BACK STAGE WEST
October 16, 1997
Jeff Corey and John Randolph, friends since the 1930s, recall a time when politics nearly ended their acting careers--until they came back for "Seconds."
Reporting by Rob Kendt
Young actors Arthur Zwerling and Morton Lippmann met in the early 1930s at the Theatre Collective in New York and became fast friends and mutual admirers. Years later, after Zwerling had changed his name to Jeff Corey and become a Hollywood actor, and Lippmann had changed his name to John Randolph and become a busy actor on the New York stage and in early live TV, both were subpoenaed by the House on Un-American Activities Committee, which began its notorious investigation into alleged Communist influence in all sectors of society, including show business, on October 27, 1997.
Every actor faces patches of unemployment, but when Randolph and Corey were blacklisted for pleading the Fifth before the HUAC, they were effectively shut out of acting employment for most of the 1950s and the better part of the 1960s--especially in Hollywood, where the blacklist was ruthlessly enforced. Corey travelled, spent time with his family, and became a respected acting coach; Randolph continued as an activist to fight the blacklist, working from the slightly more liberal homebase of New York.
Eventually, the two were reunited in Hollywood on the 1966 John Frankenheimer satire Seconds (which also broke the blacklist for co-star Will Geer), and worked together again at the Mark Taper Forum in 1971 in In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Both had a second, unexpected post-blacklist career: Corey's credits went on to include In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and Little Big Man, while Randolph appeared in such films as All the President's Men, Serpico, The Front, and Prizzi's Honor. Both still teach acting, Corey privately and Randolph at his daughter-in-law Kate's school, the Cunningham Conservatory, named for his late wife, Sarah Cunningham.
Corey and Randolph met recently at Musso and Frank to recall the ups and downs of their careers and the vagaries of Hollywood politics. Both will be guests of honor at "Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist," an evening program scheduled for Oct. 27, 1997--the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the HUAC hearings--hosted by the four major entertainment talent guilds at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.
John Randolph: I watched you as an actor at the Theatre Collective. I didn't know who you were, but you were the only one I really loved as an actor. Everybody else was so full of anguish and nervousness.
Jeff Corey: No, they were very sincere, and very real--and inaudible.
John: Yeah, I thought, I'm too cheerful for this group. We both had other names then.
Jeff: Yeah, they told me to change my name, so I thought of a bucolic name, to play cowboys and such: "Jeff Corey." And I got a call for a film with William Dieterle, a very liberal man who left Nazi Germany and still believed in numerology. He said that numerologically, my name was perfect for his film, The Devil and Daniel Webster.
John: Yeah, then you began to be a star in California, and I was beginning to be blacklisted back in New York--you were being blacklisted at the same time, but I didn't know that.
Jeff: Yeah, they imposed on both of us. It was very inconvenient. About a year before the Hollywood Ten, the State Un-American Activities Committee in California subpoenaed several members of the Group Theatre who were with the Actors' Lab out here. We were accused of producing the plays of Shaw, O'Casey, and Chekhov. Guilty as charged!
We were advised not to talk to the FBI without a lawyer present. But when they came to my door, I invited them to sit down and we talked for about two and a half hours. And they made certain assumptions. They said, "You're probably ready to talk about these things now because of what's happened in Czechoslovakia and Hungary." And I told them, "I deplore what happened in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I deplored the Moscow trials." And they said, "Why don't you put it in writing?"
John: In New York, we all had to sign the CBS loyalty thing. We told 'em to go screw themselves, but a lot of people who didn't sign got penalized for it. We also got letters from AFTRA that said, "If you do not cooperate with House Committee, you can be fined, suspended, or expelled." Well, if you're an actor, you can't even get a job without that! Frankly, we were in better shape than you were out in California. Broadway was the first to not blacklist.
Jeff: AFTRA has apologized for that, by the way.
John: Oh yeah, and the Screen Actors Guild. All that crap is out.
Forgive but Don't Forget
John: After Seconds, I met Betty Garrett, who was married to Larry Parks (who had cooperated with HUAC). My wife's reaction was, "I feel sorry for him." Other actors I was with probably felt, "I hate the sonofabitch." But I don't blame anybody. The very guy who gave my name and Sarah's name was a roommate of mine when we were doing a show on the road. We used to make food for each other, and I never talked politics with him. Later on, I found out he was seeing an FBI pyschoanalyst, who was telling him that he'd better give up names, otherwise he'd be sent back to Canada. I mean, it was that kind of thing.
We didn't keep a grudge afterwards. When I got hired in an Arthur Miller play out here, I played a villain and Larry Parks played the leading part. And when we met him--there were six actors in the cast who had been blacklisted or been before the committee--we didn't know what to do. Sarah went up to Larry and introduced herself and said, "I'm John Randolph's wife," and he said, "I know that." And everybody else went up and just shook hands. I mean, we were faced with a reality: We had to go on, we had two weeks to rehearse. Larry never talked about it. Only in his eyes--when I played Miltie, the fake, and I said, "I'm going to give names," I saw in his eyes a flicker, that's all.
Jeff: I worked with producers who had been informers. We'd have conversations but not looking at each other; I'd be looking at the set, they'd be looking at the set, we'd make small talk. I worked a few days with Elia Kazan on The Last Tycoon, and he came up and gave me a hug, and said, "We're both survivors, Jeff," and I said, under my breath, "But on different rafts."
John: Again, you cannot make it a black and white thing. Some of these producers were good people. I didn't know anything about them. My agent would bring up my name and threaten to sue them--Jack Fields, he was a wonderful guy who took in blacklisted actors who came to Hollywood when nobody else did.
But I want to say, there were people during that time who stood up against J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted to get rid of everybody. Obviously, there is hidden in the American people, in my feeling, a reason to be for justice, in one way or another. I'm not waving a flag, but I've met wonderful people who are on the other side of the fence, who agreed with me or talked with me on certain issues.
Jeff: I'd like to make a statement.
John: Oh, you'd like to make a statement?
Jeff: I think blacklisted people have been really model citizens. I don't think any of us ever failed to vote. We're interested in every local and national election. And we've been good parents. My kids are connected to the children of other people who were blacklisted, and the grandchildren reach out to each other. It's an extraordinary extended family; I feel so good about it.
John: I'm on the same wavelength with you on that.
Jeff: Still, as Lee Hays, from Pete Seeger's group, the Weavers, said, "If it wasn't for the honor of it, I'd just as soon not have been blacklisted."