Deadline: “I think they have many priorities at this point that are more prevalent, but I have never seen a reluctance to do what they needed to do.”
“Well, I don’t know that we’ve hidden them,” Harrah says in the film about the victims of child molestation. “I would think you would want to not hide it, but you would want to protect the child, whose identity is going to come out the more you play it out. A situation like this never helps anybody. And yes, the sooner we can get it under control, the better, but the less the child has to live with the stigma of it having happened, I think it’s better for them, not only career-wise, but personally.”
Six months after Villard was arrested in 2005, SAG and AFTRA co-sponsored an educational workshop produced by the SAG Foundation about child safety and the threat posed to child actors by sexual predators.
SAG-AFTRA’s litigation attorney also accused Berg of attempting to use the union to drum up publicity for her movie. “It has likewise come to the attention of SAG-AFTRA,” he wrote in an email to Berg’s attorney, “that Ms. Berg has repeatedly and deliberately attempted to draw SAG-AFTRA into her publicity and promotional efforts for An Open Secret by telling multiple reporters that they should contact SAG-AFTRA to find out ‘what we were doing about’ the issue of alleged child sexual abuse and exploitation in Hollywood.”
Complaining that Berg “reportedly repeated the misidentification of Mr. Harrah as ‘a member of the SAG Young Performers Committee’ ” when discussing the film with reporters, Mirell said that “an even more inflammatory and fallacious reference to Mr. Harrah as ‘a SAG committee chief who manages child actors’ is contained in an article that appeared in the online edition of the International Business Times.”
“All such false and misleading statements made in connection with any and all efforts to market, promote, advertise or otherwise publicize An Open Secret – including all references to SAG SAG-AFTRA and/or any of its committees – must immediately cease,” he wrote.
Had Berg relented, viewers of the film would not have known that Harrah had been a co-founder of the Young Performers Committee; that he had served on it for the better part of 40 years; that he had chaired or vice-chaired it for many of those years, and that he was a sitting member of the committee when he was interviewed. The guild’s litigation attorney even tried to keep his email a secret, warning Berg’s attorney that it “constitutes a confidential legal communication and may not be published in any manner.”
Berg, her attorney said, would not accede to the guild’s demand. “SAG-AFTRA is an extremely influential organization in the entertainment industry,” he told the guild’s lawyer. “Mr. Harrah was a member of SAG’s Young Performers Committee for decades – he told Ms. Berg that he co-founded it in 1975 – was a member of the committee when he allegedly engaged in improper conduct with a young actor who appears in the documentary, and was a member of the committee when Ms. Berg interviewed him about the sexual exploitation of minors in the entertainment industry. Under these circumstances, there is no legal requirement or editorial justification for stripping the documentary of any references to SAG, SAG-AFTRA, or the Young Performers Committee.”
By January, the guild had stopped “demanding” and started “asking” that it be removed from the film. “The reason why we have asked that references to SAG, SAG-AFTRA and to any of its committees be removed from An Open Secret is because of the possibility that a reasonable viewer of this documentary will falsely conclude that the union or its Young Performers Committee somehow has some relationship to Mr. Harrah’s allegedly improper conduct,” the guild’s attorney told Berg’s attorney in an email dated January 27, 2015. “In truth, of course, there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between Mr. Harrah’s former service as a member of the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee and any allegations of personal misconduct by him.”
The guild could have told that to reporters when they called, but instead it chose to threaten a lawsuit to have all references to the union removed from the film. If SAG-AFTRA had had its way, An Open Secret would have been a much shorter film.
“SAG-AFTRA and the filmmakers are clearly on the same side in the fight to protect child actors,” BizParentz’s Henry told Deadline. “Instead of threatening the filmmakers, the union’s leaders should use the film to educate its members and the parents of child actors.”
Greenwalt, the union’s spokesperson, maintains that the guild’s “demand” that all references to SAG-AFTRA be removed from the film was not a threat to sue. In the next breath, however, she threatened to sue. “While we reserve our rights to pursue litigation if this union is portrayed inaccurately, we have not yet threatened to sue this producer,” she said in a statement. “Nor did we attempt to suppress any factual or accurate information in this production. Rather, we requested that those errors, of which we became aware, were corrected, and that no reference to SAG-AFTRA be made that inaccurately ties this union to any alleged misconduct. Notably, the producers’ attorneys’ agreed to our request.”
In fact, the guild’s leaders demanded that all references to the union and its Young Performers Committee be edited out of Berg’s film, whether they were inaccurate or not. And Berg’s attorney only agreed to change the way Harrah is identified in the film – to put his service on the Young Performers Committee in the past tense, as he had resigned shortly after being interviewed by Berg. Berg’s attorney did not, as the guild claims, agree to the that that all references to the guild be removed from the film.
For the record, Deadline gave the guild a chance to respond to all elements of this story on Thursday afternoon, and while Deadline was waiting for the guild’s response, guild officials gave several exclusive elements of this article to The Hollywood Reporter, which last night posted a “Now THR has learned” story on its website.
It’s the kind of duplicity and CYA that the guild has shown throughout this affair.
“On the whole, the multiple inaccuracies in this article portray SAG-AFTRA in a false light,” Greenwalt said of this article. “In fact, we have no connection whatsoever to any of the allegations made by this producer. The union has advocated for young performers interests for more than half a century. SAG-AFTRA and before it, SAG and AFTRA, included contract language specifically protecting minor performers on the set and has advocated for legislation and policies that protect young performers throughout the industry. In light of this we reject any insinuation that we are not acting to protect our members, particularly our youngest members, at all times.”
Except, of course, when those young members were living at the home of the former chairman and co-founder of the guild’s Young Performers Committee.