“The movies did for me what Sunday school hadn’t – they gave me a conscience.”
Orson Bean isn’t missing a beat.
The 87-year-old actor who graced Americans’ television screens for decades as a regular on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan is still working on small-screen projects; in fact, he’s headed over to the Fox backlot to film an episode of Modern Family later this afternoon.
But Bean is also working on something altogether more personal these days: Safe at Home, a 75-minute, one-man play about his childhood and the early, heady days of his now 50-plus year career in Hollywood. The play began previews at the Pacific Resident Theater in Venice, California on Thursday, and I was lucky enough to catch the first show.
Of course, Bean is as spectacular as ever, as anyone who has ever caught his work should know. The sold-out audience listened as the actor reminisced about his troubling early childhood (his father, George Burrows, left home when he was young and his mother committed suicide a few years later) and spouted off wry jokes (“My wife told me to put mousse in my hair the other day. She said, ‘You’ll look 20 years younger!’ I said, ’67?!'”).
Through it all, Bean exudes a kind of effortlessness, an easy charm that most actors just don’t possess. “The idea of a one-man play is anathema to me,” he said early on in the show – but it turns out there was little reason to worry, because both the play and its actor were great.
I got the chance to catch up with Bean just before the first preview performance.
Breitbart News: So how did this show come about?
Orson Bean: I wrote a book. I’ve had four books published – this was just a memoir that I wrote for when my great-grandchildren ask, ‘Oh Grandpa, was he really that weird?’ And then I adapted it. And somebody said ‘You really ought to put it on.’ So they decided to produce it at this theater, which is an award-winning 99-seat theater in Venice. And this director got involved and he’s really helped shape it. We’ll see what happens with it.
BN: So it’s a 75-minute, one-man show… We’re getting Orson Bean, in the flesh. What’s the show about?
OB: Well, a lot of it is really funny and a lot of it is heart-wrenching. It’s about, you know, my mother killing herself and all that stuff, and my determination to be happy. No matter what, I would find a way to be happy.
And then a lot of it is funny. The early days in show business. And a series of miracles that happened in my life.
(Orson Bean in Safe at Home)
BN: Does it include Andrew [Breitbart, his son-in-law]?
OB: No, it doesn’t include Andrew. My book does. (looks at photo of Andrew in office) Every time I look at that picture, I get tears in my eyes. I loved him so much. Not “Andrew Breitbart.” But Andrew. Sweet Andrew. He was a busboy when I met him. He was the best friend of my son, that’s how he met Susie. He pointed out that my son was a busboy, he was a “waiter.”
BN: Which restaurant?
OB: Hal’s. On Abbot-Kinney. It just closed. Venice was founded in 1905 by this rich guy named Abbot Kinney who went to Europe, saw Venice and said ‘I want one.’ And he came back and made Venice, he brought city planners over and he had a network of canals built. There was no way to get out there except horseback. He conned the city into putting the Red Line there, and people started coming up and having their vacations out there. Most places are built for commerce, this was just for fun. He built the largest roller-coaster west of the Mississippi, and Charlie Chaplin had a summer place there. It was just for fun, and it remained that way until quite recently, when it was discovered by big outlets like Google, who started building there and moving there, and suddenly, everything’s gone sky-high. Our favorite restaurant, that Andrew worked in, had to close even though it was packed, because the rent was so high that it could only be a restaurant that charges fifty bucks for a plate of kale, and yuppies came in.
So it’s changing. But we live in the canal, so it’s a little enclave. We’re a bit insulated, so I tell my wife we’re staying in the compound while the rest of the world turns to shit. Overseas, America and in Venice (laughs).
BN: Unfortunately, I never got to meet Andrew.
OB: You would have loved him.
We walked into a meeting one time by mistake at a hotel, and it was a bunch of liberals, and they screamed at him and chased him out. And this young woman came running after him. She was a lesbian and a big lefty. And she said, ‘I really want to apologize, they don’t represent the way I feel.’ And he says, ‘You want to have a Bloody Mary?’ It was like 11 in the morning and she goes, ‘Alright.’
So they sat down and schmoozed. And she didn’t agree with a single thing he said. But the day he died, she showed up on CNN and said, with tears in her eyes, ‘I want to say a word about my friend Andrew Breitbart.’ That’s the effect he had on people. They were going to do a big profile on him in the New Yorker. And I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re gonna do a hatchet job.’ And they sent a reporter out, and it looked like she was ready to do a hatchet job, you know, that liberal look, the “serious woman.” She wrote a love letter!
He brought her over to my house – he would always say, ‘Tell the joke.’ It isn’t even that great of a joke, but Andrew would laugh so loud that other people would laugh. And the joke is: An old guy picks up a hooker. He takes her up an alley. He drops his pants. The hooker says, ‘I gotta have the money first.’ He pays her, she runs away. He stands there and says, ‘Well, it shouldn’t be a total loss. I’ll take a shit.’
(laughing) He would howl, and then they would howl. I had to tell the joke to the dame from the New Yorker. He was just… everybody just loved him. Of course, the people who agreed with him thought he was a hero. He made conservatism hip. As opposed to, what’s that guy’s name, the head of the Republican Party… They look like your grandfather, they look like every reason you rebelled and thought the opposite.
(Bean and son-in-law Andrew Breitbart)
BN: I’d heard that you were the original inspiration for Andrew’s conservatism.
OB: He was courting Susie so he wanted to impress me. He says, ‘You’ve got a book by Rush Limbaugh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, pick it up and look at it.’ So, to impress me, he did. Andrew always said that the reason he became a conservative is that he drank his way through college and never listened to anything they said (laughs). So he didn’t get indoctrinated.
BN: Going back to what you said: you said the world is turning to shit. It’s funny. You were in the Lord of the Rings (playing Bilbo in the original animated version). I just got off the phone with John- Rhys-Davies, who was in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. We had this whole long discussion about the big problems in the world. And he said a good deal of it has to do with moral relativism, and the spread of Islam and the fall of Western European Christian civilization.
OB: And the fall of – I mean, if you take God out of the equation, there’s no particular other reason to do what’s right. I mean, in the old days, when they were literally afraid of going to Hell, at least most of the time they behaved well out of fear. And later on, you do it just out of belief.
But now – I was in church the other day, and there’s a school connected to the church, and most of the parents of the kids are not believers but they have to show up twice a year because the kids sing. But it dawned on me that without belief in God, if it feels good, do it. If it feels good to knock an old lady down and steal her purse, do it. And there’s more and more of that happening.
I heard a thing on the radio; there’s a big flood in the Midwest and they can’t get old people to move because they’re terrified that if they get out, looters will take everything they own. So the old people won’t leave the houses and the water is overflowing the first story. But imagine being so afraid that your neighbor is going to take your stuff… what a way to live.
BN: It’s funny because I don’t even remember a time when that wasn’t the case. I was 11 when 9/11 happened, and I think that after that it was a new world.
OB: Well I was a Depression baby. I grew up in the Depression. My father got a job for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which was a government-created thing to try to create jobs for people. And there were long lines of people for free food and stuff. But there was no street crime. I mean, there was almost none. People slept in Central Park and no one was afraid of getting mugged or anything. Times were tough but they were tough for everyone.
BN: What do you think changed?
OB: People became entitled. I joined the Army right at the end of the War and went to Japan for a year and a half on occupation duty… And when those people had kids, they said, ‘I want them to have a better life than I did.’ So they started giving them stuff. And then they, in turn, gave their kids more stuff. So now every kid says, ‘I want this, I want that.’ And it’s gone over into the whole society. And the government gives you stuff, I mean, everything! Rich people get stuff, too. There’s a price to be paid for allowing yourself to be on the dole.
(As Roy Bender, on ABC’s Desperate Housewives)
BN: You’ve lived in Los Angeles your whole life?
OB: No, no. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then I lived in Manhattan for thirty years, working on Broadway and commuting out here to do stuff. I’ve lived through so many… I was blacklisted as a Communist when I was an idealistic young man breaking into the business in the 50s. At one time, I had a Christmas card on my refrigerator from the Republican National Committee, and it said ‘Season’s greetings from Gus Hall of the American Communist Party.’ And I kept it up there proudly! (laughs).
BN: But living in L.A. as a conservative must be a change. It’s gotta be kind of tough.
OB: Tomorrow, I’m shooting an episode of Modern Family. I don’t watch TV, but I’m going to be on that. And I don’t want that to dry up. So no, don’t say I’m a conservative. I felt sheepish about it. It’s stupid. It makes you feel bad if you can’t just say what you believe in. But I just told [a reporter from the Hollywood Reporter] that I’m supporting Rubio.
BN: You like Rubio, huh?
OB: I do. I think when this whole anger of ‘We’ve gotta have an outsider’ goes away, they’re gonna realize that either Trump or Carson, who’s a wonderful man, can’t be president. Carly Fiorina, eh. When that goes away, the guy they’ll settle on, I hope, is Rubio, because he’s brilliant.
But this thing tonight [the first Democrat presidential debate on CNN]. I’ve got a tech rehearsal tonight, so I’ll tape it and look at it, but I don’t… I like Bernie Sanders. He puts his money where his mouth is. He flies coach, he gets $2,500 for a speech and gives it to charity! Great! If you’re going to be a commie, be a commie!
BN: Have you ever felt that you haven’t gotten a role, or you weren’t in the “cool kids club” just because you’re conservative?
OB: I’m sure. But when I was blacklisted as a Communist, you don’t know what jobs you’re not getting. And the same is true now.
But on the other hand, I went in to read – they needed an old guy to marry off one of the old housewives [on Desperate Housewives]. And my agent said, ‘Go in and just meet them.’ So I went, and every geezer in the business was in there. So I read, and I turned around to leave, and as I was leaving, the creator of the show said ‘It was nice seeing you at the Friends of Abe summer bash the other week.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And I got the part. So that was one where [it played out the other way].
BN: It sounds kind of like a secret society.
OB: Yes! (laughs)
(As James B.W. Bevis, in The Twilight Zone)
BN: I wanted to ask you about the blacklist, actually. They’re making a movie about it now, it’s called Trumbo. They’ve got Bryan Cranston playing Dalton Trumbo, and John Goodman is the studio head or whatever.
OB: I got involved with union politics. The union was so split in those days that if you went to a meeting you sat on the right or the left to show your proclivities. If you didn’t, they assumed that if you were on the left that you were against the blacklist, if you were on the right, you thought, ‘Great, get the commies out of the business.’ That’s how bad it was. So we won, we ran on an anti-blacklist slate, and of course the New York Times praised us extravagantly, and they dug up some shit.
I wasn’t a Communist, I was a big lefty liberal and I was horny for a Communist girl! She dragged me to some meetings, and they found out about those, and there went my career. Ed Sullivan – he was the hottest thing on TV, the Ed Sullivan Show – called me and said, ‘I’m afraid the booking next Sunday is out, I’ll help you when I can.’ And a year later, he helped me, he remembered. The blacklist started to wane, partially because of our victory.
That’s the thing with the blacklist, it’s insidious. It’s never been written about, but before the blacklist of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten, there was a de facto blacklist by Communists in the movie industry, and there were a lot of them. Big directors, including some of the Hollywood Ten, would only cast you in one of their pictures if you were either a member of the Communist Party or a young person who was willing to become a member of the Communist Party.
And if you look at those old movies, some of those film noirs and those things, everybody in the movie is a commie. And a lot of either apolitical or right wing people were furious about it, but there was nothing you could do. So when the whole McCarthyite shit started to happen, they said, ‘Here’s our chance for revenge.’ And they started blacklisting commies, because they had been blacklisted by commies. And I’ve never read that anywhere, it’s never been written about. Because the press who would write about it, they’re not interested in that part of the story.
BN: So there was a “whitelist” before “the blacklist.”
OB: Absolutely, there was. But it was never official. But you knew you weren’t going to get cast in one of those movies unless you were “of the correct frame of mind.”
BN: Why did Communists gravitate toward the film industry?
OB: Because they understood that if you can get to the people through the culture – and Andrew was the first one to bring that up today, and he’s right. It wasn’t a law passed about same-sex marriage, it was Will and Grace. You know, ‘Aw, he’s so sweet, why shouldn’t he be happy, he doesn’t hurt anyone, let him marry another guy…’
Andrew knew that way before; he used to say, ‘It’s not Washington, it’s Hollywood.’ Your part of Breitbart (Big Hollywood), that was the original inspiration.
BN: So how did you become a conservative? How did you come to change sides?
OB: I just had common sense. When Martin Luther King said, ‘Judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character,’ I saw that gradually that was being forgotten.
I’m a racist because of my skin color, automatically, that’s what Black Lives Matter says. That son of a bitch (Obama) has done more to harm this country than anybody in its history. He had the opportunity – he ran as a uniter, and he’s the biggest divider in history. I see the checkout person in Ralph’s, who’s black, and I see her look at me and think, ‘Enemy. Enemy.’ But she puts on a smile and puts my groceries away.
All of this shit just moved out from under me. I don’t think my values are any different from when I was blacklisted. But now it’s become a common sense thing. And I see the destructiveness of the welfare state. Even Susie’s kids, they have everything. All their friends in school, they have everything. It makes me sound like my grandfather: ‘When I was a boy, I had to walk through nine-foot drifts of snow…’ (laughs).
(As Dr. Lester, in Being John Malkovich)
BN: I was just at PolitiCon in Los Angeles, and there was a screening of this MTV film called White People. Jose Antonio Vargas, who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an illegal immigrant, goes around to middle America and discusses white privilege with white people. And I’m sitting there, and I’m thinking, ‘He thinks he’s talking about all these important issues and attempting to bring the country together,’ but in reality, all this racial politics is just dragging the country further apart. You mentioned the story of the cashier at Ralph’s… I don’t think that was happening even 20 years ago.
OB: It wasn’t. It’s just a shame. You know, a majority of white people voted for a black president; ‘We’re still racist, we still hate Negroes.’ God, it’s just… we didn’t vote for the black president we thought we were voting for.
My dear friend Dennis Miller has given up. He says, ‘It’s over, I’m not going to worry about it anymore, I’m fucked.’ It’s just, when you’re fucked, you’re fucked. Without hope, there can be no true despair. He’s given up hope so he feels happy. He does his little shows with O’Reilly and then he goes home.
BN: That’s bleak. But what can you do, I mean, what’s the way back?
OB: I don’t know that there is a way back. We’ll wind up giving the “little Orphan Annie” secret decoder pin sign to each other.
I used to listen to those shows on the radio, “Dick Tracy,” “Little Orphan Annie” – you’d send away for the secret decoder pin with box tops of Ovaltine. I would wait, and wait, and finally you get the secret message, and I’d move the pin and write it down, and it said, ‘Always drink your Ovaltine.’ Fuck that, I thought it was going to be about the Nazis! (laughs).
BN: Us conservatives will have to have our own secret decoder pins.
OB: I think it’s going to come to that.
BN: You know, I was going through your filmography to try to ask you about some of the roles you’ve done, but there’s just too many.
OB: Well, I haven’t done that many movies, but the best one was Being John Malkovich. They had read every geezer in the business and couldn’t cast it. And I happened to be on the last interview show of a guy named Tom Snyder, who used to do a full hour with people on ABC. And the director Spike Jonze happened to see it, and he said, ‘That’s the guy!’ And I said to him, ‘You know, at two in the morning, the dame on the next barstool starts looking pretty good.’ I had given up hope.. but there I was, I got the part.
I love Spike Jonze. He’s brilliant.
BN: Did you see Her?
Yeah, I thought it was wonderful. I called him to congratulate him when he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Strange, wonderful movie. It really says a lot about my grandkids – I could see them falling in love with some disembodied dame on their phones (laughs).
It’s funny, I never watch TV. I watch Fox News. My son watches MSNBC, and we get completely different news! Not opinions, news! He never knows the shit that I’ve seen. He never knew about Black Lives Matter’s attacks on people. But we get along great. He comes in every day, I’m watching Fox News, but he’s fine because he knows I think it’s all full of shit.
BN: Well, back in the day, there were only three networks, right? And now everything is just so fragmented.
OB: I was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the average rating on a Sunday night for Ed Sullivan was 70 million people. Average. When the Beatles were on, it was 120 million. 70 million! Because it was just three networks. Now there’s 600. Now if a show gets 12 million people, they’re thrilled. 70 million, every Sunday. I would walk down the street and people would say, ‘Oh, you were on after the Chinese acrobats!’
BN: That’s got to have something to do with the loss of a shared cultural identity in the country, no?
OB: There’s nothing families can watch together anymore. People would sit and watch All in the Family with Archie Bunker, or they’d watch like the show I was on, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, families could watch that. Now, every kid has a set in his bedroom, first of all. The daughter’s watching this, the son’s watching that, the mother’s watching the Home Shopping network, the guy’s watching football. Everything separates people. Fuck it.
Safe At Home: An Evening with Orson Bean opens October 22 and runs through November 29 at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. For showtimes and tickets, visit the Pacific Resident Theatre website.