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SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles local awarded its highest honor Sunday to two former board members whose devoted service to SAG and AFTRA put them on opposite sides of the fights that wracked the actors’ unions until their merger in 2012. The honorees, Anne-Marie Johnson and Morgan Fairchild, received this year’s Ralph Morgan Award in front of a standing-room-only crowd estimated at more than 400 Los Angeles members, staff and invited guests.
The award was established in 1981 and is named for SAG’s first president.
Johnson, who served more than 15 years as a SAG national board member and vp, was one of the leaders of Membership First, the faction that controlled SAG from 2005 to early 2009. She was introduced at Sunday’s ceremony by Alan Rosenberg, who was elected as SAG’s president in 2005 after defeating Fairchild and Robert Conrad in a three-way election.
“Many people believed that I was Anne-Marie’s puppet,” quipped Rosenberg, who served through 2009. “I took exception to that. I preferred to think of myself as her marionette.”
Describing Johnson as a “friend, colleague, mentor and hero,” Rosenberg said, “nobody moved the members’ agenda more vigorously” than Johnson. “Despite what people say, we got a lot accomplished,” he added.
Johnson, visibly moved, accepted the award with gratitude and passion, noting that she was the first African-American to receive it. She spoke of her concern for the union’s membership and praised many of her former Membership First colleagues: Rosenberg, Sumi Haru, David Jolliffe, Paul Napier, Kent McCord, Scott Wilson, George Coe, Joe d’Angerio and former national executive director Doug Allen, who had flown in from Pennsylvania for the event.
“What an incredible leader we had in Doug,” said Johnson, who also served as an AFTRA national board member from 2009-12 and was a leader of SAG’s affirmative action and diversity efforts. Since the merger, Johnson has shifted her activism to neighborhood politics in Silverlake.
“She didn’t retreat to her man cave in a bunch of marijuana smoke,” said Rosenberg. “That was me.”
Up next was actor Mike Ferrell, who introduced Fairchild. He cited her service to the union — which included nine years on the SAG national board and seven years on AFTRA’s Hollywood board — and her activism on AIDS, women’s rights and the environment. Fairchild was the first celebrity AIDS activist, the union said, and was one of the original members of the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee and helped found the Environmental Communications Office.
But her career had an unlikely beginning, Ferrell said.
“Morgan was a science nerd” as a child, he explained, so her mother enrolled her in acting classes to overcome her shyness. “Her beauty propelled her career,” Farrell said, and added, “Beauty is highly regarded in our industry, intelligence and integrity not so much.” Those latter attributes, he noted, moved her to become politically involved.
“We all start in this business with big dreams,” said Fairchild. “Those dreams are what this union is here to protect.” And despite “all these years of debate and arguing, we are a family,” she added, and congratulated Johnson for her “fabulous work.”
Fairchild was a pro-merger independent on the SAG board. Today, the union is controlled by the pro-merger Unite for Strength faction and its allies, but Membership First made gains in last year’s elections, including the election of stuntwoman Jane Austin as secretary-treasurer and L.A. Local president. That shift likely played a role in the selection of dual honorees on opposite sides of the political equation.
“I am delighted with the Honors and Tributes Committee’s recognition of both Anne-Marie Johnson and Morgan Fairchild as recipients of the 2016 Ralph Morgan Award,” said Austin previously in a statement. “Both of these accomplished women embody the award’s spirit of self-sacrifice through their countless hours of committee and board service for both SAG and AFTRA. Additionally, these women have made significant contributions outside the boardroom for the betterment of all performers and have worked tirelessly on numerous social issues.”
Presiding over the ceremony — which began with a moment of silence for former first lady and SAG board member Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday — were Austin and L.A. board members Jenny O’Hara and Mimi Cozzens.
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