How Kirk Douglas Overstated His Role in Breaking the Hollywood Blacklist

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For years, the actor has taken credit for bravely hiring a communist screenwriter in the McCarthy era. But there have long been questions about his version of the story.

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Kirk Douglas has accomplished a lot in his life. His hardscrabble youth gave way to a career in Hollywood, where he starred in close to 100 pictures, including the 1960 spear-and-sandal epic Spartacus. He is one of the last of film's golden age, nominated for three Best Actor Oscars (Champion, Lust for Life, and The Bad and the Beautiful) and the father of two-time Oscar-winner Michael Douglas. But when we sat down with him at his Beverly Hills home recently, he told us his most enduring achievement didn't occur on the big screen—it was hiring a known communist as the screenwriter for Spartacus, thereby breaking the fabled Hollywood blacklist.

"I think I did it because I was young enough," said Douglas, 95. "If I had been older I would have been more conservative—well, let someone else do it. Of course, I was considered a brash young man."

He was referring to events that took place more than 50 years ago, when—according to his account—he hired and credited Spartacus's communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It was chancy. Artists with communist ties were considered a liability—if not downright verboten—in Hollywood. Douglas has recounted these events in a new book, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, that includes a foreword by George Clooney.

"The blacklist. I even hated the name," Douglas writes. "I've spent months thinking of some way to break it... I realized at that moment what I needed to do. It was right there in front of me all along—why hadn't I seen it?... I took a deep breath." Douglas goes on to say that he told Trumbo, "When [Spartacus] is in the can, not only am I going to tell them that you've written it, but we're putting your name on it... your name, Dalton Trumbo, as the sole writer." He continues, "I could feel my heart pounding. Even as I was saying the words, I was still trying to convince myself that this was worth the risk ... The blacklist is broken."

Douglas has received considerable praise for breaking the blacklist, including a 1991 award for "a singular act of courage" from the Writers Guild of America. The wave of accolades has continued with the publication of his book. Media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter applauded the book. Turner Classic Movies made it its book of the month. On June 22 in Hollywood, a studio audience for a live broadcast of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher greeted Douglas with a standing ovation. Echoing what is now ingrained as official history in Hollywood, Maher introduced Douglas as the creator of "movies that changed our culture," adding, "You were the one who broke the blacklist." Douglas replied: "That's right."

For years, those close to Spartacus—the film's sole producer, Edward Lewis, and the family of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—have quietly disputed Douglas's "breaking the blacklist" story. Douglas first told it in print in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son. "I called the gate at Universal. 'I'd like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo.' The masquerade was over," he wrote. "All my friends told me I was being stupid, throwing my career away. It was a tremendous risk... For the first time in ten years, [Trumbo] walked on to a studio lot... The blacklist was broken." In 2009, Douglas starred in a one-man stage show, Before I Forget, which also focused on his role in fighting the blacklist. But the new book has brought to the surface long-standing questions about Douglas's story. In the wake of the publication of I Am Spartacus!, we reached out to Lewis, the Trumbos, and Spartacus novelist Howard Fast's children to get their version of what happened a half-century ago. They say parts of the story that have come to define Kirk Douglas's legacy are untrue.

They expressed dismay and even outrage over what they see as Douglas's determined efforts to cast himself as the hero. They say he was not the trailblazer who ended what is known as the McCarthyite plague in the motion picture industry.

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THE BLACKLIST IS regarded as Hollywood's original sin, and in its lore, the Communist Party posed no threat, certainly not to the picture business—its members were merely liberals in a hurry.

The facts, however, are a little different. In the 1930s and '40s, Stalinists seized control of the Screen Writers Guild and after World War II, many of the same operatives controlled and dominated a painters' union as well as the unions representing readers, cartoonists, publicists, and secretaries. They all worked together to pull a violent jurisdictional strike that blew the town apart for a couple of years.

The blacklist was the industry's way of dealing with the aftermath of those events. It didn't operate in the darkness, which is the way today's accounts of that era make it seem. It was a public, industry-wide policy that the studios announced in November 1947 as a response to the clear message that Americans hated communism. Between the burgeoning TV business and anti-trust court rulings that scaled back Hollywood's power, the last thing studio chiefs wanted was to give the American public an excuse not to go to the movies.

Indeed, Americans were making their distaste for communism clear in the voting booth. In those early postwar days, rapid Soviet global expansion galvanized U.S. voters to keep the Soviet Union and its American Communist Party in check by electing congressional candidates with strong anti-communist platforms. (Two of the most outspoken newcomers were Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.)

The Korean War later intensified this sentiment. Explaining why he wouldn't hire a communist writer, RKO Studios chief Howard Hughes remarked, "If you believe that the Communist Party is in the same category as the Democrat or Republican Party, then I think I can answer you in this way: we are not fighting Democrats or Republicans in Korea."

But this anticommunist consensus in Hollywood began to collapse in the Vietnam and Watergate eras. Unseemly revelations about FBI and CIA excesses made the anticommunist a bogeyman among many cultural arbiters. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that the country was suffering from an "inordinate fear of communism." In the 1980s, as the country delivered two landslide victories to Ronald Reagan, the most anticommunist president in history, many people in Hollywood were still subscribing to Carter's view.

This was the atmosphere in which the Hollywood blacklist "took on mythic status as a roll call of cultural heroes," according to historian Richard Gid Powers, who wrote Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. "Obituaries of blacklisted writers and actors tended to describe them as martyrs for the cause of civil liberties, and made no mention of the political associations that had gotten them blacklisted, or the international situation that had made those associations a cause of concern."

With this view of history still prevailing in Hollywood, it makes sense that Douglas wants to claim credit for breaking the blacklist—it makes him look like a hero, ahead of his time. He's worked hard to keep that story alive. But it wasn't always like this. As described in a 1977 biography of Trumbo and a 2008 memoir by producer Walter Mirisch, the year after Spartacus, Douglas worked to distance himself from Dalton Trumbo. When the screenwriter said that he wanted credit for re-writing Douglas's next picture, Town Without Pity, Douglas feared continued association with Trumbo might hurt his career. Douglas objected to Trumbo having his name on the screen. "I have yielded to Kirk's wishes in this matter," Trumbo wrote to Edward Lewis in 1961, in a letter released to us this week by Trumbo biographer Larry Ceplair.

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John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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