LOS ANGELES, Calif. – For Kathy Connell, putting on the Screen Actors Guild Awards is part of a family legacy.
The veteran producer behind every SAG Awards ceremony first got involved with the union because of her actor father, and serving on the union board led her to meet her husband, Daryl Anderson.
Connell and Anderson were on the team that pioneered the idea of the actors’ union having its own celebration during Hollywood’s awards season. They helped come up with the concept and categories, and have worked on the show together since it debuted in 1995.
Tall, elegant and timelessly stylish in black capris and a matching blouse, Connell is preparing for her 24th SAG Awards telecast this year. And she tears up when talking about how much working for actors and the union she grew up with means to her.
“I say I’m the luckiest woman on the planet because I work for a union that I care for deeply,” she said during a recent interview. “I love actors more than I can say, and I’m lucky enough to work for them.”
Both of her parents were entertainers. Her father was an actor and mom was a dancer. Connell was 13-years-old when her mother had a debilitating stroke, and she remembers her dad turning to the actors’ union for financial and emotional support.
In gratitude, John Connell — who appeared in the 1964 film “Fail-Safe” and 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor” as well as various TV series, including “Dark Shadows” — served the guild as a board member in New York. And Kathy Connell followed her father’s lead.
She walked her first picket line in 1979 when she was a theatre actress in New York. She also served on the union board there, where she met Anderson. Both were national officers for the union when the idea for the SAG Awards began percolating.
“The directors guild had their awards and the writers guild had their awards, and who knows better than another actor what it takes to create a beautiful performance?” Connell said.
She was chosen to lead an awards committee that included Anderson, who still serves to this day.
Together with their colleagues, they developed a dinner-party theme where casts sit together and ensembles are honoured. TV and film actors celebrate the craft together, and the guild’s entire membership (now about 121,000) votes for the winners. The ceremony’s broadcast deal with TNT-TBS means no union dues are used to pay for the party, Connell said.
“That’s how the SAG Awards came to be,” she said. It had to be broadcast so the TV rights would cover the cost of the show.
This year’s show will air Sunday from the Shrine Auditorium near downtown Los Angeles.
Putting together the seating chart — which mixes casts from TV and film and big stars with emerging ones — is a painstaking effort. Connell has last year’s poster-sized seating diagram in her office, which is otherwise soothingly decorated with a salt lamp, a small fountain and a flickering candle.
“I call it seating a wedding, on speed, for camera,” Connell said. She relies on a team of three to strategically arrange the various casts at the front of the room, with the executives seated in back, away from the cameras.
When Connell first started producing the show, she was still working as an actress (credits include “The Young and the Restless” and “Days of Our Lives”).
These days, the SAG Awards are practically a year-round project. The nominations committee is seated in March and preparations begin shortly thereafter for the following year’s show.
Connell also works as producer of programming for SAG-AFTRA, planning and executing smaller events across the country and throughout the year.
“I just see how much it takes of her time, and when she’s working on the show, she’s juggling a lot of balls,” said Gloria Fujita-O’Brien, who has been working on the show with Connell for 20 years. “She’s a great leader, or head of our family, and she’s grateful for the help she gets from all of us, the team.”
Connell said her favourite experiences in her many years with the SAG Awards is the personal time she’s shared with legendary performers.
“Having private conversations with Shirley Temple on the phone, or being served a cookie at Betty White’s house, or watching Kirk Douglas swim in his pool in Palm Springs — these are the moments I will treasure forever, ” Connell said.
So does she consider working for the union a family tradition?
“It is; it is,” she said. “I’m proud to say my husband and I helped create something that is meaningful to the union and very meaningful to us.”
And what would her father think?
“I think he’s smiling down at me,” Connell said. “And my mother has a glass of Champagne in her hand.”
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