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Classic Hollywood: Two ‘red diaper babies’ remember the blacklist in the acclaimed play ‘Finks’

Classic Hollywood: Two ‘red diaper babies’ remember the blacklist in the acclaimed play ‘Finks’
Playwright Joe Gilford, right, and director Michael Pressman work together on the production of, "Finks," at The Electric Lodge in Venice. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Writer Joe Gilford and director/producer Michael Pressman have been friends since they were “red diaper babies” in New York City over six decades ago.

“Red diaper babies” was the moniker given to children of members of the U.S. Communist Party — and it wasn’t meant to be a compliment, especially during the days of the blacklist, when anyone with left-wing affiliations was subject to firings, derision and even imprisonment.

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Gilford is the son of blacklisted actors Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford; Pressman’s director father, David Pressman, also found himself unable to find work in television during the communist witch hunt.

Now the sons are collaborating on the play “Finks,” the Los Angeles premiere of Gilford’s acclaimed drama that fictionalizes his parents’ experience in the 1950s when they refused to name names in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The Rogue Machine Theatre company is presenting the play, which Pressman is directing at the Electric Lodge in Venice through the end of the year. French Stewart and his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart, play the fictional versions of Gilford’s parents, nightclub comic Mickey Dobbs and actress/activist Natalie Meltzer.

“Here’s the brilliant part about the play,” said Pressman (“Chicago Hope,” “Picket Fences,” “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday”) “— and I’m going to compliment Joe on this one: The play has found a very entertaining way to educate an audience about the blacklist period, through humor, song and a romantic relationship. It’s a love story between this couple in which he is not political, and she is, and he finds himself in the midst of this whole war between the left and the right.”

Though “Finks” is set in the 1950s, Pressman believes it is very relevant in today’s tumultuous political climate.

“Everyone who has seen it is going, ‘Oh, my God, this could happen today,’ ” he said.

Gilford doesn’t remember not being aware of the blacklist. “I was born in ’52, so I was right in the thick of it when I was very small, and then the knowledge of it grew as I grew.”

His father — best-known for his whimsical Cracker Jack commercials of the 1960s, Broadway plays including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and his superb Oscar-nominated turn in the harrowing 1973 drama “Save the Tiger” — was not a political activist like his mother.

“My father was progressively political and sympathetic,” said Gilford. “My mother was the President of the Young Communist League at the Walton High School in the Bronx. But they were not communists. She didn’t go to meetings. They didn’t sit around and publish the Daily Worker and all of that.”

Pressman, 68, explained his father was a card-carrying member of the party in the 1930s. “I remember asking him when I was a teenager: What did you do at the meetings? And he said: We talked about voting rights, social security, social medicine, social welfare. Those were the issues. There was none of this paranoid fear about this violent overthrow of the government.”

David Pressman earned a Purple Heart in World War II. A teacher, actor and director, he became a very successful live TV director, “When the hearings started to occur, his name appeared in Red Channels,” the notorious pamphlet from the right-wing journal Counterattack that listed names in the entertainment industry purported be communist.

“He was called to testify,” said Pressman. “He took the Fifth Amendment; he didn’t name names. He had a big contract at CBS, and he was about to sign a contract. He got a call from his attorney and said CBS is not going to renew your contract, and he didn't work in TV for 15 years."

Gilford uses the real names of several people who did name names, including two-time Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan and Oscar-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg, using their actual testimony or public statements.

“I wanted it to be of the record,” said Gilford. “Other people I wanted to composite. There are reasons for dramatic action and dramatic license that I needed to consolidate them.”

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But it’s hard not to see Oscar- and Tony Award-winning director/choreographer (“West Side Story”) Jerome Robbins, who named the Gilfords during his testimony, in the character of the ambitious choreographer Bobby.

The “finks,” said Gilford, were in the minority during the blacklist. "People who didn’t name names were in the majority. I think it’s almost 2-to-1. So you have to look at the fact that human value and human integrity triumphed.

Gilford said his father lost eight years of TV work because of the blacklist. But he was lucky in that he could get steady work on Broadway. And from the early ’60s on, he constantly worked in all mediums before his death in 1990 at 81, earning two Emmy nominations in 1989 for guest roles in “The Golden Girls” and “thirtysomething.”

David Pressman returned to teaching acting and directing plays during the blacklist. TV work dried up because the sponsors were afraid to hire blacklisted directors, writers and actors. “There really wasn’t a blacklist in the theater because there were no sponsors,” Michael Pressman explained.

There was a great camaraderie between the blacklisted New York actors. “It was a different world, from what I gather — the Hollywood blacklist and the New York blacklist,” said Pressman. “There was a real community, a supportive community in New York. They all knew each other. They all stood together. They were ‘fellow travelers.’ ”

His father finally returned to TV directing in the mid-1960s on such series as “The Defenders.”

Pressman noted that his father was a true survivor. “He lived to 98,” he said “He won three Emmys for the ‘One Life to Live” soap opera and worked until he was 85. No one could believe it because he had such energy. I was asked the other day if he was bitter. My father always remained optimistic. That was his nature.”

For more information go to roguemachinetheatre.net

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