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SAG Names Cooke Chief

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The Screen Actors Guild has named John F. Cooke--a former executive and major stockholder in Walt Disney Company--its new chief executive officer/national executive director.

In his new position, Cooke will execute policy made by SAG's national board of directors, supervise a staff of 400 full-time employees, and oversee 25 regional offices and a budget of $50 million.

Cooke comes to SAG from a post as executive vice president, external affairs, at the J. Paul Getty Trust, where he has served since March 2000. Prior to that he was executive v.p., corporate affairs, for Disney. He was responsible for the firm's worldwide alliances with major corporations that partnered with Disney, which included Kodak, Coca Cola, AT&T, American Express and Nestle. He served as president of The Disney Channel from June 1985 to January 1995.

Back Stage wasn't able to determine at press time whether Cooke was still a major investor in Disney, or if he might have stock in any other corporation involved with SAG contracts. SAG's national communications office referred the matter to Cooke's public relations representative, mPRm (sic) in Los Angeles; a phone call there wasn't returned. Websites listing insider-trading activities showed that Cooke, in April 2000, sold 20,000 shares of Disney stock at approximately $33 a share. Then, in early-to-mid March 2000, he sold an additional 70,000 shares--for a sum of about $2.5 million. Quote.com showed sale of yet another 120,000 shares on March 17, 2000, this time at $36 a share, which would be nearly $4.3 million.

In his position at Getty, Cooke served with William Daniels, SAG's national president, on the American Film Institute board of trustees. In announcing Cooke's move to SAG, Daniels told a press conference Monday that Cooke "promises to usher in a new and exciting era" for SAG.

Daniels made the announcement following an emergency SAG board meeting in which SAG leaders unanimously approved Cooke's hiring. Cooke's contract is reportedly multi-year, but neither SAG nor Cooke has revealed specific figures. Cooke's predecessor, Ken Orsatti, had a salary of over $220,000. According to Federal Security and Exchange Commission records filed by Disney, in September 1999, Cooke as executive v.p. of corporate affairs was making $600,000. He had, according to those records, exercised options on 210,000 shares of stock valued at $3.8 million. Whether those were the same shares involved in the March 2000 sales wasn't clear.

Cooke told the press conference that he would be sitting in on current negotiations between SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which includes Disney. But he said his involvement would be limited. He also acknowledged that he had reviewed the Towers Perrin report and, when starting work, he would review SAG's operations. The consultant report, among other things, called for SAG to reorganize its paid leadership, opting for a director with broader powers, which SAG maintains Cooke will have with his new title. The report also called for the consolidating of SAG's 25 regional offices, but the national board has delayed any decision on that recommendation.

Cooke was a member of Getty's board of trustees for more than four years before his move to its management group. In his executive vice presidency post, he was responsible for establishing and maintaining partnerships between Getty and local, national, and international cultural and corporate institutions.

Prior to joining Disney, Cooke served as executive vice president of Times Mirror Cable Television, a subsidiary of The Times Mirror Company, with which he was associated for 10 years.

Among several board seats he has held, he has also served on the U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure and was co-chair of its project on privacy, security and intellectual property. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he was also a major fundraiser for several of Al Gore's campaigns, including his presidential bid last year.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and a friend of Cooke's, praised SAG's action in hiring him. He called Cooke "a leader of quiet superiority who gives off an odor of trust," according to THR, adding that Cooke "has great relationships with Republicans as well--he is not a passionate partisan."

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