Former SAG negotiator Ken Orsatti dies

Oversaw about 20 major contracts as national exec. director

Ken Orsatti, who as SAG's chief negotiator with the studios for two decades, led members to record-setting earnings and a dramatic expansion of the union's contracts, died Aug. 31 of pulmonary disease at West Hills (Calif.) Hospital. He was 78.

Orsatti served as SAG national executive director from 1981-2001 and negotiated about 20 major contracts. He announced his retirement shortly after the end of the guild's only strike during his tenure -- a dispute over residuals for cable commercials that sidelined actors for six months through October 2000 -- and John McGuire served as SAG's chief negotiator in those talks.

Known for his easy demeanor, Orsatti told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1994 that the "whole idea of collective bargaining is to reach a deal." He sat across the bargaining table from Nick Counter, the longtime lead negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, through six SAG television and theatrical contract negotiations from 1983-98, and they reached a deal each time.

"I have always had the conviction that I would do everything possible to work toward a deal before calling a work stoppage," Orsatti told the Journal. "It's very easy to put your members out on the streets. It's not so easy to get them back off the streets."

A guild employee for four decades, Orsatti served as a trustee of the SAG-Producers Pension & Health Plans for more than 35 years and helped create the nonprofit SAG Foundation in 1985. He also successfully led campaigns to bring the advertising industry and stunt people into the guild's fold.

In 2001, Orsatti was presented with the Ralph Morgan Award, the highest service honor presented by the SAG Hollywood Division. That year, the SAG Foundation established the Ken Orsatti Scholarship for guild employees.

"Ken served this union with loyalty and devotion for nearly 40 years and touched many people in the entertainment industry labor scene," SAG president Ken Howard said. "He will long be remembered for wholeheartedly working to protect the rights of our members."

Since Orsatti's retirement, the guild has had four NEDs, including John Cooke -- Orsatti's successor who agreed to take the job, then exited without ever being formally installed -- and Doug Allen, who was ousted last year amid turmoil within SAG.

A native of Santa Monica, Orsatti began his career at SAG in 1961 as a theatrical business rep in Hollywood. In 1966, he was named SAG's Southwest regional director, then promoted to Hollywood executive director and assistant national executive director. He served in those capacities until being named the guild's national executive director in 1981.

"Ken was a staunch advocate of the rights of all performers and a brilliant negotiator," said Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, the national executive director of AFTRA. "He was also a true gentleman and always willing to lend a helping hand to educate, support and encourage his staff colleagues, at all levels, in both performers unions."

"Ken was a true labor leader, a man you could count on in the fight to protect and extend the rights of not just SAG members, but all entertainment industry workers," added Gil Cates, the DGA's secretary-treasurer who as president of that guild worked with Orsatti in the '80s.

In telling the SAG national board of his retirement in October 2000, Orsatti said, "It's not easy to be leaving, but I'm leaving you as the strongest performers' union in the world. I'm very proud of having been part of that achievement."

Survivors include his wife Patricia; their sons Scott, Christopher and Sean; and their grandchildren Adam, Anthony, Gianna, Kenny, Nolan and Kenzie. Details of a service will be announced soon.