John Hickenlooper showed up at a SAG-AFTRA rally, and not just as a supporter — he’s paid his dues (literally)

Andy Kenney/CPR News
Sen. John Hickenlooper mingles at a SAG-AFTRA rally in Denver’s City Park on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in support of the ongoing TV and film strikes.

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper spoke before a crowd of about 150 union members at a rally in support of the ongoing TV and film industry strikes on Friday morning in Denver.

He was there not just as a supporter, he said, but as a dues-paying member of SAG-AFTRA’s local chapter. That’s because the senator’s cousin, the late filmmaker George Hickenlooper, had a habit of casting him for bit parts.

Among them was the film “Casino Jack,” released in 2010 when Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver. He played a U.S. Senator with one big line: “Remove that man.”

“My cousin George made me do 28 takes,” Hickenlooper told the crowd near the City Park boathouse.

Those roles eventually led to an invitation to join the actors’ guild, he said.

“I wasn't trying to pretend that I was an actor. But I did understand what happens if the actors and the writers don't all hang together. As the cliche goes, we hang separately,” Hickenlooper said.

Casino Jack featured Kevin Spacey, who played the real-life Jack Abramoff — a lobbyist who served years in prison after a casino scandal. It was George Hickenlooper’s last film before his death.

Members of the union were gathered as part of the ongoing push by actors in TV and film, along with screenwriters and other media professionals, to win higher pay and reforms in how the industry handles topics like residuals from streaming services and the use of AI. They were joined by members of unions for sheet metal workers, service workers and others.

“I think this is a watershed moment in our industry and it's reflective of what's going on in the labor movement across the country and globally for decades,” said Sheila Ivy Traister, a longtime union leader and actor, director, writer and teacher.

SAG-AFTRA counts roughly 600 members in its Colorado local chapter, said Traister. Many of those professionals work on commercials, which have not been affected by the strike.

Colorado is home to relatively little of the TV and film work that is affected by the strike. The state once hosted productions like the short-lived Father Dowling Mysteries and parts of the Perry Mason series, said actor T. David Rutherford. But much of the industry has followed film incentives to other states.

“You know, these were films that were shot here in the Denver area, that all went away in the 90s,” Rutherford said. “So it has been a challenge to make a living in the Colorado area.”

Andy Kenney/CPR News
Sen. John Hickenlooper speaks at a SAG-AFTRA rally in Denver's City Park on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in support of the ongoing TV and film strikes.

Hickenlooper — like most Democrats — is credited by the AFL-CIO as a strong supporter of labor, at least in terms of his Senate votes. He and Sen. Michael Bennet recently were cosponsors of the PRO Act, which is meant to boost workers’ rights to join unions and get organized.

But for now, the senator said he doesn’t see a need for legislative intervention on any of the issues raised by the strikes.

“I think at this point it's really about making sure that the … powers that be in Hollywood and New York listen — and let's have a dialogue and see if we make some progress,” he said in an interview. “You don't want to have government stepping into these things if you can possibly avoid it. But at a certain point, this country needs creative people and they need to be able to work and our society will be better if we get this thing settled sooner than later.”

The SAG-AFTRA strike was called on July 13, while the Writers Guild of America has been striking since May 2.