I was born too late to make the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s. I knew about them, of course. Any American actor who came of age in the second half of the 20th century grew up cursing the name of Joe McCarthy and the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities where young California Congressman Richard Nixon first came to national attention. I’ve often felt this is one of the main reasons people in the performing arts almost always revile Republicans. But it wasn’t until I got the job on “The Love Boat” in 1977 and shipped out for the next eight years that I learned first-hand of the toll the blacklists took on the lives and careers of so many performers whose only crime had been speaking out on controversial subjects.
Two such individuals may be familiar. Will Geer was a distinguished Shakespearean actor who was known to millions as Grandpa on the enormously popular series “The Waltons.” He was also an activist for gay and left-leaning causes who paid a heavy price in the fifties when he was placed on the secret do-not-hire lists circulating among theaters and studios. The same held true for Jack Gilford, a marvelous natural clown and actor with a rubber face. He and his wife Madeleine were both dragged before the HUAC during the McCarthy era for supporting left-wing causes and lost work because if it. But both men recovered nicely. Geer spent seven seasons on a hit show and Gilford eventually won a Tony and was nominated for an Oscar.
Not so fortunate were scores of other actors who took smaller roles on “The Love Boat” and were still apprehensive in the 1980s to even talk about their political activities 30 years before. They would not want me to mention their names or their affiliations to this day. But even though they each had compelling — and in some cases heartbreaking — stories to tell, I had a hard time relating to their plight.
Until today. Now, as Bill Clinton would say, I feel their pain.
For almost two decades I have supplemented whatever primary income I was earning by giving speeches. The public lecture circuit is a popular avocation for a lot of us in and around the Beltway, and over the years I have been hired to talk about such topics as health care, elections, and volunteerism. My speeches always include anecdotes from my glory days as Gopher, my life in long pants as a member of Congress, running Goodwill Industries, and working in radio. Pretty vanilla stuff with no partisan edge whatsoever. I’d be a total flop at CPAC.
So imagine my surprise when my speaker’s bureau calls me today with the news that a gig in St. Paul in front of some outfit called the Minnesota Treasury Management Association has been cancelled because I am suddenly considered too controversial to appear. Due to my comments about the Muslim Brotherhood and Shariah law, I am now too toxic for the greater Twin City area, which has a sizeable Muslim population — a population of people who may actually turn violent if I show up. I am not making this up. My agent read this to me over the phone. Move over, Peter King and Glenn Beck. Make way for Gopher the Infidel.
Actually, I should have seen this coming. A couple of weeks ago, shortly after the events at WMAL went down, this association contacted my representatives to make certain I would not talk about radical Islam during my speech. This was not a problem. I have never even mentioned Islamic extremism in any of my paid public events and have no plans to do so. I even assured these guys I wouldn’t take questions on the subject. We were supposed to have a conference call to go over content but evidently their board of directors met yesterday and voted me off the island.
So now I don’t know whether I should be outraged or flattered. Obviously, it is more than a little troubling to find that the mere mention of politically sensitive subjects can cost you employment in this country. I thought blasphemy laws were all the rage in Pakistan, not Minnesota. But, to be perfectly honest, part of me thinks this whole thing is kind of cool. Throughout all my careers, I’ve been labeled many times and the mention has not always been favorable. But I’ve never been dangerous. I’ve been panned but never banned. And the feeling is strangely invigorating. I say what I like because I like what I say. So if being welcomed back to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes requires me to be more Shariah compliant, I’ll pass. And I guess you shouldn’t look for me in Dearborn anytime soon.
However, I now have an open date in April, so if you’ve got a wedding or a bar mitzvah coming up, I’m available.
Fred Grandy has been a successful actor on television (The Love Boat), a four-term member of Congress from Iowa, the President of Goodwill Industries, International, and until recently the host of the Grandy Group, a daily news/talk radio program in Washington, D.C. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in classical acting.