Star Trek: Hollywood on the Stump
“Where’s Goldie?” The hushed question ripples through the advance team that is responsible for the TV cameras ready to roll near United Airline Gate 75 at LAX--and the celebrities packed into a private room adjacent to all the commotion. Worried glances are exchanged; phone calls ordered. It’s 25 minutes to flight time. “We’re just waiting for Goldie Hawn to get here,” Senate candidate Leo T. McCarthy, the state’s lieutenant governor, says heartily to a couple reporters.
The clock is ticking; the news conference will have to start without her. Behind the podium, a door opens and stars pour out. Bruce Willis, with “Moonlighting” co-star Curtis Armstrong and “Die Hard” co-star Hart Bochner. Joanna Kerns of TV’s “Growing Pains” and Robert Walden of Showtime’s “Brothers.” Emmy winners John Larroquette (“Night Court”) and Rue McClanahan (“The Golden Girls”). Howard Hesseman of “Head of the Class.” “Big” co-star Elizabeth Perkins and he’s-such-a-heart-throb-he-needs-no-introduction Rob Lowe. “Less Than Zero” star Robert Downey Jr. and “Star Trek’s” LeVar Burton.
Space is running short behind the podium, but stars keep coming anyway. “L.A. Law’s” Jimmy Smits and Robert Foxworth of “Falcon Crest” fame. Akosua Busia of “The Color Purple” and Morgan Fairchild. “Knots Landing’s” Terry Austin and John Ratzenberger of “Cheers.” Michael Gross and Justine Bateman may have a hit show in “Family Ties,” but they’ll just have to squeeze in.
Politicians speak, then move aside for Lloyd Bridges. “I like pure clean water to dive in,” the actor says with as much passion as he can muster on four hours’ sleep. “The environment is very important to me and it’s suffering.” Lowe and Willis follow, exhorting the TV audience to vote, preferably Democratic. There’s a final boarding call for United Flight 1202 to Seattle, and they’re off.
Over the next three days, most of these actors traveled by plane and bus to 10 cities from Seattle to San Diego, stumping for the Democratic ticket. At each stop, the stars gave civic-minded speeches on the importance of voting, but their goal was unabashedly partisan: They hoped to register enough voters to tip the balance in Washington, Oregon and California--where polls show George Bush and Michael Dukakis running neck and neck--to the Democrats. Time was running short. In California, today is the deadline for registration.
There is no shortage of activism among Hollywood’s luminaries. Former candidate Gary Hart, in particular, was adept at drawing on the stars’ drawing power. But Dukakis is just now beginning to tap Hollywood’s potential. Richard Gere, Robert Redford, Rob Lowe and Daryl Hannah have all appeared for him on the campaign trail. Last weekend’s “Star Spangled Caravan,” however, was the first time this season that a crowd of Hollywood celebrities turned out for Dukakis.
Despite a hotel fire in Sacramento, a flat bus tire in Seattle and baseball and football games that kept a lid on the number of people attending rallies in Oakland and San Francisco, the caravan drew enthusiastic crowds at every point. The only major hitch came Sunday night, when organizers decided to let the weary travelers go home instead of registering voters in Westwood movie lines.
The organizers had planned to let two big names who had stayed home over the weekend, Cher and Bruce Willis, star in the Westwood event. But Cher was a no-show, leaving Willis--who had a sick baby at home--alone in the paparazzi- packed crowd. For half an hour, Willis was besieged by near-hysterical college students. Finally, some savvy crowd-controllers made way for him to sit down at a table next to State Controller Gray Davis and begin registering voters.
The Republicans have their own, though smaller, group of stars to call on. George Bush supporters include Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, Cheryl Ladd, Pat Boone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and teen singer Tiffany. A Bush bus trip through California is in the works for this weekend. Among the Hollywood lights being invited are Chuck Norris and Tony Danza.
“I am not as liberal as the guy I play on ‘Family Ties,’ ” Michael Gross told an audience of about 700 that had gathered amid the ivy-covered brick buildings at the University of Washington in support of Dukakis. “I voted for Nixon at one point in my life.”
No matter how many times you tell yourself that Michael Gross is not Stephen Keaton, the ex-hippie father who never let go of his ‘60s politics, it’s jarring to hear him call himself a “fiscal conservative” who opposes abortion.
That may be one of the hazards of turning out Hollywood in support of a candidate. Is the audience seeing the actors, or the characters they portray? Does it matter that the students at the University of Washington chanted “Booger” when they saw “Revenge of the Nerds” star Curtis Armstrong? Or that at another rally, one of his fans held up a sign reading “Herbert Viola for President,” a reference to his “Moonlighting” character? Armstrong said later that it was healthy for the college audience to see his true identity, that is, a New York stage actor who was drawn into politics because of a passion for women’s rights.
As for Gross, he stumped for Dukakis, but he never had time to detail his political views on stage. If he had, his audience would have heard about a man whose views are very different from the character they see on TV. “I’m a registered Democrat but I’ll cross party lines if I have to,” Gross explained in an interview later. “I’m not a knee-jerk anything.”
Gross is a born-again Christian who first became active in politics when the Reagan Administration threatened to ax his favorite transportation, Amtrak. When TV producer Norman Lear invited Hollywood celebrities to his home several weeks ago to meet Michael Dukakis, Gross wasn’t even on the list. He had to ask “Family Ties” producer Gary David Goldberg to get him an invitation.
There were other political newcomers aboard, like John Larroqette, who told a crowd, “This is the first time in my life I’ve been into activism. In 1980, I wrote in David Bowie’s name.” But there were also plenty of old political hands there, like Walden and Foxworth--both activists in the circuit of liberal Hollywood actors.
The minute the busload of celebrities reached the curb in Old Sacramento Saturday night, hysteria descended on the crowd. The screams swept through the plaza, rising and falling at intervals like the shouts from a roller coaster. It barely died as the celebrities stepped up, one by one, to the microphone. On the edge of the stage, Liz Perkins tried gently to hush them. They wouldn’t listen.
The problem was Rob Lowe. Everywhere the actor went, teen-age girls turned out screaming in full force. “Don’t worry guys,” Kerns said in an effort to calm the crowd, “Rob Lowe is still going to be here, calm down. What we’re really trying to do is get you out to register to vote.”
Lowe’s fans dressed as if they really expected the young actor to stop and ask them out to dinner--and they ached to touch him. “What a minute!” one young woman complained as Lowe walked away from a voter registration table in Portland, “You said if I registered I could get his autograph.”
Lowe attracted the most intense reaction. But there were also screams for Robert Downey Jr. And at each stop, all of the stars were swamped by autograph seekers. Most of the time, they generously obliged their fans, though they made clear they’d rather give out their signatures on voter registration forms. “Wait a minute, anybody need to register?” Bridges called out in Seattle, as he was besieged by autograph hounds.
Celebrity campaign hazard No.2: How does one get a celebrity-hungry audience to listen to what these stars have to say? “It’s an interesting dilemma,” noted Bochner, star of the upcoming TV special “War and Remembrance. “Having celebrity status is one way to have your voice heard. On the other hand, would these people show up if you were just a civilian?”
“The public thinks celebrities have it made,” said Walden. “If we’re taking our time to do this, maybe they won’t give up on politics.”
On Sunday morning, a small electrical fire on the 16th floor of the Holiday Inn in downtown Sacramento spurred late sleepers out of bed and into the awaiting buses outside. As the celebrity bus rumbled down the highway toward the first morning’s event, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) stood up with a brief announcement.
Stockton, he told the actors, would be the most conservative city they would visit that weekend. It’s a farm and port town heavily reliant on exports, he added, with a cosmopolitan overlay of “Ag Yuppies,” families who have fled the Bay Area in search of open land and lower-priced housing.
Officially, the caravan is sponsored by the California Democratic Party. In fact, it has been Hayden and the staff of Campaign California, the statewide political organization he leads, who have done the bulk of the organizing. (Hayden’s wife, Jane Fonda, was notably absent. Aides said she was out of the country, filming “Letters” for MGM in Canada.)
Hayden is a kind of political godfather to a number of the young stars in Hollywood. During the caravan, he could usually be located on the arm of a bus seat, talking tactics with a handful of actors.
But most of the stars wrote their own material. Akosua Busia told audiences said she found out how important the right to vote was when Ghana, where her father was prime minister, was overtaken by a military regime. Jimmy Smits exhorted the crowds in Spanish to register to vote.
Crime and drugs seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of the traveling celebrities. Danny Glover, who joined the caravan Sunday, gave a fiery speech in which he said, “The neighborhoods I grew up in in San Francisco are devastated because of drugs.” And Teri Austin said in an interview that her experience as the victim of an armed robbery outside her San Fernando Valley home was one of the events that prompted her to broaden her activism from local politics to the national arena.