"I can tell in five minutes if a person is a Communist," Roy Brewer said, his eyes growing hard, his face taut, his voice soft. "I'm never wrong."
This kind of self-proclaimed insight made Brewer, once the top labor official in Hollywood, an extraordinarily powerful figure in the 1940s. During the anti-communist furor that swept the film industry, Brewer had a reputation for being able to ruin or redeem a career. His role in the blacklisting of suspected Communists in the film industry, his critics say, made Brewer one of the darkest figures of a dark age.
Now, Roy Brewer is getting attention again, thanks in part to an old colleague and admirer named Ronald Reagan. The two men worked closely when Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, from 1947 to 1952. They remained good friends and Reagan took the 75-year-old Tarzana resident to Washington last year as chairman of the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the final arbiter between federal unions and their government employers.
The Federal Times, a Washington-based weekly newspaper for federal workers, welcomed Brewer in February with the headline: "Reagan Chooses Blacklist Expert for Labor Panel."
'Reaganmate of the Month'
Mother Jones, an ardently liberal monthly magazine, picked up the story and in June named Brewer its "Reaganmate of the Month."
Articles in both publications repeated charges from the past that Brewer had played a major part in helping studios and congressmen label actors, writers and directors as Communists. People who were close to the turmoil said that some of those named were Communists, but some were not. Civil libertarians charged that it didn't make any difference because the whole issue was unfair.
In 1947, when Congress convened the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the alleged Communist infiltration of the film industry, Brewer was the industry's top labor leader. As Hollywood representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, he bargained for thousands of people involved in all phases of the industry.
He also helped lead a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a vociferously anti-communist group that worked with the Un-American Activities Committee. Brewer said he doesn't pay much attention to critics who characterize him as a sort of boss among ideological bullies.
"The party position now is to get articles that hack away at the truth of what happened," he said. Those attacks, he said, won't weaken his resolve to make a contribution to public life.
At an age when many men would have slowed down, Brewer is still a busy man. Just days after Reagan appointed Brewer to the federal labor panel, Gov. George Deukmejian made him one of seven members of the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.
Once Roosevelt Liberal
Brewer, whose evolution from Roosevelt liberalism to conservatism in the late 1940s and early '50s paralleled Reagan's, said his state appointment did not stem from an involvement with the Republican Party. Although a member and a contributor to the Republican Party, he said he is not particularly active.
"They knew I was a labor leader and I am not part of the Democratic clique that has absorbed the labor movement in this town," he said.
Brewer also is a paid consultant to Local 695 of the International Sound Technicians, Cinetechnicians and Television Engineers of the Motion Picture and Television Industries. The Studio City-based local has 2,800 members.
His schedule in the past month took him to a local Navy base to iron out a labor dispute, to Sacramento to lobby, to a Los Angeles union hall where he keeps an office and, last week, to the White House.
In Washington, he discussed appointments to the labor panel with the White House personnel office. He said he has easy access to the President and has visited him regularly. A White House spokesman said Reagan considers Brewer "a longstanding personal friend."
Also on Pension Panel
The Reagan Administration also named Brewer to a Labor Department advisory panel that is recommending changes to federal laws governing private pension plans.
The jobs in Washington and Sacramento are part time, occupying several days a month. He is paid only for the days on the job. The largest per diem payment, for the labor panel chairmanship, is $200. He won't say how much he gets for his work for the sound technicians.
"I like to think I have some influence," he said, although he acknowledged that his grab bag of positions affords him but a shadow of his former stature.
Brewer's chairmanship of the impasses panel, if somewhat obscure, is an important job. Federal labor unions are prohibited by law from striking, so Brewer's job is to arbitrate any dispute that may arise.
Despite the obscurity, Brewer seems to court controversy. Earlier this month, he visited Sacramento to lobby against a bill authorizing a study of the film industry's minority hiring. Criticism of the industry's hiring is a sensitive matter in Hollywood. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People supports the bill; opponents include the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
'Unsuccessful' Efforts Cited
"Efforts in the past to deal with minority hiring problems in Hollywood have been unsuccessful, and the idea of this bill is to get a real idea of what is going on," said Tyrone Netters, a legislative aide to Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the bill.
Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Lawndale), chairman of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, says Brewer met with him this month to argue that the legislation unfairly singles out the film industry.
In a recent interview, Brewer said the industry is capable of policing its hiring practices without a mandated study.
"The industry encourages minority hiring," he said. "We have a lot of women and a lot of minorities."
Brewer said he went to Sacramento as a paid consultant to the sound technicians union.
His role with the sound technicians recently figured in a bitter union feud with crucial implications for the livelihoods of many in the film industry. In the balance hangs the fate of workers being displaced by the the increasing use of videotape rather than 35-mm film.
Film Editors Seek Retraining
The film editors' union applied for state funds for retraining in videotape work. The sound technicians, along with Brewer, have successfully opposed the funding, saying retrained editors take jobs from sound technicians.
Two participants in a meeting between sound technicians and state officials have alleged that union officials threatened to have Brewer use political connections to stop the funding. State officials have said Brewer played no role in the defeat of the funding.
One participant said that, although Brewer said little, "Everybody cringed when he walked into the room."
It would not be the first time Brewer and his connections made people cringe.
Indeed, fear has been a major theme in his life since he came to Hollywood 40 years ago. There was his fear of communism and his critics' fear that the methods he used to fight it threatened the very freedoms he said he wanted to protect.
"We hurt some people," he said of the days in Hollywood. "But it was a job I had to do."
At the same time that Roy Brewer is being honored with governmental appointments, Hollywood is trying to come to terms with what happened decades ago. On March 16, in a public ceremony at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the widows of screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson accepted Oscars that were withheld from their husbands 27 years ago for the screenplay of "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
The screenwriting Oscar presented in March, 1958, went to Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel.
Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, Foreman and Wilson invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. They refused to testify about allegations that they belonged to the Communist Party.
They were among hundreds of actors, writers and directors who, under pressure from the committee, were put on the blacklists. The lists circulated among Hollywood studios throughout the 1950s to prevent supposed Communists from working or, as in the case of Foreman and Wilson, to force them work without getting credit.
There has been no suggestion that Brewer had anything to do with blacklisting Wilson and Foreman, although he acknowledges that, in 1953, he tried to undermine production and distribution of another film in which Wilson participated, "Salt of the Earth."
A transcript of the Oct. 28, 1947, session of the House Un-American Activities Committee shows how Brewer combined his union activity with his anti-Communist stance. He began his testimony that day by telling the committee of the physically violent labor strife in 1945 between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and a rival group.
Brewer said the conflict, which others have described as one of the most complex and confusing in the history of American labor, boiled down to his union's fight to wipe out the Communists.
"In the mass picket lines there were a number of prominent people who had been identified with Communist activities," Brewer told the committee.
Reporting the exchange between Brewer and John R. McDowell, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, the transcript continues:
McDowell: Were they part of the film industry?
Brewer: Yes. And I have the names of some of the prominent ones, if you would like to have them.
McDowell: Yes. Name some of them.
And he did. Out came 13 names, including that of actor John Garfield; Sidney Buchman, assistant production chief of Columbia Pictures and author of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and Dalton Trumbo, a writer whose screen credits include "30 Seconds Over Tokyo."
Brewer said he only confirmed what the committee knew. How was he sure all those people were Communists? "I knew," he said in the recent interview. "I know the Communists. We had proof."
Trumbo and nine others were jailed for up to a year for contempt of Congress when they declined to answer questions they considered unconstitutional. It became difficult, in some cases impossible, for the 10 to get work.
Garfield died of a heart attack in 1952, but his friends said it was being blacklisted that killed him.
'Romantic, Fad Thing'
There was a Communist group in Hollywood, although it apparently wasn't very large. "It was a romantic thing, it was a fad, a fashion, the thing to do," said Philip Dunne, a 77-year-old screenwriter who wrote "How Green Was My Valley" and other films. He said he didn't belong to the group.
"Philip Dunne ought to know better than that," Brewer said. "The thing is that, once they get ahold of you, once they get into your mind, the Communists control you. They wanted to take over Hollywood and we stopped them."
A book entitled "Report of Blacklisting" is regarded by Brewer and many others as the most authoritative record of the blacklisting era.
The book, little known today, was written in 1956 by John Cogley, then executive editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. Cogley wrote: "Whether or not Brewer actively prevented people from working is ultimately not very important. The only thing necessary was for him not to 'back up' an individual."
The book described an incident in which Zsa Zsa Gabor telephoned Brewer from France and asked whether she should go ahead with plans to make a French film with Jules Dassin, a Hollywood director who allegedly had been a Communist Party member. Cogley wrote that Brewer did not say outright to fire Dassin, but that he did answer her question.
Dassin was dropped.
Called Straw Boss of Purge
It is one of numerous examples that Cogley gave, explaining why Brewer's enemies entitled him "straw boss of the purge" or "arbiter of the blacklist."
Dunne and others said Brewer could get names off the blacklist if a person offered him a sort of confession about his past and gave names of other alleged Communists.
Brewer referred to this as good work. "I tried to help people," he said.
"It was the glorification of the snitch," Dunne said. "It was disgusting."
Brewer has said that the careers of people who gave names before the committee suffered as much as those whose names were given.
In 1949, when Reagan became chairman of the Motion Picture Industries Council, the industry's main labor-management group, Brewer became its co-chairman.
In his ghost-written autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?," Reagan recalled that period: "I will say of the Communists--they were the cause of the labor strife, they used minor jurisdictional disputes as excuses for their scheme."
Speaking of Brewer's role in the anti-communist crusade, he wrote: "Roy Brewer was one labor leader who talked as much about labor's responsibility as he did about its privilege."
There were many people in Hollywood, including Reagan, who assisted and testified before the Un-American Activities Committee. But Cogley writes that Brewer was different.
Cogley said that Brewer's position gave him contacts throughout Hollywood. He had a particular closeness to the committee. He had influence with producers and studios. And he cultivated a group of ex-Communists who became respected authorities on their subject. For those reasons, Cogley concluded that "in a word, Brewer dominated the motion-picture industry more than any individual had ever succeeded in doing."
Old photographs of Brewer show a puffy face. Instead of softening with age, that face has tightened to a firm, balding roundness.
His hazel eyes exude emotion as forcefully as some people's hands do. They widen to proclaim outrage or contention. Or narrow to forecast insight into an old rival's past.
"If you're getting ready to do a hatchet job on me, you'll have an enemy," he said in a threatening tone to a reporter who asked sensitive questions.
He said that in the past he had complained about a story about himself that appeared in the Federal Times and that "that reporter isn't writing about labor anymore."
Jim Crawford, the reporter, said he was not fired. "I was recently made the congressional reporter here," he said. "That's a promotion."
He recently spoke about his early days in labor. He told how he organized projectionists in Grand Island, Neb., at the age of 17 and, two years later, became vice president of the Nebraska State Labor Federation.
Brewer said he resigned his Hollywood union post in 1953 and, although he worked for the union for six years in the 1970s, spent most of the intervening time as a labor relations executive.
Today, he criticizes American labor for allying itself too predictably with the Democratic Party. And he praises Reagan for his economic policies and his continuing fight against communism.
Any conversational thread Brewer picks up leads back to his conviction about the communist conspiracy he says exists to take over the world.
"The Communists are still there, but now they're in the Democratic Party," he said. "Witness Nicaragua. You look at the people opposing our involvement in Nicaragua in Congress. You look at those people's backgrounds."
Brewer spoke at length about the importance of letting government keep an eye on "secret groups" in the United States.
"I can't prove it," he said, "but I think the Weathermen (a radical group from the 1960s) have switched from bombs to arson.
"And in this area every time the Santa Ana winds are right we have a lot of fires in this area. All across the country. I've talked to people. I'll never have a chance to do anything about it, but if I can only get the young people of this country to see this problem, I know they'll do something about it."
Eyes widening again, voice lowering to a soft intensity, he repeated: "Believe me, I know it."