Chris Keyser, a tuxedoed 23-year-old, stood at a lectern at the Oxford Union to defend the moral superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union.
It was 1984. Keyser, now a leader of the Writers Guild of America strike, was then a Harvard Law student. He was also a seasoned debater, often taking the conservative side. In the context of Oxford in the early 1980s, that meant arguing that American influence on the world was not entirely malign.
“America is not a lie,” Keyser said, quoting Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington. “It is a disappointment. But it is a disappointment because it is also a hope.”
The debate was broadcast on the PBS show “Great Confrontations at the Oxford Union.” As Keyser took his seat to thundering applause, the commentator intoned: “That kind of emotional finale has gone well for Mr. Keyser in a number of debates.”
Four decades later, Keyser’s gift for rhetoric is undimmed. As co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee, he has become the face — and more importantly, the voice — of the writers strike. In a series of video addresses, he has cut to the heart of the writers’ cause, inspiring thousands of followers to remain united through the longest Hollywood strike in 35 years.
“He’s our Churchill,” says Howard Rodman, another veteran WGA leader.
Keyser is best known as the co-creator of the ’90s drama “Party of Five,” and more recently has run shows for Amazon (“The Last Tycoon”), Netflix (“The Society”) and HBO Max (“Julia”).
He has also coached middle and high school debate and has been active in the guild for more than 20 years. In 2011, he ran for president of WGA West as the moderate alternative to Patric Verrone, a fellow Harvard alum who had led the union through the 2007-08 strike.
Verrone had a loyal following, but had become a polarizing figure. Keyser pitched himself as a fresh-faced pragmatist who was unafraid to negotiate.
“There is nothing that comes out of treating the other side as anathema,” he said in a campaign speech. “We need to seem as though we are both powerful and capable of walking, but also a plausible negotiating partner. Patric can’t do that, and I can.”
Keyser beat Verrone by 20 points. Howard Gould, who helped run his campaign, says the moderation was genuine, and not just a debater’s point.
“It was never ever Chris Keyser’s ambition to lead a strike,” Gould says.
Now that Keyser is the guild’s leading firebrand, some who backed him in 2011 say they regret it. His detractors, who prefer to remain anonymous, use terms like “ideologue” and “cult leader” to describe him.
That is a minority view. For most striking writers, he has demonstrated a unique ability to translate their economic fears into existential language.
In June, Keyser stood outside Netflix headquarters with a bullhorn and announced that co-CEO Ted Sarandos had turned the company “from a hero into a villain.”
“They began years ago as a haven for writers,” he said. “It’s the biggest bait-and-switch in the history of Hollywood.”
In 2020, Netflix unceremoniously canceled “The Society,” leaving an unresolved cliffhanger. In an interview, Keyser said that experience was unrelated to the issues in the strike.
“My own personal creative experience was really good,” he said. “I loved those people. They were true partners. Our beef is not with the creative executives who are our partners in this. It’s with the labor policies of huge corporations.”
In late July, Keyser recorded a 17-minute speech titled “Writing Is Our Home.” He riffed on a quote from a Deadline story in which an anonymous executive said the studios’ plan was to let the strike drag on until writers lost their houses.
“We are fighting for survival,” Keyser said, addressing the studios. “Writing is where we live. And we will defend that home with a bravery and stamina and ferocity that you will come to understand someday. Which is why you cannot break us.”
His appeals have hit the target.
Summing up the views of a Keyser address on X, formerly known as Twitter, Amanda Smith wrote: “This speech has me ready to run through a brick wall.”
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