John Rich began making an impact in the Guild the first time he attended a meeting in 1953 of what was then the Screen Directors Guild. He had the temerity to point out that of the illustrious members - including Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock - who had convened to elect a board of directors, none had ever worked in television. The next day, he received a phone call from National Executive Secretary Joe Youngerman, telling him he’d been appointed an alternate member of the new board.
“They must have thought it was better to have the camel inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in,” surmises Rich with a laugh, more than 50 years later.
Since that day he has been active in the Guild and a board member for most of that time. He began pushing for a merger with the New York-based Radio and Television Directors Guild, on the supposition that a new invention called videotape was destined to have a major impact. When Rich’s proposition was put on the ballot, the membership endorsed it, and the merged guilds were renamed the Directors Guild of America.
In those early days, the air at board meetings was thick with clouds of pipe and cigar smoke, Rich recalls, to the point that he had no choice but to take up smoking himself. “The order of the day was cigars, the more expensive the better,” he reports, remembering John Ford in particular as a man who could afford to indulge in the finest Havana product. “Today, it’s smoke-free, thank God,” he remarks, having given up tobacco many years ago himself.
Over the years, he has held many important offices on the National Board, including secretary (1958-1959), treasurer (1965-1967) and multiple turns as vice president. He continues to serve in key leadership positions as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Directors Guild of America-Producer Pension Plan, and as chairman of the Directors Guild Foundation.
The product of a blue-collar upbringing in Queens, New York, Rich worked his way into show business through radio and live television, and seemed perpetually tuned in to the shape of things to come. This was no sixth sense, he declares, but merely that “I was in a hurry to get things done.”
Possessed of an agile mind and a natural authority, he rose quickly in the directing ranks. By 1961, he was working with Sheldon Leonard and Carl Reiner staging The Dick Van Dyke Show before a live audience. He enjoyed a long tenure as the sole director of the acclaimed comedy, as he did later on the groundbreaking All in the Family, directing the pilot and every episode for the first four seasons.
Among the most satisfying accomplishments of his long service to the Guild has been the flourishing of the DGA-Producer Pension Plan, which he helped negotiate as a founding member in 1960. “I’m very happy that the plan has done so well and has helped so many,” he remarks. “We were very careful to make rules to help the younger members.”
Currently engaged in promoting his memoir, Warm Up the Snake, a wry and entertaining account of a life in show business - ncluding engaging tales of how key Guild victories came about - Rich reflects that, in the end, he got more than he gave from his devotion to the Guild. He was recognized for his 50 years of service in 2003 with a DGA Honorary Life Membership.
“It required an awful lot of time to be on the negotiating committees, but it was also very useful,” he concludes. “Men like Capra, Youngerman and George Sidney negotiated with great strength and courage, and I learned from them. It’s not something you can pick up overnight, but I sat quietly for a couple of years watching the masters.”
At one point as co-chair, Rich was able to rescue a stalled negotiation over an important contract provision - the right of network directors to participate in New York casting sessions - when he backed ABC negotiator Dick Freund against a wall over his careless remark that, “We at ABC reserve the right to be bad.” Rich threatened to repeat the statement to ABC shareholders the next day at their annual meeting, and the talks got back on track.