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Jeff Corey was born in New York on 10th August, 1914. He joined the Group Theatre where he worked with Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets. He later moved to Hollywood where she appeared in a series of films including You'll Find Out (1940), Small Town Deb (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), North to the Klondike (1942), My Friend Flicka (1943), The Killers (1946) and The Gangster (1947).
In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz,, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions.
Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.
Those named were also called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Some refused to answer questions but others, such as Richard Collins, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb, named others who were fellow members of left-wing groups. If these people refused to testify and name names, they were added to a blacklist that had been drawn up by the Hollywood film studios.
Over 320 people were placed on this list that stopped them from working in Hollywood. This included Corey, who had attended Communist Party meetings in the 1930s but had not joined the party.
Corey worked as a labourer for a while and then went to the University of California at Los Angeles and obtained a degree in speech therapy. After graduating he turned his garage into a stage and started giving acting classes. His students included James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Jane Fonda, James Coburn, Barbara Striesand, Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.
When the blacklisted came to an end he resumed his acting career and appeared in The Yellow Canary (1963), The Balcony (1963), Mickey One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), In Cold Blood (1967), The Boston Strangler (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Little Big Man (1970). Jeff Corey died on 16th August 2002.
Q. You were blacklisted despite being a World War II veteran?
A. I was in the Navy and received a citation, signed by Navy Secretary Forrestal, for outstanding achievement in combat photography for putting myself at risk while shooting a photo sequence of a kamikaze attack on the U.S.S. Yorktown. The funny thing is that I was actually out at sea on the Yorktown when a HUAC informant, Mark Lawrence, named me as being present at various Communist meetings.
Q. But you did participate in Communist meetings.
A. Yes. I was drawn into it not because of the politics, but because it seemed to be so humanistic. At the time I think a lot of us wanted very hard to believe in it. The whole notion of it seemed so romantic. But we were no dummies. Most of us soon heard and saw what was really going on in the Soviet Union and we became thoroughly disgusted and disenchanted with the movement. We knew we had been misguided.
Q. When did you first feel you were going to be blacklisted?
A. I knew something was up about a year before the Hollywood Ten were called to testify before Congress in 1947. The California UnAmerican Activities Committee was subpoenaing members of the Group Theatre. The accusation was producing plays of Shaw, O'Casey and Chekhov. I could see the handwriting on the wall at that point. Political inquisitors were going to make people accountable for supposedly subversive things they did and opinions they held a decade earlier. Then I felt a little doomed after the experience of the Ten, for me it was simply a matter of time before I'd be called in.
Q. What happened immediately after you were blacklisted?
A. I lost a marvelous pilot for a show with the wonderfully talented Ann Harding. Oddly enough, I was supposed to play a U.S. Senator. I was called in and told that all the advertising agencies had said they couldn't go on and support the show if I was going to be in it. Then I lost a role in the film Angels in the Outfield.
Q. With your livelihood taken away, how did you survive?
A. Several people mentioned that I should start an acting class, so since they kept asking me to start one, I did. I had 30 people at my house for the first session, soon people were showing up practically every day. You got to attend two classes a week for $10 a month. People like James Dean, Jack Nicholson, Rita Moreno, Richard Chamberlain, Dean Stockwell and Robert Blake all were there at one time or another. I even built a six foot extension on my garage to create a sort of stage space where we could perform. It was a wonderful, nurturing experience for many of them, so much so that I hear a few still drive by that house on Cheremoya just to try and rekindle all those warm feelings. I also enrolled at UCLA under the G.I. Bill of Rights - at least they didn't take that away from me - and did carpentry work and even dug ditches to support my family.
Q. What was the impact of all this on your family?
A. Let me put it this way we learned to make do. For 15 years we all went camping each year but we did it all over the United States. It was joyous, a wonderful experience that kept us close together. Today my grandchildren all camp. You can't buy the feeling of community that we share, and that's how it is with almost all of the children of those who were blacklisted. A special bond developed between and among these families.
Corey and his wife moved to Los Angeles, and he found work, appearing in 23 films from 1940 to 1943, including "The Devil and Daniel Webster," "My Friend Flicka," and "Joan of Arc." He joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the ship Yorktown as a combat photographer. He earned citations for some footage he shot during a kamikaze attack on the ship.
After the war, Corey returned to Hollywood and resumed his busy career playing heavies in such films as "The Killers" and "Brute Force." He also played the role of a psychiatrist in "Home of the Brave," one of his best performances.
Corey seemed ready for even better film parts as the second lead or top character actor, when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had been investigating Communist influence in Hollywood since 1947.
The actor was scheduled to appear at the hearing in downtown Los Angeles in September 1951. He was 37 and had a wife and three daughters to support. But he took the 5th Amendment and didn't work again as an actor in Hollywood for more than a decade, missing out on countless movie opportunities and what would later be considered the golden age of television.
"Most of us were retired reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before," Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of "Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist" who also teaches film at Marquette University. "The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly. They just wanted two new names so they could hand out more subpoenas."