You Must Remember This

Did Kirk Douglas Really Break the Blacklist?

The star of Spartacus claims he was responsible for the end of that terrible era. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Kirk Douglas in SPARTACUS.
Kirk Douglas in Spartacus.

Screenshot via Universal Pictures

You Must Remember This is the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood. Creator and host Karina Longworth shares some of the research that went into the episodes in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 16 on Kirk Douglas and the blacklist, below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

The blacklist happened because of the motion picture industry’s utter addiction to good publicity. The blacklist was broken because a few people figured out how to use publicity to break it. At least, that’s one version of the story. The end of the blacklist was a process that depended on the work of many individuals and a lot of group evolution. Though many people would later take some credit for helping to bring this period of persecution to an end, even most of them would agree that there wasn’t one single event, or one single person, responsible for ending the blacklist forever. Unless you ask Kirk Douglas, who has long claimed that the blacklist shattered thanks mostly to the courage of one man: Kirk Douglas.

In December of 1957, Douglas’ producing partner Eddie Lewis gave him a copy of a novel written by Howard Fast, a former Communist who had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his involvement with an anti-fascist group called the Spanish Refugee Appeal. After refusing to hand over documents regarding the group, he’d done three months in prison for contempt of Congress. In prison—the same prison where Hollywood Ten members Albert Maltz and Edward Dmytryk were serving time at the same time—Fast began writing the novel that came across Kirk Douglas’ desk half a decade later: Spartacus.

Spartacus tells the story of a failed slave revolt against the Roman empire led by a former gladiator; its theme of rebelling against an unjust government had an obvious parallel to its author’s battle with Congress. Perhaps predictably, when Fast left prison, he found himself blacklisted by publishers, and he was forced to self-publish Spartacus. As it turned out, Kirk Douglas had been in the market for Roman epics since he’d been turned down for the Charlton Heston role in Ben-Hur. Douglas, through his production company Bryna, optioned the book—and made a deal with Fast, who had never worked in Hollywood and thus wasn’t blacklisted there, to write the screenplay.

Only then did Douglas discover United Artists was planning a film about the same story, called The Gladiators, which had a head start. Universal—which was no one’s idea of a prestige studio—was willing to take Douglas’ gladiator movie on, on the condition that he deliver a script quickly. But nonscreenwriter Fast’s speed-written script turned out to be subpar, and Douglas needed somebody good, and faster than fast, to do a rewrite. Everyone knew the fastest writer in town was Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo, who by now was accustomed to adopting pseudonyms in order to work, agreed to write the Spartacus script under the name Sam Jackson.

What happened between May of 1958 and August of 1960 to get Dalton Trumbo a credit under his own name for Spartacus? Douglas has told his version of the story many times and in many forums, starting with his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son—which was published after both Otto Preminger and Dalton Trumbo had passed away. This book helped to establish Douglas in the nostalgic memory as the “man who broke the blacklist.” In 2012, at the age of 95, Douglas reinforced this brand by publishing a book specifically on Spartacus, with the subtitle, “Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.”

According to Douglas, the blacklist ended in December of 1959, when he called the main gate at Universal Studios and had them leave a parking pass for Dalton Trumbo under his real name. That’s right: Douglas says the blacklist ended not with a bang—not with a screen credit or the passing of a statute against hiring discrimination—but with a parking pass. And with that single call to the studio gate, as Douglas later wrote:

The masquerade was over. All my friends told me I was being stupid, throwing my career away. It was a tremendous risk. … The blacklist was broken. I wasn’t thinking of being a hero and breaking the blacklist; it wasn’t until later that I realized the significance of that impulsive gesture.

If Douglas really wasn’t thinking about breaking the blacklist, it was probably in part because he and his production company were benefiting from the cheap, high-quality labor that the blacklist made available. In March of 1959, for example, Bryna had five blacklisted writers under contract—Trumbo, Paul Jarrico, Mitch Lindemann, John Howard Lawson, and Ring Lardner Jr.—and no nonblacklisted writers. You could say that Douglas and company even preferred hiring blacklisted writers, because they could get away with underpaying them.

But it’s disingenuous for Douglas to claim he wasn’t thinking about every gesture he made when it came to working with Dalton Trumbo. By the time Douglas single-handedly ended the blacklist by making the call to secure Trumbo’s parking pass, it was already common knowledge that Spartacus had been written by Trumbo. In March of 1959, nine months before Douglas took the “tremendous risk” of requesting a parking pass, Walter Winchell ran an item in his nationwide column naming Trumbo as Spartacus’ screenwriter. Douglas had recently fired his attorney Sam Norton, who reportedly spread word around town that he was working with Trumbo. And when Douglas fired Anthony Mann a few weeks into shooting the film, replacing him with Stanley Kubrick, Mann also told anyone who would listen that Trumbo was writing the film. But rather than acknowledge Trumbo at this point, Douglas denied these reports, even assuring Universal head Edward Muhl that “it was all just gossip.” Douglas would later claim that he was merely trying to protect the fact that he had promised Trumbo that he’d be credited by his real name.

According to Douglas, he made the decision to bring everything out into the open after a meeting in which he discussed the question with Kubrick and Eddie Lewis. When Kubrick suggested they credit Kubrick as both writer and director, Douglas got annoyed, and called Universal and left that fateful parking pass.

If Douglas had a sudden about-face in deciding to openly support Trumbo, it’s possible that the star’s hand was forced by Otto Preminger, who approached Dalton Trumbo in December 1959—around the same time as the historic parking pass request—and asked the blacklisted writer to rewrite the script for his upcoming film, Exodus. It had been six years since Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue became the first by a major Hollywood director to seek release after having been refused a seal of approval by the Production Code Administration, a risk retaken by Preminger and United Artists with The Man With the Golden Arm. Both of those acts of defiance had turned out pretty well, generating enormous publicity and matching box office. In hiring Trumbo, Preminger was essentially going back to the same well.

The New York Times and Variety both announced Preminger’s hiring of Trumbo as a landmark in the breaking of the blacklist, with the former deeming the hiring “the first official defiance by a producer-director of Hollywood’s so-called blacklist.” Preminger himself categorized the hiring as an act of defiance, telling the Times that he thought the blacklist was “immoral and illegal … just like lynching.”

Typically remembering things slightly differently than everyone else, Kirk Douglas insists that it was he who influenced Preminger, and not the other way around. Once Trumbo was able to freely park on the lot, Douglas says, the star and writer had lunch together in the studio commissary—and, according to Douglas, gossip about that lunch was so widespread that the very next day, Douglas got a call from Preminger in New York. The director was working on the script for Exodus with another blacklisted writer, Albert Maltz, and was furious that Douglas had openly lunched with Trumbo, thus flaunting his association with a blacklistee. According to Douglas, Preminger yelled at him over the phone, arguing that for them both to openly hire members of the Hollywood Ten would somehow kill both pictures. In Douglas’ recollection, when the apoplectic Preminger told him he could not do this, Douglas calmly responded, “Otto, it’s already done.”

The argument Douglas claims Preminger was making doesn’t really make sense, particularly in light of the fact that Preminger days later hired Trumbo to rewrite Maltz’s script. Both the more dramatic and more plausible version of the story is Trumbo’s, which has Trumbo receiving a telegram from Preminger on Dec. 12, 1959, instructing him to buy and read the book Exodus, and adding, “You must help me. I will arrive December 16.” Trumbo says Preminger kept his word and showed up on Trumbo’s doorstep carrying Maltz’s draft of the Exodus script—which was 400 pages long. Given that one script page roughly equals about a minute of screen time, even for an epic, this draft was clearly un-filmable.

The apparently laissez-faire attitude that allowed for two different studios to hire a member of the Hollywood Ten was more than the American Legion could take. It announced in February 1960 that it was launching a “war of information” to stop in its tracks a “renewed invasion of American filmdom by Soviet-indoctrinated artists.” Universal, Douglas, and his production company were apparently still hedging their bets. For months, they neither confirmed nor denied that Trumbo would be credited. In February, after the New York Times noted that it hadn’t been able to get any confirmation of Trumbo’s hiring, Howard Fast piped up, telling the Times that he’d written at least half of the script anyway, and if he wasn’t going to get credit, it was the first he’d heard of it. Over the summer, while filming Exodus, Trumbo did his part to puncture the Legion’s appearance of control, announcing he’d written more than 30 films in Hollywood while supposedly blacklisted. In August, it was confirmed that Dalton Trumbo would be the film’s sole credited writer. Douglas’ name wasn’t on the announcement.

Six of one, half-dozen of the other: Preminger announced he would give credit to Trumbo first, but Douglas actually did it first, because Spartacus beat Exodus to theaters by three months. And even if he somewhat exaggerated his role in breaking the blacklist, openly crediting Trumbo was a gamble, and as producer and star of Spartacus, Douglas was the public face of that gamble. The film had cost $10 million to make, and if it turned out that the American Legion still had any pull, the studio stood to lose a fortune—and since Trumbo had nowhere to fall, Douglas’ own career was likely to feel the consequences.

Instead, the American Legion bore the brunt of the consequences. On Oct. 19, 1960, it only managed to put together 36 picketers for the film’s Los Angeles premiere—an event that drew 1,500 guests. In December, the American Legion held another picket when Exodus opened, to just as little effect. Spartacus became the highest-grossing movie released in 1960, and Exodus wasn’t far behind. On Feb. 4, 1961, the Warner Theater near the White House had an unexpected guest at its evening screening of Spartacus: President Kennedy, who slipped out of the White House on a whim to see the movie his brother Bobby had recommended. “It was fine,” he told reporters. The president himself was seeing Spartacus—a movie the American Legion had condemned—on a whim, in public, and the publications that wrote about the event didn’t bother to mention the blacklist or Trumbo’s communist past.

To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This Episode 16, “Breaking the Blacklist, Part 2.”