A group of men in suits two shake hands in front.

A strike threatened to cripple Hollywood in 1960. Here's how they resolved it.

As television threatened to upend the industry, actors and writers united to demand fair compensation—led by SAG union president Ronald Reagan.

The beginning of the end of the 1960 Hollywood strike took place in this room, where actor Charlton Heston (right) shakes hands with a leader of the Association of Motion Picture Producers. And, no, you're not seeing things: Actor and future U.S. president Ronald Reagan (center-right) led the negotiations for the Screen Actors Guild.
Photograph By Bettmann, Getty Images

In 1960, America’s so-called dream factory groaned to a halt: Hollywood’s actors and screenwriters were on strike. To pressure producers into giving them better pay and benefits, the two unions representing a significant share of Hollywood talent—the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Writers Guild of America (WGA)—directed their members to participate in a work stoppage.

Now, 63 years later, actors and writers have again united to shut down Hollywood in a strike with echoes of 1960. Back then, the strikes brought up questions about labor and compensation in a rapidly changing industry—and they relied on star power to do it.

Two strikes, one goal

On the eve of the strikes, a disruptor was shaking up Hollywood as Americans increasingly embraced a novel platform that gave them new ways to consume content: television. Between 1950 and 1960, the portion of homes with a television skyrocketed from nine to 90 percent. Audiences no longer had to leave their homes to watch actors perform a story. Instead, they only had to switch the dial, sit back, and enjoy.

Over the previous decade, writers and actors had been exploring what television meant for their film work, especially as studios stood to gain millions by selling old movies to networks for primetime broadcasts. As creative forces behind those films, writers and actors argued that they should receive compensation in the form of residuals, or payments for re-airings of previously released content.

Residuals were not the only pressing issue. SAG and WGA members also wanted health and pension plans, employment benefits that were becoming standard in other industries.

(How America settled on a 5-day workweek.)

The WGA brought these issues to the Alliance of Television Film Producers (ATFP) during contract discussions that began in 1959, but negotiations ultimately collapsed. On January 16, 1960, Hollywood’s writers declared a strike.

At the time, SAG was led by actor Ronald Reagan—who would become a famously union-busting president of the United States decades later. As the writers continued their strike, he negotiated with the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP), hoping to get residuals on all movies made since 1948. After discussions stalled, SAG members voted to authorize its own strike that began on March 7.

For all intents and purposes, Hollywood was on strike.

An intermission for Hollywood

Studios found sly ways to circumvent the WGA strike—such as Warner Brothers repurposing old scripts under the anonymous writer credit “W. Hermanos”—but struggled to move forward without actors. With two of the industry’s biggest talent unions withholding their labor, studios paused production on several major films, including vehicles for Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. Studios went on to lay off thousands of workers.

The AMPP attempted to blame SAG for the layoffs. “5,899 actors voted for a strike and now thousands of studio employees are out of work,” it wrote in Motion Picture Daily on March 9. The association also criticized SAG’s request for residuals on films broadcast on television, claiming that actors were scheming to “be paid twice for one job.”

The strikes did not derail Hollywood’s biggest night, however. Despite grumbles that the work stoppage would dampen the mood for the Oscars, the 32nd Annual Academy Awards proceeded as planned on April 4. “Welcome to Hollywood’s most glamorous strike meeting,” host Bob Hope quipped in his opening monologue.

Celebrities on strike

Three weeks earlier, 4,000 SAG members had gathered at the Hollywood Palladium for a real strike meeting. Draped in mink coats, hats, and pearls, the stars filed into the theater as fans jostled for glimpses of actors like John Wayne and Bette Davis.

Indeed, the strike was a convergence of labor rights and star power. SAG’s negotiating committee included household names like James Garner and Charlton Heston. Other strike-supporting SAG members were Tony Curtis, Spencer Tracy, and Janet Leigh.

(A night at the cinema: Glamorous images of old Hollywood theaters.)

Though the spotlight fixated on celebrities, they were the minority in both unions. As scholar David F. Prindle argued, “SAG’s image as a country-club union” of privileged stars persisted, even though more than two-thirds of its members took home an annual salary of less than $4,000. Life reported on March 21 that it was these “many-faced lesser figures” of SAG who “were strongest in favor of the strike.”

Still, 17 percent of SAG’s voters opposed the strike. Chief among them was Hedda Hopper, queen of Hollywood gossip, whose anti-union beliefs ensured that she “emerged as the most prominent and publicized opponent” of the strike, according to biographer Jennifer Frost. Hopper went so far as to draw a false link between the strike and Communism.

The strike ends

Though its walkout shook Hollywood, SAG struggled to maintain its momentum and ultimately resolved the strike on April 18 with a compromise: Members could receive residuals only on films that had been made from 1960 onward, not 1948. Producers also agreed to pay a lump sum of $2.65 million for health and pension plans for SAG members. 

The deal got mixed reviews from the acting community, many of whom felt that Reagan had conceded too much. Stalled productions restarted after actors got the green light to return to work.

Now standing alone, the WGA ended its strike on June 12 after winning concessions on residuals and financial support for insurance and pension plans. Though, like SAG, it got less than it had hoped, the WGA nonetheless has since heralded the deal as a “groundbreaking contract” for expanding writers’ benefits.

The twin strikes of 1960 underlined the importance of creative work as an act of labor, deserving compensation and benefits just like any other job. But the strikes did not end the conversation about residuals. Instead, they only amplified it.

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