Opinion: Actor Kal Penn credits Gandhi as he leaves Hollywood for Obama’s Washington


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President Obama, for all his charms, could not persuade CNN’s medical wonder Sanjay Gupta to give up his network salary and private-sector lifestyle and seek to become the new U.S. surgeon general.

But this week Team Obama did manage to pull off a major medical coup in that nexus between television and politics that might be called Hollywood on the Potomac.


As the Ticket reported earlier, actor Kal Penn, who gained fame as the costar of the raucous and profane cult favorite ‘Harold and Kumar’ stoner comedies, and is seen above playing a doctor on Fox TV’s popular ‘House’ with actor Hugh Laurie, is heading to Washington to work from what he calls ‘the front door’ of Obama’s White House.

To pave the way for Penn’s departure from the cast of ‘House,’ a medical wonder of its own, producers decided to have his character commit suicide on Monday night’s show. The buzz helped lift the show’s ratings past ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars.’

Penn, 31, campaigned for Barack Obama last year. Word is the Indian American actor was a big hit on college campuses. Now Penn will become associate director in the White House Office of Public Liaison, an envoy to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, to Hollywood and to young people.

Unlike Gupta, who turned down the Obama job citing family considerations, Penn had the decency to acknowledge to Entertainment Weekly that leaving Hollywood for Washington does entail a pay cut. In fact, no manse for Penn -- he said he’s shopping for an apartment.

‘There’s not a lot of financial reward in these jobs,’ he said. ‘But, obviously, the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honor.’

Penn said he loves the ‘House’ crew of actors, and hesitated before leaving the hit show. But he said he was drawn to Washington by his grandparents’ history -- and values -- in marching with Mahatma Gandhi.


I love what I do as an actor. I couldn’t love it more. But probably from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed that balance between the arts and public service. I went to a performing arts high school, but I still took a bunch of those dorky political science classes. It’s probably because of the value system my grandparents instilled in me. They marched with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement, and that was always in the back of my head. So the past couple of years I thought about it a little more. And in ’06 I started this international studies program at Stanford, where they actually let you do most of the course work online. So it was something I could do while I was acting. And I thought this might be the right time to go off and do something else. The ultimate irony, of course, is that I love being on ‘House.’ There’s not a smarter group of people that I’ve been surrounded by in television. So I thought about it for a very long time.

The New Jersey-born actor has had some experience working with Washington types. In ‘Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay,’ he smoked pot with a fictional George W. Bush.

-- Johanna Neuman

[For the record: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name Gandhi as Ghandi.]

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