risky business

Seasons change, but Oscar remains — right?

Consider this scenario: In the week preceding the Academy Awards, the Academy president announces that if the strike is not settled by the time the Oscar broadcast is to air, then the show will not go on. "Under no circumstances would we expect anyone to cross a picket line," the Academy president says. Preparations for the show are ongoing — the union has granted a waiver for rehearsals but has not yet offered one for the show itself — but the Academy reiterates, "If the strike is still in progress, the show will not go on."

The next day, the Academy reconsiders. The show will go on, but instead of being broadcast by ABC, it will become a stage event that only ticket-holders will witness live. "We have notified the ABC network and our sponsors that our responsibility to the motion picture industry, moviegoers throughout the world, our membership and our cast to present the Academy Awards on schedule supersedes any benefits that might be derived from postponing the event until it could be aired on national television at a later date," the Academy says.

The threat of a broadcast-free Oscars lingers over the weekend. Pessimism grows. "It seemed unlikely at a late hour last night that the strike would be settled," says The Hollywood Reporter. The paper notes, however, that growing union support and increased pressure from advertisers "might yet lead to a settlement."

And then, three hours before the Oscars are to begin, the strike is settled. The Academy Awards air on ABC as planned.

Talk about a cliffhanger.

This, though, is not some future script, a sort of worst-case scenario should the writers strike continue into late February. It's a bit of Hollywood history.

The strike in question was called by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in spring 1967 when negotiations broke down over staff announcer and news reporter contracts at network owned-and-operated stations. AFTRA's 18,000 members in more than 100 locations walked off the job. In support, the DGA ordered its membership not to perform any work within the strikers' jurisdiction. And in a show of solidarity, the American Federation of Musicians told its members not to cross the picket lines.

The 13-day strike is best remembered for making an inadvertent star of a CBS manager of news programming by the name of Arnold Zenker, then just 28, who was drafted to sit in and deliver the nightly news in place of Walter Cronkite.

And, of course, there was that threat to the Oscars. Although largely forgotten today, it surfaces in Walter Mosley's new Easy Rawlins mystery, "Blonde Faith." As Rawlins, on the trail of Vietnam-era heroin smugglers, drives around Los Angeles, he mentions the endangered Oscar show as one of the other dramas playing out in the city.

Today, the whole incident might sound almost quaint, for ultimately the 39th Annual Academy Awards, with Bob Hope as emcee, took place April 10 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

But, in fact, the tale suggests that more than 30 years ago, the industry was a more principled place. Although only a minority within AFTRA was directly involved in the contract dispute, the entire union went out on strike, and other unions lined up in support. As for the Academy, it was willing to forgo its ABC licensing fee — then a whopping $700,000 — deciding it was more important to go on as scheduled than to announce a postponement in order to be guaranteed a network slot.

It's no surprise that the winner for best picture was "A Man for All Seasons," a drama about the importance of following one's principles.