In November of 1775 Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Those oft misquoted words served as a warning to Franklin's fellow colonists about the choice between accepting status quo under a British regime, versus fighting to be free. In modern times it was a warning we should have heeded before passing The Patriot Act, which later allowed the NSA and Homeland Security to monitor our phone and email communications. And it was a warning that Americans should have heeded in 1949 when the House Un- American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched a witch hunt to expose communists and communist sympathizers, particularly those working in Hollywood.
If called to testify before HUAC, film industry professionals were expected to denounce or deny their own communist leanings, then give the Committee names of people who might have an association with communist activity. Anyone who failed to name names, faced prison time and the loss of their livelihood, the latter of which came to be known as "Blacklisting". In order to keep working, most people cooperated with HUAC, but screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and nine other notable wordsmiths refused to name names. For their defiance the so called Hollywood Ten served a year in prison, then, upon their release, were only able to earn a living by writing under assumed names.
This week, "Trumbo", a film starring Bryan Cranston in the title role, opens in theatres across the country. It also stars Helen Mirren, John Goodman, and Diane Lane. Cranston is a multiple Emmy winner for his role as science teacher turned meth dealer Walter White on "Breaking Bad". He also won a Tony award in 2014 for his one man Broadway show, All the Way", in which he portrayed former President Lyndon Johnson. Bryan is perhaps the most versatile American actor of his generation, and can move with ease between comedy and drama. I first met Bryan in 2009 when he appeared at a "TV Dads" event that I moderated for the Television Academy. Late last month we spoke about his role as one of the most famous Americans to ever defy Congress.
JL: What kind of research did you do for Trumbo?
BC: The good thing about playing a non fictional character like Dalton Trumbo is that you can look at the films he wrote (Roman Holiday, Spartacus, etc...). Also there's the biography by Bruce Cook, which is what the movie was based on. I also read a bio by Larry Ceplair, and that was illuminating. And I had the benefit of films and audio tapes. Also, Trumbo's two daughters are still alive, and they were very cooperative, so I had the gift of being able to talk extensively with them in person and over email.
JL: Does the film focus mainly on the man, or do we get a broad stroke of the events around him, or both?
BC: We look at this very serious subject with sincerity, humor, pathos, and real storytelling, so it's not as dour as some might think that a film about the threat of First Amendment rights, HUAC, prison, and the blacklist might be. And the reason for that is not just to make an entertaining film, but the Hollywood Ten were very entertaining men. They were witty, and engaged in banter that was very clever and funny, and so the film encompasses a lot of that, so you feel connected emotionally to these characters, and not just to the battle they fought.
JL: Given abuses by the NSA and Homeland Security under our last two Presidents, you certainly must feel that "Trumbo" is especially relevant today.
BC: Yeah, I think it will resonate with today's audience. What the story of "Trumbo" illuminates is the need for us to maintain that kind of vigilance for the First Amendment, and for our Constitutional rights. The HUAC era was a dark, dark period in American history, and it just so happens that the backdrop of it was the motion picture business.
JL: if you were a struggling actor trying to feed a family in the late 1940's and early '50's, do you think you would have defied HUAC, or would you have cooperated with them in order to keep working?
BC: That's a great question, and that's what's good about our film because it brings out both sides of that coin. If I had a wife and kids, and I was threatened with jail, I would have denounced my affiliation with Communism, but I would draw the line at naming names. It's one thing to protect yourself, it's another to point fingers in a condemning way. They are asking me to name people so they can persecute them, the same tactics the Nazis used.
JL: I still think I might have chickened out.
BC: That's a very honest response, but you have to look at what your career is worth. It's like being in a lifeboat. Do I throw this woman overboard in order to save myself? Do I save myself at the risk of someone else losing their life or livelihood? I hope I would take the honorable path, of course in the hypothetical
you can only wonder. Dalton Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten were not living in a hypothetical.
JL: In searching for videos on Dalton Trumbo, I came across a TV commercial you did at the start of your career. You were the spokesperson for "Preparation H". Did that experience in any way prepare you to work in Hollywood?
BC: (laughs) Well, I've dealt with a lot of assholes in my time (laughs).
Spoken like a true Trumbo.
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly.com, and author of the "TV Creators" series of books. He also serves as judge for the primetime EMMYs, and hosts a weekly TV show for Sinclair stations.