I saw the Hollywood blacklist through a child’s eye and I clearly remember the day the FBI came to our house looking for my father, Jeff Corey. My mother opened our heavy oak front door a crack and then just as quickly shut it, leaving the two men in hats and overcoats standing on the porch. Without saying a word to me she made a beeline toward the backyard where my father was preparing for the acting class he would teach that night. I scurried along behind her. When we got to the backdoor, she looked at me and with an uncharacteristic sternness, said, “Wait here.” This made absolutely no sense to me. I was four and a half and underfoot was where I lived. But at that moment, with two FBI agents standing at our door, nothing about my mother was normal.
I waited in silence until my parents emerged from my father’s studio. I still have a very clear memory of what they looked liked that day, walking toward the house together. It wasn’t until I was much older that I could unpack that image. They had become one: two people perfectly merged together into a single pledge to do whatever it took to weather the potential storm that was waiting on our front porch.
They barely noticed me except for another uncharacteristically odd moment when, as I attempted to follow my father out the front door, I was told once again to stay where I was. My father went out alone and my mother went into the kitchen and banged pots and pans around. I stood sentry. Eventually, I felt bold enough to open the side window to the right of the front door. It was long and narrow and gave me a full view of the front porch. Dad was sitting on one of our wooden porch swings and the two men in hats and coats had settled onto the wide cement wall that edged our front lawn.
I watched them for a while. Their conversation meant nothing to me and finally, with a courage my parents were secretly proud of even though it made me willful at times, I opened the front door, slipped across the porch, and crawled up into my father’s lap. I nestled down as deeply as I could into his arms and didn’t budge. He didn’t tell me to leave. I do not remember what was said. I do not remember their faces. But I do remember how safe I felt in my father’s arms.
Forty years later when, through the Freedom of Information Act, my father received his FBI file, I read about that meeting. The agents described their talk with him as friendly and concluded that in spite of his refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in spite of his refusal to name names, my father, in fact, was not at all a threat to the United States government.
I was seven-years old and I have to admit it. I had a huge crush on Tab Hunter. I came by this naturally. Tab was one of the many heartthrob contract players Warner Bros. sent to my father, Jeff Corey, to learn how to act. Tab and dad were working on Tab’s upcoming role in “Damn Yankees!” so he often came to the house. To further complicate matters, Tab had recently released “Young Love” which had rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts. Tab gave dad a promotional copy of the LP, which made me feel extra close to him and stoked the fires of my passion even further.
The fact that Tab was a gloriously beautiful, gay man totally escaped me. I’m quite certain it did not escape my father and I am equally certain dad could not have given a damn. Part of the reason my father refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was his deep belief in personal freedom. Anything that would have smacked of sexual prejudice would have made his blood boil. Many of dad’s students were gay–or homosexual as they were called back then. As challenging as it might be to be part of the LBGTQ community today, dad knew many of his students had been forced by the Hollywood studios to hide their sexual identities and had been subjected to vice squad stings, including Tab, and I know it horrified him. But in the ignorance of my seven-year-old passion, none of that mattered. I was smitten.
When “Damn Yankees!” came out, Dad took us to see it, which in itself was an anomaly. During the blacklist it was too hard for my father to see films he should have been starring in. It was just too painful. My sisters and I were allowed to see movies with our friends but in the entire twelve years he was blacklisted by Hollywood, my father only took us to two movies: “Damn Yankees!” and “Spartacus.” Dad had worked with Kirk Douglas on his leading role in “Spartacus” and his friend, blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, had written the script, so that gave us entrée into the movie theater. I think we went to “Damn Yankees!” because dad was proud of the work Tab had done and how he had gown as an actor.
Eventually I got over my crush on Tab but I’ve never forgotten how much fun it was to sit in a dark movie theater next to my father eating popcorn and watching a movie.
During WWII, my father, Jeff Corey, spent over two years in the Pacific as a Navy combat photographer on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. He was in over thirty major engagements and received multiple citations for his service under fire including one that reads, “(Corey’s) sequence of a kamikaze attempt on the carrier Yorktown, done in the face of grave danger, is one of the great picture sequences of the war.” I have been told by a number of people in Hollywood that his footage is used in almost every movie about the war in the Pacific.
In 1951, a few years after the war ended and in the midst of a thriving acting career in Hollywood, my father was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During the hearing Republican congressmen grilled him about his private political beliefs but refused to hear anything about his war service, his citations, or risking his life for his country. It was a witch-hunt and HUAC only wanted him to give them the names of more people they could go after. He refused and was instantly blacklisted. He didn’t work in movies again for almost twelve years.
My father refusal to cooperate with HUAC had nothing to do with protecting his political affiliations. He understood what the founding fathers were doing when they put the First Amendment into place. He refused to cooperate with HUAC because he did not believe his government had the right to ask him the question in the first place.
There are many ways to serve your country. My father served his in a war. He also served his country with every ounce of his devotion by standing up to Congress and taking a stand for freedom and democracy. I thank him for his patriotism. I thank him for his service.
After the Hollywood blacklist ended and my father, Jeff Corey began working in movies again, I had to get used to having a father who was a working actor. It was always exciting when a studio messenger delivered a script to the house. Dad would disappear for an hour or so then come out and ask me if I wanted to run lines with him. I loved it. I got to play all the parts that weren’t his and quickly learned how to be good at it. I knew when to prompt him when he couldn’t remember a line and when to give him a little more time to come up with the words. He always marked up his scripts in his unintelligible handwriting but I learned to read his notes and slowly began to understand where he was going with a character.
One evening when I was thirteen, after dad had spent the day at Paramount working on Lady In A Cage with Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sothern, and James Caan, we were in the living room before dinner. Dad was sitting in one of our vintage Lincoln rockers reading the newspaper. He had on a white Brooks Brothers V-neck undershirt and a pair of baggy brown corduroy pants (his standard attire for relaxing around the house). I watched him out of the corner of my eye and suddenly, a wave of sadness came over me. Without my realizing it, my father had gotten old. His hair, which had once been dark brown was scattered with grey. How had I missed it? How had I not seen that passage of time? My heart was heavy at this realization, so much so I started to cry.
I tried to hide my tears from him but I couldn’t. “What’s wrong?” he said. I didn’t want to tell him. It felt rude to announce to someone you just noticed that he had aged. “Emily,” he said, this time alarmed. “What’s going on?” I took a deep breath and told him what I had observed.
Dad laughed out loud. “It’s makeup,” he said. “I washed my face when I got home but I haven’t washed my hair yet.” He explained that for his role as the Wino in Lady in a Cage the director, Walter Grauman, wanted him to look a little older so Nellie Manley, the hairdresser on the set, and the great makeup artist, Wally Westmore, had worked together to turn his hair “grey.”
I can attest. They did an excellent job. I was so relieved I didn’t even feel foolish.
I’m delighted to announce the book trailer for Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act by Jeff Corey with Emily Corey is now available for viewing on the book’s website: www.improvisingoutloud.com.
My father’s good friend and colleague, actor Leonard Nimoy, wrote the Foreword for the book and the Afterword is written by Janet Neipris, Adjunct Instructor; Professor at the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at the NYU Tish School of the Arts. Thank you to them and to to Lee Redman for her wonderful voice over and to Randy Hale for his exquisite music.
Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act is a wonderful memoir about my father, Jeff Corey, his life in film and theater, his unique approach to teaching the craft of acting, what he did to maintain his creative ballast and integrity during the dark days of the Hollywood blacklist, and how he became the first actor to break through that treacherous prohibition when he began working in film and television again in the 1960s, something he did often and beautifully until his death in 2002.
I invite you to watch the trailer so you can see how this remarkable man turned political adversity into grace under fire and artistic integrity into magic.
Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act is published by the University Press of Kentucky and will be released May 5, 2017 and is available for pre-order now.
When Bruce Lee was working on the television show “The Green Hornet,” Twentieth Century-Fox sent to him study acting with my father, Jeff Corey. The show’s producer, William Dozier, only wanted Lee for his Gung Fu skills and refused to give him any lines. Lee and my father believed he was capable of doing much more. In a letter to Dozier Lee said, “Jeff Corey agrees, and I myself feel, that at least an occasional dialogue would certainly make me feel more at home with the fellow players.” Lee prevailed and continued to study with my father for many months.
Dad was able to show Lee how be himself on camera and discover ways to approach his role. “Leave the performance alone,” was the advice my father often gave his students. Lee understood this when he wrote, “Simplicity–to express the utmost in the minimum of lines and energy–is the goal of Gung Fu and acting is not much different.”
One day, Lee offered to give my father gung fu lessons. For reasons I will never understand, dad turned him down. He was probably incredibly busy–but it is not every day one gets an offer from a Master. Nonetheless, dad and Lee got along famously. I know dad found him charming and talented and was happy when Lee was given the “active partnership” he had requested from Dozier. Lee felt the same way about dad. In an interview given at the height of “The Green Hornet,” Lee told a reporter, “Jeff Corey is the best in Hollywood.” It was simplicity in action.
Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act by Jeff Corey with Emily Corey, Foreword by Leonard Nimoy, Afterword by Janet Neipris – BUY NOW!
Right after his huge success in “East of Eden” James Dean started studying acting with my father, Jeff Corey. Dad thought he was incredibly talented and was impressed with how generous James was with his fellow students. He didn’t bring a drop of movie star persona to class and he was always willing to take the time to help out a young actor who was struggling with a part.
One day James drove his new, street racer, the famous Porsche 550 Spyder, to class. He was excited to show it to dad. My father thought it was beautiful and could understand how a young man like James might want to drive it. But he also thought it was dangerous. When James offered to take him for a ride, dad declined. Years later, my father told me nothing could have compelled him to get into that Porsche. James was killed in a horrible accident in that car just a few weeks after he offered to give dad a ride. He was so talented and way too young to die.
When my father, Jeff Corey, worked privately with someone (most often on a movie role) if their session ran late into the evening, he invariably invited them to stay for dinner. My mother was always gracious about it. One auspicious night (at least for me) I was home from college and dad was working with Dick Van Dyke on his starring role In “The Morning After.” I was setting the table when out of nowhere, dad and Dick suddenly filled the room. Dick’s smile was infectious.
Dick had a wonderful physicality, which he used with great charm as Bert in “Mary Poppins” and in his own TV series, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He was a lanky 6’1” and had a body that moved through space like a rubber band. That night at dinner, I just remember his feet and legs not quite knowing where to go. Just sitting still at the dinner table, weaving his body into a pretzel, he could make you laugh out loud.
I am honored that the great Leonard Nimoy wrote the Foreword for my father’s memoir, “Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood How To Act” by Jeff Corey with Emily Corey. Leonard studied acting with my father way back when in the days before “Star Trek.” Over time, as Leonard’s acting chops grew, dad asked Leonard to be his substitute teacher whenever, after the Hollywood blacklist ended, dad couldn’t teach a class because he was working on a film. Leonard taught many classes for my father and also became a dear and trusted friend. That friendship lasted for both their lives
When Leonard sent me his Foreword, he told me he was, “Sincerely looking forward to seeing this book in print.” Sadly, Leonard left us before he could hold a copy of “Improvising Out Loud” in his hands but I am so grateful for his kind and splendid words. Leonard’s perspective on my father’s work as an acting teacher is personal and vividly describes, as he put it, how he, “Came alive as an actor under Jeff’s guidance.” How lucky for all of us that he did.
I loved hanging out with my father’s students. They would often gather in the backyard before class and I would run out as fast as I could after dinner to sit on their laps, play chase with them, or challenge someone to a game of handball. One of my father’s students taught me out to ride a bicycle. On Valentine’s Day his students gave me a heart-shaped box of chocolate with a doll attached to the top of box. I was in heaven. While the sad truth is that all these wonderful young actors were there because the blacklist had made it impossible for my father to work as an actor in Hollywood, for me – at a ripe young age – it was a boon to my social life.