Patty Duke’s SAG Legacy: Peacemaker During Turbulent Times


The death of former SAG president Patty Duke comes as the union is already mourning SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard, who died just last week.

“It is a difficult time for the union, and Anna’s death is another devastating loss to our union family,” said SAG-AFTRA acting president Gabrielle Carteris, referring to Duke by her given first name. “She was a committed unionist and a champion for her fellow members. I had the honor of working with Anna and she had an amazing energy, resolve and positive spirit. She will be sorely missed and our thoughts and prayers go out to her family.”

Duke succeeded Ed Asner as president of SAG in 1985. Those were turbulent times, marked by bitter infighting between the guild’s liberal and conservative factions led by Asner and former SAG president Charlton Heston, respectively. Duke, although stand-offish to the press, did a remarkable job of holding the union together, although it wasn’t always easy for her. Battling bipolar disorder, she left more than one acrimonious board meeting in tears.

Ably backed by SAG national executive director Ken Orsatti, Duke’s tenure was one of remarkable gains for the union. She led negotiations for a film and TV contract that narrowly averted an industry-crippling strike; led a three-week commercials strike and a six-week animation strike, and oversaw the creation of a low-budget film agreement that offered incentives to productions that hired women, minorities, seniors and disabled performers. She also oversaw the establishment of the SAG Foundation and the relocation of the guild’s headquarters, and fought the threats of runaway production and anti-union right-to-work laws in states across the country.

All this while trying to unite a guild that was being torn apart by fractious but democratic infighting. And that may be her lasting legacy at the guild: as a peace-maker, all the while struggling to find peace within herself.

In 1988, she resigned the presidency in order to produce Call Me Anna, a TV movie in which she starred as herself. SAG rules didn’t allow producers to hold office, and she was succeeded by Barry Gordon, who had been her vice president.

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