LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Michael Moriarty : When Fighting Against Censorship Means Defending Television Violence

<i> Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox 11 News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."</i>

In the fall of 1993, television executives were feeling beleaguered. On Capitol Hill, voices in the House and Senate were blaming television for the violence so evident in the streets of America. Congress was threatening the industry with legislation that imposed limits on violent programming, if the programmers didn’t limit the violence themselves. In October, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno made headlines when she endorsed such legislation. She also told the Senate Commerce Committee that in her opinion, “the regulation of (television) violence is constitutionally permissible.”

On Nov. 18, Reno had a meeting with a group from NBC. West Coast President Donald W. Ohlmeyer Jr. was there, as was NBC’s chief censor, Rosalyn Weinman, of Standards and Practices. Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC’s “Law & Order” had been invited, and he’d brought along one of his stars, Michael Moriarty. Moriarty, who portrayed District Atty. Ben Stone on “Law & Order,” left the meeting steaming and dismayed. He was outraged by Reno’s conclusion that television was inspiring real-life violence. And he says he was sickened by what he saw as the attorney general’s contempt for both television and the U.S. Constitution. Others in the room may have felt the Justice Department had no business telling television networks what to program--but only Moriarty went public with his outrage.

He called a news conference and blasted Reno. He took out ads in the trade papers seeking support for creative expression. His pleas were met with silence. No call from Clint Eastwood. No fax from Sylvester Stallone or Steven Segal. No one else in Hollywood, it seemed, was willing to support Moriarty’s position that violence has always been an important part of drama.


Moriarty, 52, was raised in Detroit and educated by Jesuits. A Fulbright scholar, he’s a Tony-award-winning Broadway actor, a published poet and playwright and an accomplished jazz pianist and composer. He has won two Emmys for his television work--the second for his role as SS Officer Dorf in the miniseries, “Holocaust.” Moriarty lives in New York with his wife, Anne Martin, and his son, Matthew Christopher.

Since he began his battle with Reno, Moriarty has resigned from “Law & Order”--he claims he was being written out of the show to punish him for his activism. Still, in a business where everything is a career move, Moriarty seems to have landed on his feet. He’ll open in the Broadway production of “My Fair Lady” on April 8, as Professor Henry Higgins. But that good fortune has not cooled his outrage.

Question: How did you end up at that meeting with Janet Reno?

Answer: Dick Wolf (executive producer of “Law & Order”) said, “Why don’t you come down to Washington with me to meet the attorney general?” I said, “What is this--some stupid photo-op?” He said, “No, no. If she gets her way, shows like ‘Law & Order’ could go off the air.” And here we are in the fourth year of the show, the ratings have never been better, we’re starting to get into a groove, and out of left field comes Janet Reno.

On the way down there, I heard it was rumored that the President wasn’t too pleased with the fierceness of her presentation to Congress on this matter of TV violence. We were told that she might lighten up, that we’d have a nice meeting, all go home and it would be over. But that wasn’t the case.

Q: Why was “Law & Order” singled out?


A: Janet Reno fired a volley across the bow of network television. Roz Weinman, a censor at NBC, must have called her up and said, “Let’s sit down and have a powwow.” It’s like Bobby Kennedy saying Jimmy Hoffa is involved in racketeering, and Hoffa’s lawyer saying, “Wait a minute, Bobby, let’s talk.” But unlike that case, there’s no law on the books prohibiting violence on television. The attorney general should be enforcing the law, not policy. To threaten us with unconstitutional legislation--it’s an outrage!

Q: Why is yours such a lonely voice in this debate? Why has no other actor, producer or executive spoken out in support of your position?

A: The only thing I can think of is that I came through the theater--an ancient art form. Film is something that came later into my life. I had a Jesuit education, and I consider acting and the theater as kind of a calling--a vocation. And anyone who assaults it, after 3,000 years of history, outrages me.

Should we suggest that Al Capone learned everything he knew from George Raft? The idea that television is responsible for violence is the stupidest idea since Adolf Hitler said the Aryan race is superior. His psychological tests proving that have about as much credence as the ones that say violence on television causes violence on the streets. It’s a dangerous notion, because it creates bigotry and fear.

The Hollywood community is very insecure about this because television doesn’t have the history of the theater. They actually think Janet Reno may be right--that they are responsible for the violence in society!

Remember, Hollywood helped put Clinton into office. He’s their man. Look, I voted for Clinton, too, because I thought he was a liberal. I’m not a liberal anymore. I’m sick of it. The President meets with (CAA chief) Michael Ovitz and treats Ovitz like he’s a head of state. And yet, Clinton allows Janet Reno to beat up on television. There’s no campaign against movies. They go after television because it’s like the runt of the litter.

I hate going to L.A. and dealing with the contempt people have for television and television actors. It’s unbelievable the kind of attitude people take toward what is the most exciting medium we’ve got right now. Television is the most open, it’s the most potentially rebellious--we’ve got new channels coming in every day, and young, new people with fresh ideas. But because it is this mass medium and it has to turn out so much product, there is a caste system, and a contempt and self-loathing I despise.

Q: Is it your belief that violence in drama is beneficial, that it offers a safe outlet for our dark sides?

A: Violent drama has been a hallmark of every great civilization. It is not the cause of the disease--it is an immunizing factor. People go to the theater to experience emotions like fear and loathing. Violent drama shows us where we come from. It makes us face our hypocrisy. We package our food and put it in the freezer, and it looks like it was made there. But it wasn’t. The tonnage of living matter we slaughter by the second in order to keep this race alive would make Caligula blush.

Another metaphor--Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel. He spent his youth in Nazi camps surrounded by violence. Did that turn him into a maniac? He won a Nobel Peace Prize. Did the other camp survivors turn into a pack of Bonnie and Clydes? No! They built a nation, because they understood the nature of man.

We look at violence in drama like we look at a car accident. It’s a way of coming to terms with our mortality, and with potential disaster. And for people in Hollywood to actually express shame for what they’ve done, after it’s clear from the box office and the ratings what America wants? Do we want a government which treats the nation as if we were children? And that says our actual children are victims of the adults? That’s a sick attitude, and it’s liberal fascism.

Q: So do you see this campaign against TV violence as a scapegoat for the government’s inability to control actual violence in society?

A: I have no doubt. At least 50% of the violence out there is due to the war on drugs. The absurdity of this war grows greater every day. Again if you look at history and the ‘20s, you had the same thing--the same kind of hypocrisy. Kids on the street became part of the drug cartel in the same way the Purple Gang became part of the bootlegging cartel.

Then there is police corruption--huge in the ‘20, huge now, going straight up to the CIA. And people are more afraid of the solution than they are of the problem.

Until U.S. Surgeon Gen. Joycelyn Elders stood up and said we better start looking at legalization of drugs, nobody wanted to talk about it. So if there’s anything good which has come out of this attack on television, it’s that people are starting to look at the real reasons for violence, rather than at the scapegoat.

Q: Should there be no limit to what can be broadcast?

A: The limit comes from the audience. I have no complaints with citizens like Terry Rakolta (head of Americans for Responsible Television), who use whatever measures they can--boycotting advertisers, protesting or writing letters--to make their views on television violence known. That’s the way our system is built. But it’s tougher than going up the fallopian tubes to get a show on television--and the audience votes every half-hour on what they want to see.

Q: What do you say to those who say the content of television needs to be controlled because children have access to it?

A: I say that’s the first step toward a police state. If the government places itself within the domestic situation, between the parent and child, and the government says it knows better than the parent how to raise that child, you’ve really opened up Pandora’s box.

I think if you open the door to government control of television, then you let in a host of questions about rights. Mommy’s secondhand smoke--which is more dangerous than any television--are you going to make her smoke in the bathroom? Someone who owns guns--does he have to keep them out of the house from the hours of 6 to 10 p.m.?

If you don’t trust the parents of America, you don’t trust America, and you don’t trust the American system. Because you, Mr. and Ms. Washington, D.C., are working for us. You are not our parents. And you don’t tell us we don’t know what we are doing.

Q: I still don’t understand why, if there is indeed a concerted government attack on television, network executives don’t go on the counterattack?

A: They’re doing the corporate thing. Throw them a bone, pay a ransom and it will go away--I’m almost quoting Dick Wolf verbatim. That’s the basic attitude: Anything is negotiable. But I wasn’t built in the corporate system. I went in there as an artist. And, suddenly, I felt fear and I heard lies and I began to feel as if I was dealing with the KGB in the Soviet Union.

Q: In another interview, you said it doesn’t matter if you ever act again. As someone whose life is so much about acting, how could you say that?

A: Hell, I can make a living--I’ll wait tables. One thing I am not is a careerist. Janet Reno would not do what she is doing if her career were not more important to her than her common sense. Television executives know that this is wrong, but they would lose their job if they went head-to-head with the federal government. I have the freedom to say, screw it. I can do a little piano here, write books there, whatever. I am not going to give up my personal freedom and self-respect for a career.

Q: And yet, couldn’t one say all this has led you back to the theater--where you began?

A: If someone told me seven months ago that in April I would open in “My Fair Lady” on Broadway, I would have said they were crazy. So I always think of God sitting up there saying, “Well, I want to see Moriarty as Henry Higgins. How do we do that? Let’s introduce him to Janet Reno!”

It all started there on Nov. 18. That was the pool table where my eight ball landed in the corner pocket. I’ve shed a veil because of that meeting. Before I was just an artist--but I stood up and spoke my piece. I’m a citizen now.

Q: How has all this left you feeling? Are you optimistic about freedom of expression, or do you fear the government will actually place controls on television programming?

A: I’m optimistic by nature. I know I will win, just like David knew Goliath was going to go down. Because all the people who’ve ever called for censorship in the world have ended up exposed as villains or clowns. And anyone who stands up in the Land of the Free and says, “I’m allowed my own imagination,” is going to win. They’re just going to win.