Author Interviews
4:05 pm
Sun July 6, 2014

Undeterred By The Blacklist, Lee Grant 'Said Yes To Everything'

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 5:51 pm

When the actress and director Lee Grant was still just a New York City schoolgirl named Lyova Haskell Rosenthal, she was already surrounded by the arts. Her mother and aunt were obsessed with the men and women of the silver screen.

"They spoke all the way up here like this, like rich ladies talked," she tells NPR's Kelly McEvers, elevating her voice. "And so my voice was like that too. I was a bird imitating the birds. And so it was their kind of imaginary world that I was raised in, and it was part delicious and part confusing."

Grant began acting as a teenager, and by 1951 she had landed on Broadway and received her first Academy Award nomination. She went on to win an Academy Award for her role in the 1975 comedy Shampoo, and again in 1986 for directing the documentary Down and Out in America.

But before that later success, she spent 12 crucial years of her career on the blacklist. At the same time her career was taking off, so was the anti-communism paranoia in Congress.

In 1951 — the same year Grant was first nominated for an Academy Award — a friend with a bad heart was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Within months he died of a heart attack. Grant spoke out against HUAC at the memorial service.

"And two days later, I was at an actors' equity meeting, and the actor in front of me turned to me and said, 'Well, I see you made the list,' " Grant says. "He handed me this copy of Red Channels, which had all the blacklisted people in it, and there I was. And they had quoted my remarks. It was like, one day you were an actress who could do anything, and the very next day, you could not work in film or television again. And that was the temper of the times."

Grant's early career, the trying years on the blacklist and her success in Hollywood are all recounted in her new memoir, I Said Yes To Everything. She tells McEvers about directing documentaries and lying about her age — until Social Security ratted her out.


Interview Highlights

On the effectiveness of the blacklist

I was hired by mistake on [the Procter & Gamble-sponsored soap opera] Search for Tomorrow. And I loved it. ... And then this grocer from Syracuse threatened the show ... he would tell that Crest toothpaste was supporting communists if they kept employing me. And so I was taken off the show. And it was really as simple as that.

I must say that most of the actors who were blacklisted in that period were not communists. Most of them were really like me, who were actors who had signed something or said something or had been in the company of someone, and they were reported to Red Channels. There were a lot of people who profited from blacklisting. After all, to get off the blacklist — if you paid $200 and you got up in front of an AFTRA [union] meeting and said, "I'm on the side of Red Channels," you could get off the blacklist. So it was really a blackmail kind of game.

On the difficulty of restarting her career after the blacklist

I was 24 when I was blacklisted. I was 36 when I got off the blacklist. How much of a life does an actress have in LA past 25? ... I was really scared of having producers know that I was on my way to 40. And I did everything I could to have them think I was in my 20s. I asked Mayor [Sam] Yorty to take five years off my driving license. I asked my publicity people to have any mention of my birthday taken off the radio, when they congratulate people on birthdays.

I had 12 years to make up for. I'm a very practical person. I had to support myself, I had to support my daughter, and I had to work. And if the way that I could work was to have the years taken off my age at that time, I was desperate to do it. I had to be able to go from one job to another and be pretty. And I achieved that for a good long time. I made up those 12 years.

On turning to directing documentaries

After the Oscar for Shampoo, I had a sense even as I was walking up to get it that this was the height of where I was going to go as an actress. And I felt that now was the time, if I wanted a longer life in the arts, that I had to jump from acting to directing. It was a huge opportunity for me, finally, as formerly blacklisted person to say the things that I wanted to say through film, through documenting. ... And so it became a very exciting time in my life.

On the shock of turning 65 after a lifetime of lying about her age

My financial adviser in California had gotten the forms saying I had reached the age of my Social Security. I was 65. And he didn't know how to tell me. ...

So he called Joey — Joey's my second husband. So the door just bursts open, and he comes over to me, and I'm watching television sitting on the edge of the bed, and he says, "You're 65 years old." He yells it at me. I fell to the floor. I said, "I'm not, I'm not!" It was like a Blanche DuBois moment. And he said, "Yes, you are. We've got all this money coming in." ... So I unfortunately had to accept the fact.

It's not so bad now. There's still remnants of ... those times when I couldn't do anything, that I had to make up time. And I still have that feeling. But I'm getting more comfortable.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. For actress and director Lee Grant, her career started as a pickpocket.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DETECTIVE STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: What was the price of this purse you lifted?

LEE GRANT: (As shoplifter) Six dollars. Sometimes I spent twice as much for a pocket.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Well, you took it.

GRANT: (As shoplifter) I didn't need it. I didn't even like it. Crazy.

MCEVERS: Then a distraught widow who faced racist Mississippi police.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

GRANT: (As Mrs. Colbert) My husband is dead. Somebody in this town killed him. I want you to find out who.

MCEVERS: Then a bored, rich, '60s housewife taken with her hairdresser.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAMPOO")

GRANT: (As Felicia) No. Don't comb my hair out.

WARREN BEATTY: (As George) I'll do it now. I'll do it now.

GRANT: (As Felicia) No, George. You can do it later for heaven sakes.

MCEVERS: Those were the classic films "Detective Story," "In The Heat Of The Night" and "Shampoo" all starring our next guest, Lee Grant. Her new memoir called "I Said Yes To Everything" is out next week. It traces the life of a girl born Yeovil Hassall Rosenthal in New York City, a girl who says she had little choice but to pursue the arts because the women in her family were obsessed with movies.

GRANT: They spoke all the way up here like this, like rich ladies talked. And so my voice was like that, too. I was a bird imitating the birds. And so it was their kind of imaginary world that I was raised in. And it was part delicious and part confusing.

MCEVERS: She got her first professional role when she was a young teenager. But just as Lee Grant's career was taking off, so we're communist witch hunts in Washington. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee turned it's attention to actors. A few years later, Lee Grant learned that her husband and his friends were being investigated by the committee. She spoke at the funeral for one of these friends, Joe Bromberg, and told people she believed the investigation caused the heart attack that killed them.

GRANT: And two days later, I was at an Actor's Equity meeting. And the actor in front of him turned to me and said, well, I see you made the list. And he handed me this copy of Red Channels, which had all the blacklisted people in it. And there I was.

MCEVERS: Wow.

GRANT: And they had quoted my remarks. It was like, one day you were, you know, an actress who could do anything, and the very next day, you could not work in film or television again.

MCEVERS: So that's how it effected you. I mean, there was just a whole host of work that you just could not do?

GRANT: Right.

MCEVERS: That's really that effective? I mean, were broadcasters that scared? I mean, weren't you on a soap opera?

GRANT: I was. I was hired by mistake on "A Search For Tomorrow." And I loved it. And then this grocer from Syracuse threatened the show with - he would tell that Crest Toothpaste was supporting communists if they kept employing me. And so I was taken off the show. And it was really as simple as that. I must say that most of the actors who were blacklisted in that period were not communists. Most of them were really like me. Were actors who had signed something or said something or been in the company of someone and they were reported to Red Channels. There were a lot of people who profited from blacklisting. After all, to get the blacklist you - you know, if you paid $200 and if you got up in front of an actor meeting and said, you know, I'm on the side of Red Channels, you could get off the blacklist. So it was really a blackmail kind of game.

MCEVERS: So, I mean, you were on the blacklist for 12 years. You eventually get off with the help of your lawyer. Then you're back in action working in TV and movies. You move out here to LA. You're 36-years-old at the time. And it seems like from your book that your age really freaked you out. I mean, do you think, like...

GRANT: Hey, Kelly. Kelly, listen I was 24 when I was blacklisted. I was 36 when I got off the blacklist. How much of a life does an actress have in LA past 25? Yes. I was, you know, really scared of having producers know that I was, you know, on my way to 40. And I did everything I could to have them think I was in my 20's. I asked Mayor Yorty to take five years off my driving license. I asked my publicity people to have any mention of my birthday taken off, you know, the radio or when they, you know, congratulate people on birthdays. I had 12 years to make up for.

MCEVERS: Wow.

GRANT: I had to support myself. I had to support my daughter. And I had to work. And if the way that I could work was to have the years taken off my age at that time - I was desperate to do it. I had to be able to go from one job to another and be pretty. And I achieved that for a good long time. I made up those 12 years.

MCEVERS: And two of your very first movies in that period - I mean, you were in 1967. You were in the best movie that year. It won best picture. It was "In The Heat Of The Night" with Sidney Poitier. And then, just after that, you did "Valley Of The Dolls," which you, yourself in this book, say was an unbelievable laugh-out-loud disaster. I mean, what a juxtaposition these two movies. Did you know how bad "Valley Of The Dolls" was when you were making it?

GRANT: Oh, of course. And I'm glad to be in it. Glad to be in it.

MCEVERS: Why - just because it was work?

GRANT: Just of course. Of course. I was, you know, I was paid. You know, everybody needed to make a buck.

MCEVERS: In some ways, it feels like the title of your book is true. You said yes to everything.

GRANT: I sure did.

MCEVERS: Was that your attitude?

GRANT: I absolutely did. Yep.

MCEVERS: And then you did go on to win an Academy Award for your work in the movie "Shampoo" with Warren Beatty. And then, you know, another turn. Your next Academy Awards - it's for a documentary film called "Down And Out In America," which you produced for HBO. How did you turn to sort of the other side of the camera?

GRANT: Well, after the Oscar for "Shampoo," I had a sense even as I was walking up to get it that this was the height of where I was going to go as an actress. And I felt that now was the time, if I wanted a longer life in the arts, that I had to jump from acting to directing. It was a huge opportunity for me finally as a formally blacklisted person to say the things I wanted to say through film, through documenting - much as you did, I'm sure, as a reporter in the war zones. That you felt you were privileged to be able to show what people's lives were in this time and what was happening to them. And so it became a very exciting time in my life.

MCEVERS: You know, you've been through so much. You overcame so many difficulties - all these years on the blacklist. But there was still one thing that really struck us about the book was there was this moment that was really hard hard for you in your more recent life. And that was the day your Social Security check arrived.

GRANT: You're so bad.

MCEVERS: Well, I mean...

GRANT: You are so bad. I will tell you my advisor - my financial advisor in California had gotten the form saying that I had reached the age of my Social Security. I was 65. And he didn't know how to tell me. So he called Joey, my husband.

MCEVERS: Joey's your second husband?

GRANT: Joey's my second husband. So the door just burst open and he comes over to me. And I'm watching television, sitting on the edge of the bed. And he says, you're 65-years-old. He yells it at me. And I fell to the floor. I said, I'm not. I'm not. It was like a Blanche Dubois moment. And he said, yes you are. We've got all this money coming in. (Laughing).

MCEVERS: Take the money.

GRANT: So I unfortunately had to accept the fact.

MCEVERS: But it wasn't so bad, right?

GRANT: Well, it's not so bad now. There's still remnants of time to make up for. Time to make up for. You understand what I mean?

MCEVERS: Yeah.

GRANT: You know, those times that I couldn't do anything that I had to make up time. And I still have that feeling, but I'm getting more comfortable.

MCEVERS: That's Lee Grant. Her new memoir, called "I Said Yes To Everything," is out on Tuesday. Thank you so much, Lee.

GRANT: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.