The Hollywood Reporter, After 65 Years, Addresses Role in Blacklist

Billy Wilkerson
Billy Wilkerson

Sixty-five years ago, the town's studio chiefs, executives and guilds joined a communist witch hunt launched by THR's legendary owner, Billy Wilkerson. Today, in the first-ever exploration of a demagogue's mission and the lives destroyed, his son writes a formal apology.

Some of those who were complicit in the blacklisting of friends and colleagues would try to make amends. Take the case of Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night producer Walter Mirisch, who, as the production head at Allied Artists, denied employment for some. "I needed my job, and I had little children to support, and so I did what I was told to do. I'm not proud of it," he says. But later, Mirisch, who met Trumbo when he wrote the screenplay for the Mirisch-produced Hawaii, worked to get the screenwriter an Oscar for his 1956 film, The Brave One. (After being blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo had written the script under the name Robert Rich.)

And director Edward Dmytryk, another Hollywood Ten member who, after being jailed for refusing to cooperate with HUAC, later testified before the committee and named fellow members of the Communist Party, was excused by some of his former Blacklist cohorts, including actor-director Leo Penn.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around. And many people from the era heap a great deal of it at the feet of the long-dead studio heads. Says screenwriter Bernstein: "That was where the power came from. If the studios stood up to [anti-communist zealots], they wouldn't have had that power." Douglas concurs. "The people who should apologize are all the heads of the studios," he says. "Because they had the power to fight. But they gave in."

Wilkerson was never contrite. He never apologized for his actions, even appearing to minimize them. Back in the autumn of 1947, Wilkerson either didn't believe he was having much of an impact or was devilishly coy about admitting so. "What I think and write doesn't have much influence," he was quoted in the 1947 Pageant article. "I can't reform Hollywood. No one can -- thank God."

In 1962, when Wilkerson died from emphysema -- he smoked three packs a day -- the Red Scare was on the wane. Yet THR was still boasting of his crusade. The paper's obituary on its founder touted what it considered his life's work: "Perhaps the biggest and most important campaign waged by Wilkerson was against communist infiltration in Hollywood. He named names, pseudonyms and card numbers and was widely credited with being chiefly responsible for preventing communists from becoming entrenched in Hollywood production -- something that foreign film unions have been unable to do."

But obscured in the laudatory obituary and remembrance was that Wilkerson's systematic campaign led to the ruination of the lives of many. He used his publication as a blunt-force weapon. His insinuations deprived people of their livelihoods.

In a separate front-page appreciation on the same day, then-editor Don Carle Gillette echoed the sentiment of the obituary. "He made big sacrifices, paid a high price, for some of his campaigns," he wrote. Gillette then added approvingly, and with no apparent sense of the irony, "but when carrying out a conviction, he never considered the cost."

Scott Feinberg contributed to this report.


Twitter: @GaryMBaum; @DanielNMiller

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