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George Murphy, 89; Actor-Dancer Who Served 1 Term in U.S. Senate

May 05, 1992|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Murphy, the actor-dancer who served one term as a U. S. senator from California, died Sunday night at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., it was learned Monday.

His son, Dennis, said in Los Angeles that his father was 89 and died of leukemia.

Murphy preceded a fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan, into public office by two years, in 1965. Like Reagan, he was a conservative who had parlayed public relations, speaking, fund raising and other skills he had gathered in Hollywood into a political career.

But unlike Reagan, Murphy's public service did not bring him new popularity, and at the end of his term he was defeated by Democrat John V. Tunney after a controversy over his acceptance of thousands of dollars in annual retainers from Technicolor Inc., a former Hollywood employer, while serving in the Senate.

Often a brash promoter of his own fortunes and reputation, Murphy freely took credit for Reagan's entry into politics, saying, "Sure, that big nationwide (1964) TV speech for (Republican presidential candidate Barry) Goldwater shoved him across the line, and it was great. But I'd been talking to Ronnie about political service for years. You know, he succeeded me as president of the Screen Actors Guild. And I played his father in a movie."

Reagan, on learning of Murphy's death, recalled Monday night "that when I was a beginner in show business he was a star who became a very good friend and a great help to me. What a great loss this is to all of us, particularly to his wife and his children. He was a wonderful man and he and I got very close together in those terrible days in Hollywood when there was a Communist thrust in the film business. We, of course, were definitely on the other side."

As a U. S. senator, Murphy was more conservative than most Republicans in that body, voting against federal aid to education, a consular treaty with the Soviet Union, and appropriations to the U. S. Disarmament Agency. He also took a more hawkish position on the Vietnam War than President Richard M. Nixon.

George Lloyd Murphy was born in New Haven, Conn., the second son and third child of Michael Murphy, an Ivy League coach who later guided the 1912 American Olympic track team, but died when George was 11.

He and actor James Stewart attended prep school together at Peddie School in Hightstown, N. J. Murphy went on to Yale, where he played quarterback on the football team in his freshman year but, due to poor grades, was suspended from the team and did not finish school.

Out of college and nearly broke, Murphy worked a variety of jobs, ranging from a coal miner in Pennsylvania, where he was badly injured in a mine car accident, to a runner for a Wall Street brokerage firm. While working in New York, he met Juliette Henkel, an amateur dancer. He took dancing lessons to help his courtship and, as he later said, "got pretty good." He and Henkel, whom he later married, began to perform in nightclubs. Their marriage lasted 47 years, produced two children and ended with her death in 1973.

Between 1927 and 1934, Murphy appeared in six Broadway shows, including "Good News," "Of Thee I Sing" and "Anything Goes." Years later, when he was in the Senate, he told how he obtained a dress suit for his first Broadway role:

"Maybe, I shouldn't tell this on myself with all the flap about congressional ethics. But I went into this place, got fitted and tried the suit on. While the tailor was in the back room for a moment I simply took off wearing the poor guy's creation."

In 1934, Murphy made his debut in Hollywood in the film "Kid Millions." He appeared in more than 45 movies, including "This Is the Army," "Little Miss Broadway," "For Me And My Gal," "Battleground" and "Powers Girl," opposite such actresses as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild from 1937 to 1953 and its president in 1944-46, Murphy prided himself on his efforts to keep Communists out of the movie industry. He retired as an actor in 1952, becoming a public relations man for the industry and working in that capacity for such firms as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Desilu Productions and Technicolor.

Like Reagan, Murphy started out in Hollywood as a Democrat. But in 1939, decrying what he said he felt "was a real move toward socialism and centralized control of our government," he changed his registration to Republican. The next year, he formed the Hollywood Republican Committee to "combat the general belief that all Hollywood actors and writers were left wing."

Gradually, he became more active in Republican politics. He was an Earl Warren delegate to the GOP National Convention in 1948 and became chairman of the California State Republican Committee in 1953. In 1952 and 1956, he was director of special events for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugurations.

Murphy was a distinct underdog when he became the first Republican to announce his candidacy for the U. S. Senate in 1964.

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