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Ed Asner, Sandra Oh, 'Seinfeld' -- & ME

Monday, 23 Jun 2008 | 4:12 PM ET

WHY ED ASNER AND SANDRA OH CALLED ME -- THANKS TO SEINFELD

One week until the SAG contract expires, and a deal appears highly unlikely. This as the Screen Actors Guild celebrates 75 years of butting heads with the studios (check out the fancy magazine I received).

But Tom Hanks is among those actors telling SAG to butt out of another union’s contract offer: Sister union AFTRA is preparing to vote on its own contract with the studios, which allows for some improved residuals for Internet downloads but not for DVD sales. SAG is furious that AFTRA went off-script (as we say in Tinseltown) and cut its own deal.

There are 40,000 people in both unions. I happen to be one of them.

I joined AFTRA in 1988 when I became a local news reporter in Los Angeles. AFTRA is the union for news reporters. But why am I in SAG? Back in the ‘90s I was asked to play a reporter in “Volcano,” a hilariously bad movie starring Tommy Lee Jones about a volcano that explodes under LA and spews lava into the subway system (see last Friday's post about riding the subway!).

The production team hired about 40 reporters to ad lib “live shots” surveying the fake volcano’s damage. I ended up on the cutting room floor. I didn’t have to join SAG. You apparently get one free appearance.

What I didn’t realize was that even though I didn’t appear in the movie, I was in the credits and got paid -- so SAG counted that as my free shot. So in 1998 when “Seinfeld” called, asking if I’d appear in the final episode as myself (I thought it was a crank call, what did I ever do to deserve such a gift?), SAG called the night before my shoot and said, “Join and pay $1,100 or you can’t be in ‘Seinfeld.’” So I joined. Duh.

But as AFTRA members prepare to vote, SAG has launched a campaign to defeat their contract proposal. I’m getting calls at home from my “friends” Ed Asner and Sandra Oh (actually they left pre-recorded messages, which will be posted shortly).

Both encouraged me to vote ‘no’ on the AFTRA contract, which they claim doesn’t go far enough on residuals for new media and allows for certain new media productions to be non-union. “AFTRA’s weak deal is bad for all actors,” says Oh. Asner told me, “A ‘no’ vote is not a vote for strike, it is a vote for strength and leverage.”

It may not be a vote for strike, but a strike may well be what we end up with. This town is still trying to recover from the three-month writers' strike. But SAG’s offensive into the AFTRA deal is not sitting well with many AFTRA members who sent out an email encouraging a ‘yes’ vote -- among them Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike Farrell, James Cromwell, and Morgan Fairchild. These are some of the most politically liberal actors in Hollywood (that’s saying something), not the sort of folks you’d imagine “caving” in to the studios.

But regardless of the results of this vote or what happens with SAG, Hollywood is operating as if a strike is going to occur. Producers are rushing to wrap up certain shows and movies, while delaying the start of others until the fall. SAG has not taken a strike authorization vote yet, so most likely negotiations will continue past the deadline.

In fact, both sides accuse the other of slowing things down until the AFTRA results come out July 7.

Who might help bring peace to all sides? Hmmmm, who in California has the political clout and the expertise in Hollywood to try to write a happy ending for a business already suffering from rampant runaway production going to other states? I mean, for goodness sakes, “Ugly Betty” is being shot in New York because it’s CHEAPER there.

Perhaps that’s why the LA Times has a huge article entitled, “Where’s Arnold?” criticizing California’s action-hero governor for being a “girlie man” when it comes to labor issues in the town which made him so rich. “We saw how you handled the writers strike,” the article says, “which was something of a master class in political avoidance.”

By the way, I still get residuals for “Volcano,” even though I don’t appear in a single frame! Here’s my latest check, received last week, for $4.26. (SEE BELOW) Won’t even buy me a gallon of gas…

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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