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September 22, 2008

Does SAG Have Your Money? $25 Mill in Unclaimed Cash (Part I)

Saggraphic2 Michael Douglas, do you know where your money is?

Twenty-five million dollars. That’s the sum the Screen Actors Guild says it owes you, and thousands of your fellow actors. In answer to questions from Waxword, the guild acknowledged last week that it is holding millions of dollars in unclaimed residual payments owed to actors, both members and non-members of the union.

While noting that this is a large sum, a lawyer for SAG said that the guild has been unable to locate performers who have moved, or are unable to pay actors whose financial affairs may be in dispute.

“When performers move or change professional representation, they may fail to inform SAG of the new contact information,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsel for the guild. “For others there may be legal disputes over their residuals, including business disputes or family law issues.”

But few would imagine that there are thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of actors on the guild’s list who cannot be found or whose affairs are in dispute. A visit to the union’s web-site, www.sag.org, reveals that this $25,136,877 belongs to 66,848 actors. (The number can be tallied by clicking on each letter of the alphabet and adding up the figures. Membership in SAG is required to access the website.)

The sum came to light when Waxword queried the guild about the unclaimed residuals, brought to a reporter’s attention by a SAG member, Eric Hughes. Hughes has challenged the guilds over allegedly missing foreign levy payments, and has been involved in resulting lawsuits filed against SAG and other guilds. Crabtree-Ireland said the residual money is held in a trust separate from the guild’s other finances. A spokeswoman could not confirm the total number of actors who are owed residuals. They did not comment on what happens to the annual interest on this unclaimed sum.

Among the vast list of actors who have not claimed residual payments are some of Hollywood’s most famous figures, both living and deceased.

Among deceased actors are: Natalie Wood, Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, Simone Signoret, Frank Sinatra, Robert Taylor, Tallulah Bankhead, Jayne Mansfield, Alan Ladd, Roy Rogers, Joseph Cotten and even the former president of SAG, Charlton Heston.

The also include comedy stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. They include Judy Garland, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable.

Two political titans are on the list: John F. Kennedy, who appeared in a documentary called “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” and his brother, Ted Kennedy.

Among the actors who are alive are many boldface names, whose whereabouts are common knowledge in Hollywood, and who have business managers and agents prominent in the industry. They include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Paxton, Beatrice Arthur, Michael Douglas, Patrick Dempsey, Dr. Dre and RuPaul.

The list also includes Eric Bogosian, who was just elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild. It is unclear how the guild can claim that he cannot be located.

Many famous foreign actors are also on the list, including Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellen.

Crabtree-Ireland said that SAG has staff working full-time, trying to locate actors to pay unclaimed residuals.

“For deceased performers, there are often disputes over entitlement to their estate's assets (including residuals) or the estate may have failed to provide the documentation required for SAG to turn over residuals to the executor or beneficiaries,” he said.

But in the case of Alan Ladd, who is on the list, his principal heir is the producer Alan Ladd, Jr.  A family spokesman said he could not understand how the guild could justify not finding the family.

“It’s kind of astonishing that they don’t know,” said John Gatti, an entertainment lawyer who is married to Alan Ladd’s granddaughter. “Alan Ladd, Jr has been employing SAG members for the last 40 years as a studio executive and producer. For them to say they don’t know where the heirs of Alan Ladd are is just not believable.”

Gatti added that there is no dispute in the estate of Alan Ladd.

Other deceased actors on the list have well-known heirs, including Lloyd Bridges, whose children are famous actors. Judy Garland, who died in poverty, has daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, who are easily located, along with a third child, Joey Luft. Princess Yasmin Khan is the sole surviving daughter of Rita Hayworth, who has unclaimed monies.

The guild declined to respond to individual cases of unclaimed residuals.

Sid Ganis, the president of the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he was surprised at the sum of unclaimed residuals, and that the guild said it could not find so many actors.

“That’s a huge sum,” he said. “Twenty five million dollars of unclaimed residuals is huge, given that actors consider their residuals a big part of their income.”

He said it should not be that difficult to locate actors. “It seems odd. You can track almost everybody,” he said. “We do that all the time when we are looking at the path of an Oscar once a recipient is deceased. They should know how to trace them. The world of SAG knows where Claudette Colbert lives.”

But Claudette Colbert, who died in 1996, is indeed on the list for having unclaimed funds.

Said Crabtree-Ireland: “There are some well-known actors who leave the industry or take time off and may be more difficult to find than one might expect. SAG has a professional staff in our Trusts & Estates Department who work full-time to find performers and to help them claim their residuals.”

There is reason to believe, however, that this $25 million does not represent residual payments at all. That and other questions raised by this revelation will be explored in Part II.

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