Category Archives: House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

When The FBI Knocks At Your Door

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.

They did not mention me at all.

 

 

 

“True” Grit

John Wayne and my father, Jeff Corey, hardly lived on the same political spectrum. But they did make two movies together: “Wake of the Red Witch” and then years after the Hollywood blacklist ended for my father, the original “True Grit.” Dad played the villain, Tom Chaney, and the “Duke” delivered his Academy award-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn.

When they arrived on the set of “True Grit” the two men had not spoken in twenty-one years and plenty of water had flowed under their respective bridges. Wayne, a notorious redbaiter, had actively gone after many of Hollywood’s best and brightest when he was president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group founded on hate. My father, a decorated war veteran and a strong believer in the integrity of the First Amendment, had refused to name names when asked to do so by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Wayne went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. My father spent twelve years blacklisted by the Hollywood studios.

When the two men met again on the set of “True Grit” the “Duke,” as if absolutely nothing had ever happened, affectionately put his arm around my father and said, “Jeff, it’s been too fucking long.” No mention was made of politics or red baiting or of the careers lost to the witch-hunts of the 1950s. Instead the two men dug in, as the professionals they both were, and made a brilliant movie. During filming, Henry Hathaway, the director of “True Grit” confided to my father that not since he had made “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” with Henry Fonda and Fred Mac Murray in 1936 had he felt as good about a film as he did about “True Grit.”

I cannot speak to what it took for Wayne to navigate his personal and professional actions to save his career in the 1950s. I certainly cannot speak to why he was comfortable ruining the careers of so many of his colleagues in Hollywood.

What I can speak to is the integrity it took for my father to walk away from a thriving career and to refuse to cooperate with scoundrels when asked to name names to save his career. 

I know for a fact, that act of decency took true grit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Was In Love With Tab Hunter

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.

That is a love that will last forever.

 

 

Home of the Brave

Race relations in Hollywood movies have a difficult history. From the early days of silent film, African-Americans were cast as caricatures that smacked of discrimination and racism. Sadly, Hollywood was comfortable with that until 1949 when a group of rouge artists made a small film called Home of the Brave, the first Hollywood movie to depict an African-American as a protagonist. The film stars my father, Jeff Corey in the role of Doc, Lloyd Bridges as Finch, and James Edwards, a talented African-American actor in the lead role of Moss.

Filming Home of the Brave was not easy. Afraid the studios would shut down production, the cover of my father’s script for Home of the Brave says High Noon. Dad told me this was done so the cast could go to the commissary for lunch and work on their parts without drawing attention to the film. The director, Mark Robeson, shot Home of the Brave in a rapid-fire thirty days to make certain all the footage was “in the can” before the studio could stop production. And in a rather remarkable and almost hard to believe act of misdirection, Stanley Kramer, the film’s the producer, told the studio bosses James Edwards had been hired as a janitor to clean the set.

These rouge film makers prevailed and when Home of the Brave was released, it was hailed as a masterpiece. Time Magazine called the film “Exciting!” Cosmopolitan wrote it as “Brilliant!” And Parents Magazine announced Home of the Brave was, “A must for everyone.” Even Walter Winchell, the conservative newspaper columnist weighed in when he wrote, “Home of the Brave fingerprints your conscience.”

The progressive thinking that contributed to the great reviews also made Home of the Brave a lightening rod for conservatives in Congress. Within two years of its box office success my father and Carl Foreman, the screenwriter, were both blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

For me personally, Home of the Brave played an important role in my childhood. Because of the blacklist there were absolutely zero paparazzi following my father around (all we got was the FBI at our door–but that’s for another post). But what did happen, over and over again was African-American men of all ages stopping my father on the street and saying, “Doc, I just want to shake your hand.” That was my introduction to my father’s celebrity–as a revered icon of the African-American community. Years later dad told me he wished Home of the Brave had gone even further and was concerned that some of the language in the film meant to reveal racism, was a bit too clichéd.

Yes, there are stilted parts of the film. Yes, there is an uncomfortable syntax to some of the dialogue. But when you view the film through the lens of what was going on in America in 1949 and the deep rivers of prejudice and Jim Crow that defined the African-American experience, Home of the Brave stands out as just that: brave.

Kudos to my father and all the brave artists who made this film.

Memories of a Patriot

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.

 

 

 

“Improvising Out Loud” Book Trailer Hits The Silver Screen

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.