Black List, White Wash

May 8, 2012

Last month, in a buffoonishly McCarthyesque moment, Representative Allen West (R-Fla.) claimed in a town hall meeting that there were “about 78 to 81” communists in the United States House of Representatives.  Asked to support that claim, West’s office could provide only some qualified (and unreciprocated) statements of support for the Congressional Progressive Caucus that appeared in a Communist Party USA publication.  The Communist Party itself confirmed that it lists no members of Congress in its membership rolls.  (If only….)

Also last month, a post on the UCLA Library Special Collections Blog announced that it has made available the papers of television pioneer Roy Huggins.  The headline of the post characterized Huggins as a “blacklisted writer,” and the article went on to offer a description of Huggins’s relationship to the blacklist so artfully sanitized that it deserves to be called Orwellian:

In September of 1952, Huggins was summoned before the infamous U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer questions about his brief membership in the Communist Party.  He continued to write under his own name, and under the name “John Thomas James,” combining the names of his three sons.

It would seem that, more than two decades after the demise of the Cold War and the end of anti-communist hysteria, the subject still encourages the most basic and blatant distortions of fact.

*

Roy Huggins was a gifted television producer.  With Maverick, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files, all of which were largely his conception, Huggins proved that ongoing television series could defy genre conventions – could have authority figures as villains and defiers of authority as protagonists – and still attract an audience.  The other series that bore Huggins’s imprint – 77 Sunset Strip, Run For Your Life, The Outsider, the Lawyers segments of The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones – were less adventurous, but were consistently smart and well-produced.

Roy Huggins was also a fink.

On September 29, 1952, Huggins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and gave the names of nineteen colleagues and acquaintances whom he believed to be present or former members of the Communist Party.  He gave the names with the full knowledge that, if they hadn’t been already, the careers of those men and women would be destroyed.

Huggins stood behind the defense that all of the names he supplied were already known to the Committee; in other words, he wasn’t fingering anyone whose life hadn’t already been wrecked.  Huggins even worked that rationalization into his testimony (which is fascinating to read), although it does not bear up under scrutiny: if the handy appendix in Robert Vaughn’s Only Victims is accurate, Huggins was the only witness to name the optometrist Howard Davis in public testimony, and a few of the other eighteen were fingered in the HUAC record for the first time by Huggins (and then subsequently repeated by other friendly witnesses).

And of course, as Huggins later articulated, the actual names were irrelevant.  HUAC was not interested in the names (which its investigators, and the FBI, already had); it was interested in legitimizing itself through the ritual of naming.  Anyone who gave names bolstered the witchhunters’ influence, and prolonged the blacklist for everyone.  Huggins thought he was beating HUAC at its own game (not just in his choice of names, but through several more arcane gambits that I haven’t gone into here).  But, in the end, the House won.

It’s not my desire to rake Huggins over the coals again.  Huggins himself was blunt, and repentant, on the subject of HUAC.  In an eloquent interview in Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, Huggins called his cooperative testimony “a failure of nerve” and said that he was “ashamed of myself.”

The problem is that, no matter how much UCLA might like to, it is impossible to separate Huggins’s HUAC record from his later success.  The inconvenient truth is that his career thrived during the era of the blacklist.  Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and even The Fugitive came about during the decade when anyone who defied HUAC could not work in Hollywood.  Had Huggins chosen not to give names, none of those shows would exist.

So, if we return to that post on the UCLA blog, some annotation is in order.  In no way was Huggins a “blacklisted writer.”  He has screenwriting credits in every year between 1948 and 1953, and directed a film, Hangman’s Knot, which was released in late 1952.  Huggins worked steadily before the HUAC subpoena arrived, and his cooperation was immediate (or very nearly so).  Some of the “late friendlies” were in fact sad figures who endured years of unemployability before finally capitulating to HUAC (in other words, they could accurately be described both as blacklisted and as friendly witnesses), but Huggins was not one of these.  It is an insult to anyone who truly was blacklisted to apply the term to Huggins.

Further, the placement and wording of the UCLA post’s discussion of Huggins’s pseudonym implies that, like many authentically blacklisted writers, Huggins had to write under a false name during the Red Scare.  In fact, he didn’t start using “John Thomas James” until the mid-sixties, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the blacklist.  (Huggins described the pseudonym, which he often used on stories that were fleshed out into teleplays by other writers, as an act of modesty.  A few writers I’ve talked to have suggested that Huggins was a credit grabber, and used the pseudonym to make it less obvious.)

It would be bad enough if some random blogger on the internet (like me) got these facts wrong.  For an academic institution like UCLA to whitewash history in this way is inexcusable – particularly since the same misinformation (or disinformation) has also been recorded for posterity in the library’s official finding aid for the Huggins collection.  This post – which is bylined by Peggy Alexander, a Performing Arts Special Collections Librarian at UCLA – betrays either an embarrassing ignorance of its subject or, perhaps, an even more dismaying inclination to obscure the facts and to rehabilitate Huggins for later generations who have (fairly or not) come to view the friendly witnesses as cowards and opportunists.  If it’s the latter case, then UCLA shows incredibly poor judgment.  Since when is it the job of libraries to act as press agents for its depositors?  Not to mention that Huggins himself was frank about his role in the blacklist.  Why should the curators of his legacy be any less so?

And finally, I submitted an early draft of the above as a comment on the UCLA blog last week.  As of now, it is still “awaiting moderation” and not visible to the public.  I guess that’s the internet version of getting gaveled down by J. Parnell Thomas.

Edited slightly for clarity on 5/9/12 – SB.

About these ads

13 Responses to “Black List, White Wash”

  1. michael Says:

    I grew up in the sixties and was one of those strange kids that read the screen credits. My two favorite writers at the time were Sam Rolfe and John Thomas James.

    Now as someone who enjoys reading about and discovering TV’s past I have found Roy Huggins one of the more interesting men of TV’s creative and business side (he was the head of 20th Century Fox TV for a period). There are people who despise him (listen to Jim Garner talk about him and Rockford Files over at the Academy interviews).

    My experience is many writers hated working for him because he was a credit grabber. His credit for the series “Hong Kong” as Fox Vice President takes up the entire screen and is in front of the show.

    And yet he abandoned credit as producer in the middle of “City of Angels,” so who knows?

    One of the standard ways to write TV series was for the head writer (credits varied but today he would be called a “showrunner”) would write outlines for each episode and pass them off to writers to turn into scripts. Larry Cohen did this for “Blue Light.” But when the scripts were not right for the show, Cohen rewrote them but took no credit because there are important WGA and financial differences between written by and teleplay and story by and he wanted to help out his friends.

    The often used credit, story by John Thomas James (a sign to me to watch) annoyed writers, from what I have heard.

    The problem I have with all I just wrote is so much of it is POV. This is why culture historians such as TV researchers need to openly discuss what we find. POV is too often accepted as fact on the internet. And UCLA needs to open up its comment’s board (the L.A. “Times” has done the same to me).

    It is frustrating when you do have facts and show people where they can see for themselves, and they don’t care enough to change their database or site. My example is the falsehood that THE CASES OF EDDIE DRAKE was a DuMont series and the same people did THE FILES OF JEFFREY JONES. Both have an episode available to view on the internet.

    I do need to find the time to listen to the Academy long interview with Huggins.

    As always I enjoyed reading.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Right, the word I got from a couple of writers who worked for Huggins (or declined to) was that there was an implicit blackmail — if you wanted to work on his show, you’d write from his story (for which he would get credit, and of course a portion of the residuals) rather than pitch your own. I also got the sense that, as you alluded to, Huggins was thought to be taking screen credit for outlines that other writing producers would just give to freelance writers, without credit or compensation, as part of their producing job. (Larry Cohen, for instance, says that all of the first season Invaders episodes originated from his story ideas, although he has no writing credit on them.)

    Of course, you could argue that it was creatively valid for Huggins to assert himself on his shows in that way. Certainly, it anticipates the mode of the modern prestige drama, where the “staff writers” on Deadwood or The Sopranos or Mad Men were doing architectural work or patch jobs on scripts, or taking on the pieces that didn’t particularly interest Milch or Chase or Weiner (for instance, Chase recently mentioned in an interview that Weiner, in his days as a Sopranos staffer, balked at being assigned the shaggy-dog plotline involving Christopher burgling the Oscar swag).

    And, I’ve met plenty of other writers who felt that Huggins was very supportive of their work and their careers.

    Even though I’m obviously very critical of how UCLA has presented them here, Huggins’s papers would likely shed a lot of light on this issue … although, still, it would be very hard today to compare his methods with those of his peers.

  3. Mike from Jersey Says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Wow never knew of Huggins betrayals. Do you think the character of Maverick which he helped mold was a sort of defense of what he did? Maverick embraced Situational Ethics and the series over and over made it plain one was a sucker if he didnt save/take care of himself first, then take care of others, maybe.
    The famous pappyisms from the series underlined this: “A man’s a fool to call a hand when he knows he’s beat”,”If either one of you comes back with a medal I’ll beat you to death”,”If you’re ever served a rare steak that is intended for somebody else, don’t bother with ethical details–eat as
    much as you can before the mistake is discovered”.
    In the Saga of Waco Williams episode( some of the best lines in the whole series and a delightful satire with a title character so good he is recycled as Lance White in Rockford), there is also this:”Have you ever been in a hurricane…it’s the big pine trees and the thick oak trees that get uprooted first. The palm trees are smart – they give with the wind.”
    In my opinion and experience, most people don’t have the nerve to do the right thing if everything is on the line, and if they are ashamed later and apologize like Huggins did, I cut them some slack. As Stirling Silliphant kept stating on Route 66, when people do wrong don’t look at what they did
    but WHY.
    People don’t always make the right choice, we can’t claim moral certitude unless we are a GOP politician running for president.
    :)

    • michael Says:

      Mike and Stephen, Huggins has been quoted saying Maverick came from Huggins time on “Cheyenne.” Cheyenne was the perfect hero and Maverick was his complete opposite.

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I’m a little hesitant to say that the psychology behind Maverick (and perhaps even moreso The Fugitive) all derives from Huggins’s guilt over informing … but, yeah, once you have that tidbit from his past it’s hard not to apply a Freudian reading to his work. All the more reason why it’s deeply offensive for UCLA to sidestep that aspect of Huggins’s background.

    (And I do think some critics have written about the shows from this perspective, but I can’t cite any sources offhand.)

    • D.B. McWeeberton Says:

      From what I’ve read, I would at least partly guess that Huggins got cagey and protective over credits and contracts after being screwed out of creator credits by Warner Bros. on Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip…

  5. michael Says:

    I will always be a Roy Huggins fan. His name appeared on some of my favorite TV series. He made “Hong Kong” better with his in season changes. His “The Outsider” TV Movie was better than Gene Levitt’s “The Outsider” TV series, but I see others meaning more to the success of “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files.”

    Examine how similar the Maverick brothers were. Would “Maverick” be remembered without James Garner? The writers were the same for all the other Mavericks, but how memorable were any episode without Garner?

    “The Rockford Files,” both Stephen J. Cannell and James Garner have said Cannell not Huggins was the creator of “The Rockford Files.” Garner had him barred from the set and would not let Huggins write for the series.

    TV is a group art, who did what is always difficult to judge without a POV. Huggins deserves to be remembered for all the wonderful entertainment he gave TV viewers. He also deserves to be remembered as a flawed human being, not unlike many of us.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Even though people on here keep reminding me, I always forget that Gene Levitt produced the Outsider TV series. That explains a lot. Levitt was a hack.

      Cannell was, in those days, a pretty good writer. I just watched an Ironside he wrote very early on, “This Could Blow Your Mind,” which is notably better than any of the episodes surrounding it. I’m not really a Rockford expert, but I wouldn’t doubt that the hippest, most post-modern elements of the series — the elements that connect it with the many defeatist, noirish Watergate-era crime films — came from Cannell.

      However: in a different sense, the true authors of The Rockford Files were still Garner and Huggins, because the series was defined by its star’s unique persona, which had in turn been crucially shaped by Huggins in Maverick.

  6. michael Says:

    Oops, when I referred to the Academy interviews, I meant the Archive of American Television at:

    http://www.emmytvlegends.org/

  7. Todd Says:

    Though I enjoy many of the shows Mr. Huggins had a role in creating and/or shaping, I’m most ambivalent the man on a personal level. His testimony before the HUAC is shameful, obviously. However, I doubt it was easy for him to talk, plus, he deserves credit for his later candid repentance. As D.B. Mc Weeberton has noted above, his habit of grabbing credit for pitching ideas (and I think that this is exactly what it was) might have come from being screwed out of creator credits by Waner Bros.. And yet, this departure from the standard creative and business practices of the time must have rubbed many writers the wrong way. The very amusing anecdotes related by Mr. Sy Salkowitz in Tom Stempel’s book portray Huggins as something other than a member of the writer’s fraternity.

    Unlike Mr. Huggins, there is no migitgating factor that I can see for what UCLA has done re:Mr. Huggins and his legacy. That such blatant mis-representation of history by an institution of higher learning happens is not a surprise- it occurs far more frequently than it ought to. Is your comment on the blog still being held in the UCLA thought gulag? I wouldn’t be shocked if you tell us it is.

    This is off topic, but, please give us an update on your book? Toss your rabid fanbase a morsel of hope that we’ll see it soon.

  8. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Todd (and the rest of you), as always I appreciate the thoughtful input and the interest. I’m glad you reminded me that Stempel’s book lays out the anti-Huggins case, primarily but not entirely through Sy Salkowitz’s view, quite thoroughly.

    As for my book (and, again, I’m flattered by the inquiry), progress and announcements have been delayed by a sudden increase in paid work (which will cross-pollinate nicely with the blog soon, I think). It’ll happen, though.

    UCLA, incidentally, published on Thursday in its Huggins piece the comment I left on April 23, which was sort of a rough draft for the more considered remarks above. The post, the finding aid, and the characterization of Huggins as a “blacklisted writer” remain intact.

  9. Todd Says:

    Congratulations, Stephen. I’m glad to hear that the delay is for such a positive reason. We readers will surely benefit from the fruits of your labor.

    It only took the thought police seventeen days to permit the publishing of your comment? And nothing has changed in UCLA’s post, the finding aid or they have characterized Huggins? I’m stunned, I swear.

    May I recommend that a reminder be placed in the response area of your blog, preferably right next to the “post comment” box? It might read something like this: “Hey stupid, proof your comments before posting, so that you don’t end up with “migitgating” (Is that what you’d call being tailgated by a Smart car?) instead of mitigating.” Sorry for the mistake.


  10. Dear Mr. Bowie:
    My political, religious and philosophical, beliefs are very different from yours. However, I am consistently impressed by the erudition and thoughtfulness you bring to studying the history of this much disparaged medium.
    Huggins was an extremely complex personality, who combined great talents with great flaws.. Still he played a major role in creating some of the greatest shows ever, (including one you did not bother to mention, Bus Stop.) As a creator of quality television, he was the American John Hawkesworth


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers

%d bloggers like this: