The Liberal Bastille

I’ve been a professional actor for 40 years and, when asked, an open conservative for at least 43 years. Frequently I’m asked to explain why Hollywood is so liberal, a question which I hate because I’m not really qualified to explain the pack mentality or mental illness. My response is always something like, “Ask Spielberg or Oliver Stone why they love that stinking bastard Castro. They’re the ones who can answer your question.”

The second most frequent query is two pronged and relates to a conservative blacklist in Hollywood and what minority status is like on a day to day basis. This I can comment on. I believe Hollywood is now a liberal Bastille. This was not always so, but it is the reality now. The atmosphere is intimidating and oppressive, but that’s not an official blacklist. It’s more like viral note taken on wet cocktail napkins secretly passed between smug lib execs describing a young actor as a redneck loving Nazi simply because he said he supported President Bush. It’s a social network where you might have no advocates, but then again you might if you just happened to pull in $35 million over the weekend. I don’t want to borrow a phrase from Don Rumsfeld , but I only know what I know. I don’t know what I don’t know and well, you know the rest; so I’ll rely only on my actual experiences during my daily Hollywood business, and encounters of the first kind with two famous and now deceased liberal Hollywood game players, Bruce Paltrow and Paul Newman.

During the last 8 years, I have rarely been to an audition waiting room where I have not been assaulted with anti-Bush, anti-Reagan, anti-Republican outbursts. Speaking up alone, one against five or ten righteous liberals is foolish, I know because I’ve tried it…. There is never a sense of decorum. I have never heard a pro-Bush, Pro-Reagan, Pro-Republican outburst! Even while on the job, during the lead up to the last election, liberal actors would without hesitation blurt out ugly anti-Sarah Palin nonsense just seconds before you have to be very, very funny. Words like “Abu Ghraib” are substituted for scripted text as a sarcastic admonition, to clarify moral superiority and solidarity with others in the room. The lack of respect for differing thought is symptomatic of no thought. This is the atmosphere that every conservative in Hollywood deals with. There is a job every now and then that is an exception to this; a job where this never happens and you lift your arms to God in thanks for that job.

Now let me be specific about events that apply only to me. I don’t mean to imply that similar events haven’t occurred to others, but that these events have shaped my understanding of liberal Hollywood.

In 1980 I had the privilege of working with Charlton Heston at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles in Paul Giovanni’s Sherlock Holmes thriller “The Crucifer of Blood.” One evening, following a rehearsal, Mr. Heston asked me very politely about the election between Carter and Reagan. I was a huge Reagan supporter, as was he, so for about 25 minutes we engaged in a conversation that will stay with me forever. I don’t think Chuck, as he wanted to be called, had any idea of my political persuasion, although it is possible that Paul Giovanni, who I absolutely adored, could have given him a nod that we were of like minds when it came to politics. In any event, I took the memory of that rehearsal conversation, and my joy over the Reagan win with me to The Williamstown Theater Festival in the summer of 1981.

Artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos and Williamstown represent for me the highlight of my career. In terms of pure personal satisfaction, I had never experienced such mutual confidence from a director nor the kind of freedom he gave me. He showcased my talents and actually allowed me to choose the role I wanted to play in my debut year of 1978. Many doors were opened to me as a result, and one of them would lead to the pure great fortune of landing my role on “The A-Team.”

Blythe Danner was just one of the talented luminaries ensconced at the Festival. This was a fast paced summer theater where, somehow, great productions sprang from the tension of a tight two week schedule, and there was always a wonderful opening night buffet, an actor’s favorite, provided by some of the generous patrons from Williamstown. At an opening night party I was talking quite openly and happily about my conversation with Charlton Heston concerning Reagan’s win, and as I moved to the end of the food line an unfamiliar voice popped up: “Dwight, so you’re a Reagan asshole!” It was Bruce Paltrow, Blythe Danner’s husband. That is how I knew him at the time, and I was stunned by his comment. I cannot even remember my reply. Whatever it was it was bereft of brave retort. I told Nikos’s assistant about Paltrow’s aggressive comment and wondered why there was such hostility. Was the political aspect a cover for nailing a non talent? I was assured “That is Bruce…don’t take it personally…. He was probably joking…testing you.” Paltow never said another substantive thing to me. He never said “good job” or “nice to see you again,” only an occasional very limp “hello.”

In very late 1981 or early 1982, I was called in to read for the part of Fiscus in the upcoming series “St. Elsewhere” produced by Paltrow. I ran into Howie Mandel, with his familiar blown up rubber glove hanging from his belt, and the guy who would eventually land the role. He was standing just outside the waiting room, and as I headed toward that designated area I passed a small narrow side room in which Bruce Paltrow was seated on a desk chair with wheels; he turned to me, rolled a little in my direction and said, “Dwight! What are you doing here?” This is not a question an actor wants to hear before an audition; not from the show’s producer. I told him I was called in to read for Fiscus and his response was soft and monotonic, “…There’s not going to be a Reagan asshole on this show!” He then turned away, and went back to his desk. I was unable to overcome the totality of my crumble, my inability to deal with that kind of personal garroting. Although he had said something similar before, this was not a buffet line, this was a work line. My pathetic audition was a disaster, and I could never have gotten the job after what I gave them.

But let’s be clear! In a very short period of time “The A-Team” came along, same network in fact, and it shot to number one. Of course NBC chortled that “The A-Team” wasn’t quality, and that “St. Elsewhere” was, but that’s show-biz. Lost one! Got one! I only lost a job, not the complete ability to work! Let me add that if I had given a brilliant Fiscus audition, as a better man might have done, I believe it is quite likely that Paltrow would have lost a tough battle with the network. Paltrow’s crass, reptilian nastiness, using that “Reagan” political qualifier, which he clearly remembered and enjoyed using as a weapon, was a dominating marker for me, a preparation for the coming liberal ethos. It was made political by Paltrow, even if it was personal. His choice!

In 1988 I was cast in the role of Robert Oppenheimer to play opposite Paul Newman in “Fat Man and Little Boy” directed by Roland Joffe. Newman had seen my portrayal of Lenny in the Williamstown production of Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and came backstage to give his regards for a job well done and was particularly kind to me. The experience behind the making of the film is a story for another time, but it was a left of center Faustian retake, with a predominately liberal cast. At one moment I could be up against a wall, with one of the only two conservative actors that I now know were on the set, literally surrounded by 10 cast members challenging us to address the fact that Bush was clearly a drug dealer, and at another moment John Cusack would come running up to me, with just a little spittle in the corner of his mouth, speedily reading Noam Chomsky quotes about the Vietnam War. That was the set!

Paul Newman asked me to dinner one evening and we were discussing the film, when suddenly he switched gears and started saying things like “…You guys, all think like this…blah blah blah…what about Gorbachev…blah blah blah.” He knew my political leanings and started to question me about how I could possibly think the way I do and when I told him why I believed Reagan had been a great president, he actually listened. I talked for about five minutes without an interruption from him. When I was through he asked me what I thought of his take of the post-Reagan era. He wanted to know not just what I thought but why! This private, civil discussion between polar opposites without the ugliness was rare in my experience. Paul Newman always behaved with a quiet sense of grace, because I think it was his natural state. We frequently talked politics on the set, both the 1988 and ’45 variety, and it was never about snarled lips. We could and did find areas of agreement, and then set everything we disagreed about aside. There was a film to be made.

I know that Roland Joffe jumped through hoops to get me cast in his film and he knew my political take was not his. I also know the studio was against my being given the role. I will not say anymore except I was cast, I did it, and it was probably the worst decision I have ever made from a career standpoint, but from a life standpoint, it was invaluable.

So, what about that blacklist? If it exists, in my opinion it’s social, not institutional. But the social aspect of this business is, to a large degree, everything there is. Newman’s grace does not predominate, rather Paltrow’s stomach slithering, in your face expletive defines the daily culture, and it has reached the pustule stage.

I wish I could say that I have always been a courageous fighter, but my attempts to deal with the present Hollywood are similar to the Kubler- Ross five stages of death; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This has been especially true since the events of 9/11. I have accepted it!

In October of 2001, I appeared in an episode of “The Agency,” a TV series about the CIA. It was my last on camera appearance. A female member of the production crew asked me why I was so quiet, and I told her I was still numb after the 9/11 attack and her reaction was, “I had no real connection with it.” I immediately began ruminating about that. How could you be unconnected with 9/11? Where in God’s name is was I?

The answer soon came to me. Hollywood!


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