Postcards From the Left
'Good Ole Mister Grant'
Along with Liberty Hill, there is an authentic Hollywood left that functions beyond the parameters of narrow electoral politics. It's a remarkably stable group, virtually unchanged through the eighties and nineties. Stable, perhaps, because it is so small. Mike Farrell, who in the eighties helped perform field surgery on a wounded Salvadoran guerrilla commander, today shoulders the wildly unpopular and unrewarding cause of opposition to the death penalty. Martin Sheen is a loyal foot soldier on issues of US involvement in Latin America and has long defended the rights of farm workers, and he continues to get arrested when necessary--even when there are no news cameras around. David Clennon--who played the sinister capitalist slime "Miles" in the thirtysomething TV series--is a rock-solid militant in labor causes. When called upon he starred in a guerrilla theater protest staged inside local government offices to press, successfully, for a living-wage ordinance--and during Operation Desert Storm, a publicist helped him get on radio and TV to denounce the war.
Oscar-winning cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler, who maintains a presence in every significant radical battle, is currently filming a documentary on the Bus Riders Union. SAG's Richard Masur is working on campaign finance reform, among a dozen other causes. Director John Sayles doesn't have much of an activist profile, but he does something that virtually no one else in Hollywood does: He makes left-wing movies. So does Oliver Stone, sometimes. Ed Begley Jr. is an environmental bulldog. And Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins can regularly be counted on for unpopular causes: They're both active against the death penalty and are adamant about a more flexible immigration policy. Since the mid-eighties Sarandon has been the public face of Madre, an international women's rights group forged in the heat of the Central American wars. (Disclosure: Robbins sits on the board of The Nation Institute.)
Then there's Ed Asner. No one else in Hollywood even comes close to equaling his record of activism and courage. For his work as the chief spokesman for Medical Aid for El Salvador, Reaganites loudly accused him of being a collaborator with the leftist guerrillas the United States was trying to crush. CBS canceled his Lou Grant series after two large corporate advertisers--Vidal Sassoon and Kimberly Clarke--withdrew their sponsorship for fear of being associated with him.
Nearly twenty years later, he's still hurting from that experience. "What kind of lead can Hollywood take?" he asks with a certain exasperation during an interview in his North Hollywood office. "You know, you only need one blacklist per century to teach everyone to pull in their horns. I tell you, when I came out on El Salvador, I never thought it was going to be so controversial. But I paid for it. And so did those close to me."
Asner is clearly distressed by the current political debate--but not deterred. His political calendar still brims. He sits on the board of the Office of the Americas advocacy group, he still works with Central American refugee groups, he joins Mike Farrell in protesting capital punishment, and he recently returned from a trip to Cuba with Muhammad Ali as part of a vast medical relief project. He--along with David Clennon--has endorsed this year's anti-Kazan protest at the Oscars. And Asner recently donated his time to narrate a video documentary highly critical of a DreamWorks development project that, environmentalists argue, will be ruinous to LA's last remaining wetlands at Ballona Creek [see J. William Gibson, "Hollywood Sprawl," March 1].
I ask Asner if he's not a bit concerned that taking on DreamWorks powerhouses Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen might not be the wisest career decision. Asner leans back in his chair, runs his beefy hands over his face and then back over his pate. "It's true. I have to watch my every move," he says with visible anguish. "I just thought...um," he says verbally stumbling around for the answer.
And then he says without even the slightest hint of drama and in a rather self-effacing, almost embarrassed tone: "I just thought. I just think the earth is important. Even a little piece of it."