Richard Masur

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, In New York

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Richard Masur, actor and former president of the Screen Actors Guild. Welcome.

Richard Masur: Thank you.

Paulson: You have one of those faces that everybody knows. I mean, I’m sure people are bouncing around, watching different channels right now, surfing. They’re all stopping going, “I know that guy.”

Masur: Mmm.

Paulson: Do you get a lot of that?

Masur: Yeah, actually, it’s funny. I can be walking down the street here in New York, for example, and sometimes — ’cause I, you know, sometimes I have a beard, sometimes I don’t — and people aren’t really focused on my face. But they’ll hear me talk, and that combination will — I’ll feel the head turn. And I was coming out of the subway the other day, and five or six young guys were walking past. And as I went by, one of them went, “That’s my man. Hey, it’s my man. Look, that’s my man.” You know, and I just keep going, ’cause I — what happens to me usually — and this is, you know, the — this is kind of the downside of being recognizable but not exactly where they can point out where they — they know you from — is that I then have this 20-uh, minute conversation about my resume where they go, “No, I didn’t see that. No, I don’t watch television, no. No, I didn’t see that film.” So, I just usually go, “I — I’m an actor; it’s okay,” you know, and move on.

Paulson: You’re probably most recognized for some of your ’70s and ’80s television work. When people do figure out who “my man” is, what do they associate you with?

Masur: I — it depends. It’s — again, it’s an age thing. I — based on the age and whether it’s male or female. If it’s a young woman, I know it’s probably My Girl, which was a film that I made with Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. Um, and if it’s a — a woman in her 40s or 50s or a woman or a man in their early 30s, then it’s probably “One Day at a Time,” ’cause they were other — either young adults or kids. And, and they watched that show, because Valerie Bertinelli attracted enormous attention to “One Day at a Time.” But the show was about a single woman, uh, raising her kids. In New York, a lot of people know me from “Rhoda,” which I did on and off for three years. And then many, many people know me from different movies, but they can’t put their finger on it. I did a TV movie, uh, that had an enormous impact, really, on this country in a way. It was called “Fallen Angel,” and it was about, uh, pedophilia and child pornography. And when we did this film, uh, it was one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen for a movie. Not a foot of film was shown in the advertising. It was a black screen with white letters that said, “On Tuesday, January” — whatever it was, “an event is going to take place which will be unique in television history,” et cetera, et cetera. And it was one of the first shows that went out with a disclaimer, a parental disclaimer on it. And what was so fascinating about this show was, many parents did not let their kids see it. They watched the show and then realized they’d made a terrible mistake. And they started calling their stations and asking when it was going to show again. They reran the show within the same season. I don’t know that it’s ever happened before or since then, um, on a prime time network spot on CBS. They reran it in April, um, and — and it got — in the second, uh, run — it got an even bigger audience than it did in the first. It was quite amazing.

Paulson: And, of — of course, they wanted their kids to see it because it actually showed a predator.

Masur: Right.

Paulson: And how cordial and friendly and warm the predator can be.

Masur: Right, and here’s what’s weird. And this is a story from — years later, I did a film called Adam, which was the story of, uh, Adam Walsh, who was John Walsh’s son. Everybody knows John Walsh now, and mostly all of us knew Adam Walsh then because they, they went on this intensive search and publicized it. John came up with this way of doing it, and then he really committed himself for the rest of his life to work on these issues. And, um, and I went to a fundraiser for the Adam Walsh Child Resource Centers. And as I arrived, John handed me an envelope. He said, “I thought you’d like to see this.” He said that some — a member of Congress from Pennsylvania’s wife had found this in a pornography shop. She used to haunt porno shops ’cause she was fiercely angry about child pornography. And she would haunt and collect material and give it to him and his staff. Well, what it was was a xerox that they sold for $25 of a handbook. And I start looking at it all alone in my hotel room. And, and it was describing — it’d say, “Notice how he” — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. “Notice how he talks to her mother,” and blah, blah, blah. And I realized what it was. It was a way to use “Fallen Angel” as a training film for pedophiles.

Paulson: Oh, my.

Masur: And it freaked me out. I — I — I threw it across the room. I was — I — suddenly, everything that I thought that had been good about that project turned horrible because it was being used as a training film for guys to learn how to be better pedophiles.

Paulson: Hmm.

Masur: And, and I said to John, “Why did you do that? Why’d you give that to me?” And he said, “What do you mean?” And I told him about this reaction. He said, “Richard, you have no control over how people use things.” And — and what I learned from that was, speech is an extraordinary, um, tool that can be, that can be used like a screwdriver to tighten something, to loosen something up, to pry something open, or you can turn it around and stab somebody to death with it. But it’s just — it’s the same tool. It’s how you use it. So, so you — I — from that, I learned that I have to take responsibility for the work I do and — and for the messages that the work sends, but I also cannot take responsibility for how someone will twist that work in the future. And that’s a really delicate balance that — a tightrope you have to walk.

Paulson: In addition, uh, to your role as an actor, you’ve had success as a director and had an Emmy nomination and an Academy Award nomination. Um, you then took on what I guess is a thankless job as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Masur: Well, it was in my case.

Paulson: Well — there’s no pay involved. Right?

Masur: No, there’s no pay. And — yeah.

Paulson: And — and I mean, I say thankless because as you begin to look at the history of the organization and the tenure of the leadership, it’s a down and dirty political organization. I mean, there are, there are battles over the leadership. This is not a fraternal organization.

Masur: No, it’s a labor union, though some among us want it to be a craft guild. But it’s a labor union. And — and there are a lot of politics involved. Um, my experience was — first of all, I — I went onto the board because someone asked me to, and it was — I thought it was my turn to give back some service for — ’cause that’s what I was raised in. I was raised in the concept of — with the idea that you can’t just take; you have to give back. It’s got to be a balance. Um, so, when I was asked if I would do it, I said, “Yes.” And then six years later, I found myself being the most likely candidate to run for the presidency, which was not something that I had ever wanted to do. I watched the then-president, Barry Gordon, do this job, and I watched it really, you know, really rough him up. And I didn’t want to put myself in that position. But it turned out that it felt like it was the right thing to do. And I did it for two terms.

Paulson: I know as part of your leadership you focused, uh, on privacy issues. And I also know that you’re an active supporter of The Creative Coalition, and you feel strongly about freedom of speech. And there does seem to be kind of a collision course sometimes between protecting privacy and a free press. Can you talk a little bit about what you sought to do?

Masur: Interestingly, I think — you know, and I — I went to school on this with one of the great scholars on this in this country, Erwin Chemerinsky, who’s at USC. And I didn’t literally go to school. We involved him in this process. We asked him to come in and — and advise us, ’cause, you know, I’m a member of the ACLU. I don’t want to be stomping on the First Amendment. And the first people I talked to when we started looking into this actually were people with the, eh, Southern California ACLU. And I said, “What’s the best way to proceed?” And they said, “Build on existing law. There are laws that exist now which you can build upon to achieve what you wanted to do.” And let me just very quickly tell you what we were looking into. There were incredibly grotesque invasions going on at the time because of the explosion of tabloid journalism, both in the print and electronic media. There were two major shows, which I’m not going to mention by name on here ’cause it’s unnecessary, that were very popular then. And they were — they literally — there’s an Italian expression, which is scostumato, which means without — it literally means without costume, without clothes. But what it means is shameless beyond expression. And they were scostumato, these — what they did. One tactic was to set up these, uh, these attack videographers who would go in and harass someone in a public place — like in an airport or something like that, harass them to the point where they would have — they would spit on them, they would insult whoever they were with, they would make lewd comments about their, their wives or girlfriends if they were targeting a man, or try and agitate in some way until they finally provoked an unpleasant response, whether it was physical or whatever. Then there was a second videographer who was hidden and observing all of this and recording it. That would be the thing that would appear. But it was a setup.

Paulson: Right.

Masur: It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. And this, this, I believe, has nothing to do with free speech, has nothing to do with communication, has everything to do with exploitation and — and quote, unquote entertainment of the lowest order. At any rate, that was one abuse that was going on in a very big way when we started this. And the other thing, um, that was going on were — were these very long lines — sorry, very long lens shots being taken from — they — they would rent a house a couple of — a block away from the house in which they wanted to look through the window or into the backyard. They would go up on the roof, and they would shoot with, like, a thousand-millimeter lens and get shots that were like I’m sitting here with you, except they’re taken from 1/2 a block away. And the first thing we asked was, “Isn’t this tantamount to trespassing?” And the answer was, “No, trespassing is a physical invasion of a property.” And we said, “Okay, let’s say someone’s on private property and someone makes a recording, an audio recording” — ’cause they were also doing this with directional mikes and stuff — “or a video recording or a still picture of someone on private property and it’s-it’s of a type that could not be made unless someone had physically trespassed, unless they were using some kind of technological enhancement device?” And that was the basis on which we did this. And we changed law in this country, ’cause we passed this in the state of California. The — the news media, everybody — the National Association of Broadcasters, the — the newspaper association — everybody opposed this. And we passed it because of a very brave member of the State Senate, Senator John Burton, who — who — who championed the bill, but a lot of other, a lot of other legislators who sat down with us and let us make our case.

Paulson: You know, Americans seem to have two minds about privacy. They, they have great interest in their own personal privacy, and yet we see, you know, pretty remarkable ratings for shows that invade others’ privacy, these, uh, you know, publications that are tabloids. What’s going on there?

Masur: I think what’s shifted — I’ll tell you what shifted and the way this works now is, most of the stuff which I would consider to be an invasion of privacy is being done on a voluntary basis. So, you have talk shows where people actually — and other kinds of, like, sort of quasi game shows — where people want to get up and expose their innermost lives. That’s fine, their privilege. Um, in terms of tabloids, I think if you look, I think the quality of tabloid journalism has gone up significantly because they’re looking for more interesting stories, ’cause they’re not trading on what they used to trade on back before we did this legislation. And interestingly, even though this legislation was specific to California, it changed the practice not only in California, but throughout the country and even in England, because no one wanted to take the chance of getting their finger caught in the cookie jar on this. So, their hand caught in the — mixed my metaphors. Anyway — and, and, so, it’s been very satisfying. Now, some people say that the reason there’s been no legislation on this is because we’ve actually chilled the speech. If anybody can point to anything that we haven’t, uh, you know, that’s been discovered after the fact that could have been uncovered by this kind of behavior, I haven’t heard a single word about it. And I really, I really look for this kind of thing, ’cause I have an ongoing interest in this. I continue to do — um, I’ve — I’ve done law school seminars. I’ve written for legal journals on this, because I’ve — I’ve gotten to know far more than I ever wanted to on this issue.

Paulson: One of the, uh, other challenges you — you faced in your leadership role — and I think celebrities today face — is this whole issue of how much free speech can they engage in. There — in recent months, in fact, we’ve seen a tremendous backlash against performers who have spoken out —

Masur: Hmm.

Paulson: — about American foreign policy. That backlash is powerful. And maybe it’s fueled by the Internet. I mean, there’s a website called famous idiot dot com, and they rank you by how un-American you are.

Masur: Mm.

Paulson: What’s going on out there?

Masur: I’m actually disappointed that I don’t rank higher on that. Um, I — I feel I must be doing something wrong. I — I think a number of things. First of all, we have a strange impression in this country that — um, first — well, let me start again. We place far too much value on celebrity to begin with. And because we place far too much value on celebrity, we have a predisposition to give our attention to celebrities and in — in — out of all proportion to — to what any individual may have to say or may have to contribute. However, having said that, there are many people who happen to come into the public eye who’ve also actually taken the trouble to educate themselves, to form opinions that are based on facts, that are based on an understanding of the issues, and they are citizens. Not only are they citizens, but one would argue that they are visible, influential citizens who pay dramatic amounts of tax into the, uh, into the coffers of this country and our states. Now, if this were a leader of business, no one would be, no one would be saying, “How dare he get up there? Who cares about his opinion?” And I use the “his” on purpose. But if it’s someone who does what we do, the assumption is, “Airhead. Stupid. Doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. They’re just sounding off.” Now, I have to say that when I — when someone I know gets up and talks about something based on his or her feelings, I get concerned about that. I don’t know — you know, it’s interesting, but what’s the point? On the other hand, when someone gets up and has facts in hand, is articulate, has a position which is defensible, and — and — and is willing to take the heat that comes as a result, they have every right to do it. Now, you — we mentioned Charlton Heston before. Let me just say this. I disagree with virtually everything this man has stood for for decades — probably not what he stood for when he was younger, but for decades. And yet we had a very, very good relationship when I was president of the Guild. I was the first president since Ed Asner to actually reach out to him and ask him to come and help us — be involved. He went and lobbied on behalf of a senior issue we had in Congress. He was a tremendous gentleman. We disagreed about many things having to do with the Guild. He gave me the respect of calling me before he went public with that disagreement, because I listened. I talked to him. I tried to explain the position. If he didn’t agree, he could go talk to the press. Most of the time, he said, “Oh, I understand now,” and he left it alone. Chuck Heston has consistently, throughout his public life, stood up for issues that he believes in. I don’t have to agree with him. That’s his privilege. I completely respect him for the fact that he chose to do that, as I did Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan stood up and spoke about what he believed to be the truth. I didn’t agree, but I completely defend his right to do so. The problem is, it doesn’t run both ways sometimes. And, you know, Susan Sarandon or Tim Robbins stand up and talk about what they believe in. And I don’t mean to single them out. I shouldn’t — or my very good friend, David Clennon, who was also very involved in the issue having to do with this most recent excursion into Iraq. All of the really tough stuff that took place took place before a single soldier was committed, and it was an attempt to try and slow down that process so that bloodshed could be avoided. I was a signator to the big ad that started the process going, um, and I completely believe that that was the right thing to do. What’s fascinating to me — and I just — I have an opportunity, so I’m going to say it. What’s fascinating to me is that all this concern about supporting the troops and how this is terrible that Susan or — or — or Tim or Dave Clennon would say anything vaguely negative because it’s a sign of lack of support for the troops — we were fascinated by the troops, as long as there were embedded reporters and we were hearing about them on a daily basis. The minute they pulled those guys out of there, the only troops we heard about were the POWs and a guy who had been lost in the last Gulf War. And since then, we’ve heard nothing about the troops. Now, this raises a very big issue for me. I believe now is when the troops really need our support. They are in an incredibly difficult position. They’re trying to — they’re very, very young men and women in general, very, very young. They’re trying to balance out extraordinarily conflicting issues in terms of who could be dangerous to them, who is a civilian, how to handle the situation. They have very strict rules of engagement with which they have to live. Their friends and — and compatriots have been killed for doing nothing more than just doing their duty and not being aggressive. And now there’s not a word from all these people in support of the troops. In fact, this administration is about to gut the Veterans Administration. I don’t get that, and I believe that Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, if you ask them now, would be in full support of trying to give whatever aid and comfort could be given to these young men and women who have to stay there and do this job and try and clean up this horrendous mess under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but that’s all disappeared from the debate now.

Paulson: Mm.

Masur: And it reminds me a little bit — and I’m — just to get political for a second — not that I haven’t been. But it reminds me just a little bit of — of the attitude of some people in this country toward, toward children. Before the children are born, there’s tremendous concern about their well-being, okay? When they are fetuses in the womb, tremendous concern. They have to have rights; they must — you know, just massive amounts of attention. Once they’re born, they’re on their own.

Paulson: Hmm.

Masur: There’s no interest in helping them. It’s a similar thing for me. When it’s, when it’s — when it’s politically expedient, “Support them. Support them. Don’t — nobody can say a word against” — and then the minute it becomes tricky and difficult, everybody disappears. And I think that’s the height of hypocrisy. The one thing that I will say during this whole thing having to do with the Gulf, uh, what chilled me tremendously — I was the president of the Screen Actors Guild when we — we: the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — jointly commemorated the 50th anniversary of the — of the HUAC hearings in ’97. And I made a statement on behalf of the Screen Actors Guild in which for the first time ever the Screen Actors Guild officially apologized for its actions which were taken during the period and in the aiding of the establishment of the blacklist and the perpetuation of the blacklist. Um, and, for me, when these — not just websites, but when, when radio talk show hosts, television talk show hosts started advocating that people should lose their livelihoods because of their political belief — which ha — has been done and will continue to be done — it had such resonance for me about what, what — exactly what happened then. You brought this up. You mentioned the blacklist early on —

Paulson: Hmm.

Masur: — and, and — and Humphrey Bogart, who was caught in the middle. It was a horrible moment for him and a horrible moment for many of his friends, because here was a man who, out of conscience, took an action to go and support these people who he knew, cared about, and knew to be good people and not subversive and not dangerous to the United States. And he was told in no uncertain terms that he would either publicly stand up and repudiate his action, or he would be done. And he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood then.

Paulson: Right.

Masur: And he did it, because he believed that that was the truth. That’s horrible, and that’s not what the United States is supposed to be about. If we can’t have reasoned, open debate in this country, if I can’t say that Chuck Heston has the right to say whatever he wants to say and should never be — I would never tell anybody that they shouldn’t work with Chuck Heston or anyone that they shouldn’t go see one of his movies. I would tell them not to, you know, join the National Rifle Association, ’cause, I — you know, I’m not a supporter of theirs — but not to personally attack him and try and economically damage him. That’s something that’s grown up recently which I think the president of the United States, members of Congress should be publicly repudiating. They should say, “Look, we can disagree about policy. We should not be going back to the bad old days, where we’re trying to demonize people and turn them into goats and, and destroy their livelihoods and their lives and drive them from this country.” And I know people who I am incredibly proud to know in this business, people like Mike Farrell and Dave Clennon and Susan and Tim and many, many others, and Chuck Heston and Tom Selleck and people who stand up for what they believe in and are willing to take the consequences wherever those consequences lead. We shouldn’t, in my opinion, as a nation, um, institutionalize those consequences into being economic warfare and — and causing disruption in their lives for people who are merely expressing an alternate view.

Paulson: Hmm. Free speech protects everybody. Well, thank you so much for joining us on “Speaking Freely.”

Masur: Thank you.

Paulson: Great to have you. Our guest today has been actor Richard Masur. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”