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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On the left, right, and middle, Orson Bean 

When I was growing up, I didn't know a lot about Orson Bean. I knew that he was a panelist on "To Tell the Truth" (along with Bill Cullen, Peggy Cass, and Kitty Carlisle, plus host Garry Moore), and that he went to Australia.

I was a bit surprised when he popped up in an audiobook by Bob Edwards about Edward R. Murrow. And therein lies a story:

CrankyCritic: We can joke about not being seen on the coasts, but you did get whacked by the infamous Hollywood Black List, too.

Orson Bean: I was never bitter. I was horny for a Communist girl and she dragged me to some meetings and that's why I got blacklisted. Everybody in those days wanted to end the black list. I ran on a slate of AFTRA and was elected first VP of the New York Local. For my pains, they dug up this stuff about me and, I went from being the hot comic on the Ed Sullivan Show to not working for a year. However, I got a Broadway show. At the end of that year Ed Sullivan called me up, as he promised he would, and said "I think things have softened up enough that I can book you again" and he did. That kind of broke it.

CrankyCritic: Is there any kind of satisfaction seeing, in the last couple of years, [Joseph] McCarthy and [Roy] Cohn being totally exposed for what they were?

Orson Bean: It's always scary in a Democracy to see that stuff. I think Pat Buchanan is truly frightening. The man is a fascist and an anti-Semite. If he's willing to say as much in public as he says, imagine what he says in a room full of his friends whom he trusts. I really admire John McCain for saying that [Buchanan] shouldn't be in the Republican party while George W. is saying "well, we need all the votes we can get..." You've got to watch out for stuff like that. It's an easy target. I made a movie with old Joe Welch, who was the wonderful lawyer who said "at long last Senator McCarthy, have you no sense of decency?" Otto Preminger had the brilliant idea of casting him as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder. I had a part in that. At night we would sit in a bar up in Michigan. Welch told us that he was brought in to represent the Army by Tom Dewey, who was the head of the Republican party, who said "This son of a bitch McCarthy is crazy and he's going to drag the party down with him." So it's interesting to see that when things go far enough there are moderates, even moderate conservatives like McCain, who start seeing how dangerous Buchanan is. I trust America. I've lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back and forth, to see that Democracy really wins out in the end.

Going back to the AFTRA incident (which Bob Edwards recounts in his book), you need to introduce a character named John Henry Faulk. Here's how the Daily Kos does it:

John Henry Faulk was a popular radio personality in NY in the 1950s. He was a Texas boy who was both a scholar and storyteller. In 1956, shortly after he was elected to the board of his union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer by Aware Inc.

Faulk didn't work on radio of television for the next 6 1/2 years. Unlike most who were blacklisted, he sued.

Daily Kos continues by quoting from Faulk's autobiography:

AFTRA had been founded in New York in 1938, and although it became a national union with strong locals in Chicago and Hollywood, the New York local was the largest and strongest in the union. The governing body of the New York local was a thirty-five man board of directors, whose members were elected from the membership every December, to serve throughout the following year. From the early 1950s, this board of directors had been controlled entirely by one faction of the union. The same group was elected year after year, and they made anti-Communism a big issue. A number of them, including Vinton Hayworth, the president of the New York local in 1955, were officers of AWARE,Inc....

[Faulk, Bean, and Charles Collingwood] managed, however, to get thirty-three people in all. We called ourselves the Middle-of-the-Road slate and put out a statement setting forth what we hoped to do for the union. We called it "A Declaration of Independents." Among other things, we declared that while we were opposed to Communism we were also opposed to the blacklisting and intended to do something to put a stop to it....

At election time, in December of 1955, we swept into office with a flourish. The Middle-of-the-Road slate won twenty-seven of the thirty-five seats on the board....A couple of weeks later Collingwood was elected president, Bean first vice-president, and I was elected second vice-president of the local.

Now, in the simplistic version of the story, the evil fascist forces attacked our heroes Faulk, Bean, and Collingwood. But, according to Accuracy in Media, the simplistic version of the story may be too simple:

Faulk, Orson Bean, and Charles Coilingwood headed a slate running for office in the television and radio performers' union, AFTRA, with the objective of fighting the blacklisting of performers accused of leftwing connections.

Orson Bean has written that when the slate was formed it was deemed essential that the candidates be completely free of any leftwing taint. The potential candidates were urged to reveal if they had anything in their past of this nature. If they did, they were urged to drop out. Bean himself, confessed to having been involved in a relatively minor incident, but Faulk assured him that it was not serious and urged him to stay on the slate. Faulk himself said nothing about any possible taint in his own background.

The Faulk-Bean-Collingwood slate won the election. Aware came out with an article, which asked, rhetorically, just how anti-communist this slate actually was. It started with Faulk. Bean wrote: "I read with wonder as it went on and on: Johnny at 'Headline Cabaret' sponsored by Stage for Action, officially designated as a Communist front. Johnny appearing with Paul Robeson at the Communist Jefferson School. Johnny sending greetings to "People's Songs", a Red publication. Johnny as U.S. sponsor of the American Continental Congress for Peace in Mexico City. Johnny at "Showtime for Wallace," staged by Progressive Citizens of America, a Communist front."

Bean said that the publication then went on to Bean and Coilingwood, but what they had against them alone would not have been worth printing. But lumped with the list they had on Faulk, he said, "it added up to a grim picture."

Bean said he was dumfounded. He wondered how they could have made up all that stuff about Faulk. He said: "I was sure it couldn't be true or he wouldn't have jeopardized us all by running with us. I ran over to Johnny's office at CBS. 'It isn't true, is it. Johnny? You didn't appear at those places, did you?"

"'Oh honey.' he said. 'What does it matter'? Don't you see those people are fascists? If they didn't have something on us, they'd have made it up.

Faulk, by not revealing his leftwing associations to his fellow candidates in advance, had, according to Bean, placed them all in jeopardy. Faulk elected to sue Aware for libel. Bean tells of speaking to Faulk while the trial was in progress. Faulk told him how his attorney, Lou Nizer, had demolished the defendants. Bean asked: "Was the other side right?" He says Faulk replied: "The point is they didn't prove it. They were sloppy and they were bad detectives, and we're gonna kill 'em."

Now there are several ways you can carve this turkey. On the one hand, in a free society it shouldn't matter whether you're a Republican or a Communist or the head of your local Al Qaeda cell. On the other hand, one can claim that it's dishonest to cover up past associations...in fact, cover-ups are Nixonian, aren't they? On the other other hand, one can claim that it's OK to mislead when threatened. Or is it?

This is why any analysis of the McCarthy years can't be reduced to a simple good guys-bad guys scenario. Failure to examine the complexities of the situation leads one with an incomplete view.

And what happened to John Henry Faulk? For those who followed the history of CBS' replacement show for the Smothers Brothers, this little tidbit is somewhat ironic - Faulk joined the cast of Hee Haw.

John Henry Faulk, who works on a farm in Madisonville, Texas, tells stories on “Hee Haw” about “the folks back home,” as well as comments on the political scene, much as he did years ago as a CBS radio personality.

Favorite U.S. president - Third favorite Finnish figure skater

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