Richard Collins was a gifted screenwriter – he wrote the screenplay for the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers – and he produced hundreds of episodes of such venerable TV shows as Bonanza and Matlock. But in the eyes of Hollywood, he was never quite able to overcome another infamous distinction: He was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist who gave in, and named names.
On April 12, 1951, Collins appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and identified 24 other Hollywood people – including such big-name writers as Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Paul Jarrico and Oscar-winning producer Robert Rossen – as onetime members of the communist party. According to a Washington Post account, he also testified that in the late 1940s, the communist party had hoped to manipulate its members to influence the content of Hollywood movies – thus providing confirmation to the communist-hunters in Congress who were conducting a purge of the industry.
It was a choice that Collins, who died on Feb 14 at age 98 in Ventura, Calif., made under pressure. He had been one of 19 Hollywood figures named by the committee in 1947 as unfriendly witnesses – i.e., suspected communists – and had watched 10 who had refused to testify go to prison. And his promising career had ground to a halt, at least in part from being tarred by Red-hunters. Nevertheless, as the Los Angeles Times noted in its obituary, people would walk out of parties when he arrived, and some of his former associates never spoke to him again.
Here are some facts about the blacklist, and the times in which Collins lived:
- As Collins later told author Victor S. Navasky, while he genuinely had become disillusioned with communism, he only agreed to cooperate because he figured that he could testify in a way that would minimize the damage to his Hollywood peers. He planned only to name deceased party members, others who’d already been identified as communists and, finally, those who’d quit the party long before, under the mistaken assumption that it would vindicate them. “I figured that having been out for 10 years or nine years, like [novelist Budd] Schulberg, for instance, everybody would see that they had left. It was a tremendous mistake … which is something that stupidly never occurred to me.”
- As Navasky noted in a 1973 New York Times article, the HUAC never was able to come up with any evidence that communist propaganda had ever been inserted into Hollywood films. The inquisition ultimately only turned up the names of fewer than 300 former communists – about 0.5 percent of the industry’s total employment, as newspaper columnist Murray Kempton once noted.
- Witnesses were offered a carrot as well as a stick. Screenwriter John Bright later revealed that a committee staffer told him that if he was willing to name actor Edward G. Robinson as a communist, a producer sympathetic to the committee was willing to give him a $1,500-a-week writing contract. “There was only one problem,” noted Bright, who instead chose to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “As far as I knew, Robinson wasn’t a communist.”
- Several members of the Hollywood 19 who were blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the HUAC eventually managed to rebuild their careers and achieve great success. Dalton Trumbo, who served 11 months in prison for refusing to testify, even managed to win an Oscar for best screenplay for The Brave One in 1956, under the pseudonym of “Robert Rich.” In 1975 he was presented with a statuette under his actual name.
- The blacklist era eventually inspired two acclaimed films. In director Martin Ritt’s 1976 comedy The Front, a small-time bookie (Woody Allen) poses as a writer so that blacklisted talents can get work. The 1991 drama Guilt By Suspicion, directed by Irwin Winkler, stars Robert De Niro as a 1950s movie director who is denied a chance to work unless he implicates colleagues as communists.
Here’s a short 1950 documentary that takes a sympathetic look at the Hollywood 10, who went to prison for refusing to testify: