George Murphy, 89; Actor-Dancer Who Served 1 Term in U.S. Senate


George Murphy, the actor-dancer who served one term as a U. S. senator from California, died Sunday night at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., it was learned Monday.

His son, Dennis, said in Los Angeles that his father was 89 and died of leukemia.

Murphy preceded a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan, into public office by two years, in 1965. Like Reagan, he was a conservative who had parlayed public relations, speaking, fund raising and other skills he had gathered in Hollywood into a political career.

But unlike Reagan, Murphy’s public service did not bring him new popularity, and at the end of his term he was defeated by Democrat John V. Tunney after a controversy over his acceptance of thousands of dollars in annual retainers from Technicolor Inc., a former Hollywood employer, while serving in the Senate.


Often a brash promoter of his own fortunes and reputation, Murphy freely took credit for Reagan’s entry into politics, saying, “Sure, that big nationwide (1964) TV speech for (Republican presidential candidate Barry) Goldwater shoved him across the line, and it was great. But I’d been talking to Ronnie about political service for years. You know, he succeeded me as president of the Screen Actors Guild. And I played his father in a movie.”

Reagan, on learning of Murphy’s death, recalled Monday night “that when I was a beginner in show business he was a star who became a very good friend and a great help to me. What a great loss this is to all of us, particularly to his wife and his children. He was a wonderful man and he and I got very close together in those terrible days in Hollywood when there was a Communist thrust in the film business. We, of course, were definitely on the other side.”

As a U. S. senator, Murphy was more conservative than most Republicans in that body, voting against federal aid to education, a consular treaty with the Soviet Union, and appropriations to the U. S. Disarmament Agency. He also took a more hawkish position on the Vietnam War than President Richard M. Nixon.

George Lloyd Murphy was born in New Haven, Conn., the second son and third child of Michael Murphy, an Ivy League coach who later guided the 1912 American Olympic track team, but died when George was 11.

He and actor James Stewart attended prep school together at Peddie School in Hightstown, N. J. Murphy went on to Yale, where he played quarterback on the football team in his freshman year but, due to poor grades, was suspended from the team and did not finish school.

Out of college and nearly broke, Murphy worked a variety of jobs, ranging from a coal miner in Pennsylvania, where he was badly injured in a mine car accident, to a runner for a Wall Street brokerage firm. While working in New York, he met Juliette Henkel, an amateur dancer. He took dancing lessons to help his courtship and, as he later said, “got pretty good.” He and Henkel, whom he later married, began to perform in nightclubs. Their marriage lasted 47 years, produced two children and ended with her death in 1973.


Between 1927 and 1934, Murphy appeared in six Broadway shows, including “Good News,” “Of Thee I Sing” and “Anything Goes.” Years later, when he was in the Senate, he told how he obtained a dress suit for his first Broadway role:

“Maybe, I shouldn’t tell this on myself with all the flap about congressional ethics. But I went into this place, got fitted and tried the suit on. While the tailor was in the back room for a moment I simply took off wearing the poor guy’s creation.”

In 1934, Murphy made his debut in Hollywood in the film “Kid Millions.” He appeared in more than 45 movies, including “This Is the Army,” “Little Miss Broadway,” “For Me And My Gal,” “Battleground” and “Powers Girl,” opposite such actresses as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild from 1937 to 1953 and its president in 1944-46, Murphy prided himself on his efforts to keep Communists out of the movie industry. He retired as an actor in 1952, becoming a public relations man for the industry and working in that capacity for such firms as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Desilu Productions and Technicolor.

Like Reagan, Murphy started out in Hollywood as a Democrat. But in 1939, decrying what he said he felt “was a real move toward socialism and centralized control of our government,” he changed his registration to Republican. The next year, he formed the Hollywood Republican Committee to “combat the general belief that all Hollywood actors and writers were left wing.”

Gradually, he became more active in Republican politics. He was an Earl Warren delegate to the GOP National Convention in 1948 and became chairman of the California State Republican Committee in 1953. In 1952 and 1956, he was director of special events for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugurations.

Murphy was a distinct underdog when he became the first Republican to announce his candidacy for the U. S. Senate in 1964.

But after a turbulent campaign during which incumbent Democrat Clair Engle died and Democratic candidate Pierre Salinger, former press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, was appointed to fill the seat, Murphy defeated Salinger by 216,643 votes. That year, Goldwater lost the state to President Lyndon B. Johnson by 1,292,769 votes.

Murphy had tagged Salinger, who had been living in Virginia and was not eligible to vote in his own election, as a carpetbagger, and he also capitalized on Salinger’s outspoken opposition to an initiative on the California ballot that year that allowed landlords to continue to discriminate in housing rentals.

In many respects, the high point of Murphy’s Senate career was his election, and his greatest accomplishments in the Senate were the 207 speeches he delivered in 29 states in his first year and a half on the job, raising $1.8 million for other Republican candidates.

The extensive speaking was cut short in late 1966 when Murphy was operated upon for a malignancy on his vocal cords. Even though the cancer was eradicated, from then on, he required electronic amplification whenever he spoke and his raspy voice became something of a political embarrassment.

Almost from the beginning in the Senate, he had trouble winning respect from his colleagues. John H. Averill, then a congressional correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that within weeks of taking his seat, there were “suggestions that for a man so long involved in politics, Murphy is a bit naive about the facts and fundamentals of government.”

Murphy staked out a position well to the right of the state’s other Republican senator, Thomas H. Kuchel, who had refused to endorse him in the 1964 election because Murphy would not denounce the John Birch Society.

In 1968, Murphy returned the favor, refusing to endorse Kuchel for reelection, and thus contributing to the loss of the seat to Democrat Alan Cranston after Kuchel was defeated in the GOP primary by the right-wing state superintendent of public instruction, Max Rafferty.

It soon became obvious that, despite having campaigned as a moderate, Murphy was one of the most conservative members of the Senate, and some off-the-cuff statements stirred controversy at home.

After the 1965 Watts riot shook Los Angeles, for example, Murphy declared, “Anyone in Watts today between the ages of 17 and 25 who doesn’t have a job just doesn’t want to work.”

By the 1970 Republican primary, Murphy was in trouble. Industrialist Norton Simon entered the race, charging that Murphy had not been a sufficient supporter of then-President Nixon’s foreign policies.

Although he lost the primary, Simon developed the issue that Murphy himself later declared was ultimately responsible for his defeat in the general election by Tunney--Murphy’s continuing ties to and earnings from Technicolor while he was a senator.

As charged by Simon and later reluctantly acknowledged by Murphy, the former actor had been earning $20,000 a year as a “consultant” to Technicolor, which was headed by his friend, Patrick Frawley, all the time he had been in the Senate.

In addition, he had been getting $4,000 a year as a member of the Technicolor Board of Directors, had been given $520 a month to pay half the rent on his Washington apartment, and had been allowed free use of a Technicolor air travel credit card.

Murphy insisted that despite such remuneration, considered very generous at the time, he had only spent one one-hundredth of his time in Washington working for Technicolor. But Simon and, later Tunney, scoffed at such protestations. Simon pointed out that as a senator, Murphy had voted against ethics legislation requiring members to divulge sources of outside income.

Friends suggested, however, that Murphy may sorely have needed the money. During his Senate years, his invalid wife required expensive medical care while Murphy himself was fighting throat cancer.

The day after the primary, Murphy returned to Technicolor $10,413 in stock profits which he had realized in violation of Security and Exchange Commission rules. And two weeks later, all of his Technicolor earnings were cut off by a new management group at the company, which had ousted Frawley.

Tunney won the general election by 618,941 votes, even while Reagan was winning reelection as governor over his Democratic opponent, Jesse Unruh, by 502,057.

After leaving the Senate, Murphy worked as both a public relations man and lobbyist in Washington and then built a retirement home in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. He lived there in the summer and in Florida in the winter. Nine years after his first wife died, in 1982, Murphy married Bette Blandi, once a model. From his first marriage, he is survived by his son, Dennis M. Murphy, and daughter, Melissa, and four grandchildren.

Funeral services are scheduled in Palm Beach and Los Angeles on Friday at 11 a.m. The local services will be at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.

The family is asking contributions to the William J. Herrington Fund for Leukemia Research, 1275 N.W. 12th Avenue, Miami, FL 33136.