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Sean Penn on His Blacklisted Dad: 'There Was No Loyalty'

Sean & Leo Penn
Sean Penn, with his father, Leo Penn, in 1997 in Los Angeles.

In a guest piece for THR, the actor remembers the grace and dignity with which his father endured the harsh, damning wounds inflicted by an industry -- and a country -- that turned against him.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

My father, Leo Penn, was a patriot to his core. The son of Spanish-Lithuanian immigrants, he was born in Lawrence, Mass., in 1921, a child of the Great Depression. His father moved the family to California on a Greyhound bus after finding work as an orange picker and later as a leather-goods maker in East Los Angeles. It was from the sloping foothills of City Terrace of the '30s and '40s, above the orange groves leading into the San Fernando Valley on one end and Chavez Ravine on the other, that my dad lived, firsthand, the great promise of America. Over the years, his father opened a bakery and came to whittle out a reasonable slice of middle-class life.

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Then, as my father hit his late teens, came World War II. Underage but with youthful patriotic vigor, he tried to enlist with the Army infantry but was passed onto what was the Army Air Force when a doctor determined his feet were flat. My dad signed up to serve the United States and flew with a B-24 Liberator as a tail gunner and bombardier. Theirs were low-altitude night bombings over Germany's war machine. For these particular missions, an airman's average life expectancy was a total of seven sorties. At seven, these enlisted men flew on a volunteer basis only. My father's squad broke all records, volunteering to fly 37 missions in all -- 30 more than what was required. Shot down twice, his captain, Myron McNamara, was able to guide the damaged aircraft over Allied lines before my father and the entire crew parachuted to safety.

Leo Penn returned to the U.S. a highly decorated war veteran and began a burgeoning career in film and onstage. He played leading roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. Then, the sky fell. Based on his support of Hollywood trade unions, a commitment to the same social democracy that had been the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt and his refusal to give names to the rising neo-Nazi-inspired House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was blacklisted by chicken hawks (among them Ronald Reagan) and barred from working in motion pictures by the same country for which he had risked his life those few short years earlier.

In fact, few among the Blacklist's principal architects ever risked career, much less life, in the defense of an American principle. And as with so many others, the country and the media stood by like frightened sheep. In the end, there was no loyalty for a soldier -- and no courage to cusp the pack of cowards and the ignorant disposition to identify with a popular lunacy. But the man I grew up with never showed bitterness. It seemingly was an effortless belief for him, that his great country simply had gone through a "bad stage" but that its foundation was never to be diminished, the flag was never not his own, and he never doubted it. He was a gentle and fair-minded man.

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I remember as a kid walking down a beach path with my father as we stumbled upon the set of Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976). My father and Kazan had worked together and known each other before the Blacklist period. After all the years, Kazan recognized him and called out his name. It was the first time I ever witnessed my father ignore someone.

But, conversely, when the daughter of director Edward Dmytryk started a dog-grooming company in my hometown, I asked her to come by and see if she wanted to take care of my dogs when I left town. I mentioned this to my dad, and he immediately spoke well of her father. I asked, "Hadn't Edward Dmytryk also named names as Kazan had?" He said, "Yes, but not until he himself had done jail time for refusing to cooperate." Evidently, it was in jail where Dmytryk's view had shifted. What separated Kazan and Dmytryk, in my dad's assessment, was that what Dmytryk did, he did for his beliefs and following sacrifice -- as if considering him a perhaps hostile but loyal opposition nonetheless.

In Kazan's case, it was clear he had cowered and sold out himself and all those for whom he might otherwise have broken the Blacklist. Kazan was in an extraordinary position of influence, and he squandered it in shame. It took heroes like Kirk Douglas, years later, to finally break its back. My father often would say to me, "Everybody's got their own truth, kid." And that is true, though some remain untold, and unchallenged.

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I will never forget at my father's funeral, as the honor guard passed the flag, folded into a meticulous triangle, over my lap to my mother beside me, stating, "In the name of the president of the United States, for his distinguished service." Indeed, it was distinguished. And so now is it our turn. We still sit silently while chicken hawks and bottle-blond and unsubtly augmented pundits sing cheap poison in best-selling books, bloated radio and skin-deep TV. Still today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet to offer a clear acknowledgment of its own complicity in the shameful witch hunt of the 1950s that was the Blacklist. In the name of patriotism and patriots (most of whom would never have even asked for it) and in the name of our own dignity … it's time

In his 40 years in Hollywood, Sean Penn has won two Oscars and has been nominated for three more while serving as an outspoken political and social activist.