Orson Bean Talks New Play, Being Blacklisted in the 1950s (Q&A)

Michael Lamont

In addition to telling THR about his role in "Death of the Author," the 85-year-old explained why he was blacklisted as a communist: "I was horny for a communist girl and she dragged me to a couple of meetings."

After 60 years in show business, actor, comedian and raconteur extraordinaire Orson Bean is the only one of his generation who can legitimately claim to have peed on a sitting president.

“I was taken to meet cousin Cal when I was six-months-old,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter about his first meeting with his cousin, then-President Calvin Coolidge. “They said I took a leak on his necktie. When asked about it later I couldn’t recall. The president hasn’t said anything to me.”

Even at 85, Bean still has it. You can see for yourself at the Geffen Playhouse where he’s appearing in the world premiere of Steven Drukman’s new play, Death of the Author, running through June 29.

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When a young college professor (David Clayton Rogers) accuses one of his students (Austin Butler) of plagiarism, a mentor (Bean) steps in to make certain the young man’s academic life isn’t unnecessarily destroyed. Druckman’s drama takes a humorous look at ethics and ambition in the world of academia.

Known early in his career for his collegiate look and Yankee roots, Bean didn’t grow up in academia but pretty close. “I grew up in Harvard Square and I used to see guys in their 50s with green book bags slung over their shoulders and they were going for their third Ph.D.,” he laughs. “They never left the halls of ivy and went into alleged reality.”

This was before he got into show business, working New York City’s Blue Angel in the '50s, along with acts like Nichols and May, Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte. Through the years Bean has enjoyed consistent success, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Twilight Zone and Broadway. He played cranky store owner Loren Bray on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in the '90s, and more recently Roy McCluskey on Desperate Housewives.

During a break in rehearsal, Bean talked about the blacklist, Richard Nixon, Orson Welles and Donald Sterling.

The Hollywood Reporter: You play a college professor mentoring a younger professor who might be on the verge of a big mistake.

Orson Bean: It’s a play that takes place in the world of academia and I play an old professor who’s mentoring a young professor, who in turn has a kid he’s accusing of plagiarizing on a term paper. It’s a question of should this kid’s life be destroyed by him failing and not graduating? But then it turns out maybe the young professor’s life is going to be destroyed.

And isn’t there a question of post-modernism and homage versus stealing? We see it in sampling in music, in movies.

In the film business, it appalls me that when I was 12 years old I was reading Spider-Man and Captain America. They’re making f---ing Godzilla again, c’mon. I don’t care how well they blow up the bus, it’s still the bus blowing up. I think people are afraid to be original.

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What’s with the name? Big Citizen Kane fan?

No, it wasn’t that. One night in a club in Boston, I tried the name Roger Duck. No laughs. The next night, I tried Orson Bean, putting together a pompous first name and a silly second name. I got laughs, so I decided to keep it. Orson Welles himself came into the Blue Angel one night, summoned me to his table. I sat down. He looked at me for a moment and then said, "You stole my name!" And he meant it. Then he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

These were before the days you were blacklisted.

The reason I got blacklisted was not because I was a communist but because I was horny for a communist girl and she dragged me to a couple of meetings. After I got elected to vice president of the New York local, I got a call from Ed Sullivan. I could feel the blood draining out of my face. He said "I have to cancel this Sunday." I had been on the show seven times. Overnight, I went from being the hot young comic at CBS to not working. Luckily I got a play that ran for year, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter.

But Sullivan redeemed himself.

He did book me one more time and I was grateful to him. Among other things the blacklist was a protection racket because they made the networks clear every actor every week for 50 bucks. It was Campbell Soup that did the blacklisting, not CBS.

Sullivan was way cooler than people give him credit for.

Back then we were told, "If your shoulder even brushes Pearl Bailey’s shoulder we’ll lose stations in the south." So Ed Sullivan booked Pearl Bailey, threw his arm around her and said, "How you doin’, Pearlie May?" And all over the south stations went dark and then the switchboard lit up, "What happened to the Ed Sullivan Show?" "Well, he touched a negro." "I know but it’s the Ed Sullivan Show." And that was the end of that nonsense.

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You went from being labeled a leftist in the '50s to today where you tend more right wing.

I didn’t change, the lunacy of political correctness has taken over. I think it’s appalling that there’s thought patrol now. This racist guy who owns the Clippers, he’s [Donald Sterling] being treated as if he said that in public. How much greater could his punishment have been if he got up at the microphone and said that? These days you can’t say anything.

It’s surprising you supported Nixon even after his role in the blacklist.

I felt only a conservative president could bring peace in Vietnam 'cause he wouldn’t be accused of being soft on communism. That’s the only thing I supported him, just on that one issue. He was a terrible man. I met him and he didn’t even know I was one of a handful of actors that had supported him. Jack Kennedy was effusive with all his supporters, including the women he diddled. He sent them flowers the next morning. 

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