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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Michael Moriarty : When Fighting Against Censorship Means Defending Television Violence

March 06, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox 11 News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

In the fall of 1993, television executives were feeling beleaguered. On Capitol Hill, voices in the House and Senate were blaming television for the violence so evident in the streets of America. Congress was threatening the industry with legislation that imposed limits on violent programming, if the programmers didn't limit the violence themselves. In October, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno made headlines when she endorsed such legislation. She also told the Senate Commerce Committee that in her opinion, "the regulation of (television) violence is constitutionally permissible."

On Nov. 18, Reno had a meeting with a group from NBC. West Coast President Donald W. Ohlmeyer Jr. was there, as was NBC's chief censor, Rosalyn Weinman, of Standards and Practices. Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order" had been invited, and he'd brought along one of his stars, Michael Moriarty. Moriarty, who portrayed District Atty. Ben Stone on "Law & Order," left the meeting steaming and dismayed. He was outraged by Reno's conclusion that television was inspiring real-life violence. And he says he was sickened by what he saw as the attorney general's contempt for both television and the U.S. Constitution. Others in the room may have felt the Justice Department had no business telling television networks what to program--but only Moriarty went public with his outrage.

He called a news conference and blasted Reno. He took out ads in the trade papers seeking support for creative expression. His pleas were met with silence. No call from Clint Eastwood. No fax from Sylvester Stallone or Steven Segal. No one else in Hollywood, it seemed, was willing to support Moriarty's position that violence has always been an important part of drama.

Moriarty, 52, was raised in Detroit and educated by Jesuits. A Fulbright scholar, he's a Tony-award-winning Broadway actor, a published poet and playwright and an accomplished jazz pianist and composer. He has won two Emmys for his television work--the second for his role as SS Officer Dorf in the miniseries, "Holocaust." Moriarty lives in New York with his wife, Anne Martin, and his son, Matthew Christopher.

Since he began his battle with Reno, Moriarty has resigned from "Law & Order"--he claims he was being written out of the show to punish him for his activism. Still, in a business where everything is a career move, Moriarty seems to have landed on his feet. He'll open in the Broadway production of "My Fair Lady" on April 8, as Professor Henry Higgins. But that good fortune has not cooled his outrage.

Question: How did you end up at that meeting with Janet Reno?

Answer: Dick Wolf (executive producer of "Law & Order") said, "Why don't you come down to Washington with me to meet the attorney general?" I said, "What is this--some stupid photo-op?" He said, "No, no. If she gets her way, shows like 'Law & Order' could go off the air." And here we are in the fourth year of the show, the ratings have never been better, we're starting to get into a groove, and out of left field comes Janet Reno.

On the way down there, I heard it was rumored that the President wasn't too pleased with the fierceness of her presentation to Congress on this matter of TV violence. We were told that she might lighten up, that we'd have a nice meeting, all go home and it would be over. But that wasn't the case.

Q: Why was "Law & Order" singled out?

A: Janet Reno fired a volley across the bow of network television. Roz Weinman, a censor at NBC, must have called her up and said, "Let's sit down and have a powwow." It's like Bobby Kennedy saying Jimmy Hoffa is involved in racketeering, and Hoffa's lawyer saying, "Wait a minute, Bobby, let's talk." But unlike that case, there's no law on the books prohibiting violence on television. The attorney general should be enforcing the law, not policy. To threaten us with unconstitutional legislation--it's an outrage!

Q: Why is yours such a lonely voice in this debate? Why has no other actor, producer or executive spoken out in support of your position?

\f7 A: The only thing I can think of is that I came through the theater--an ancient art form. Film is something that came later into my life. I had a Jesuit education, and I consider acting and the theater as kind of a calling--a vocation. And anyone who assaults it, after 3,000 years of history, outrages me.

Should we suggest that Al Capone learned everything he knew from George Raft? The idea that television is responsible for violence is the stupidest idea since Adolf Hitler said the Aryan race is superior. His psychological tests proving that have about as much credence as the ones that say violence on television causes violence on the streets. It's a dangerous notion, because it creates bigotry and fear.

The Hollywood community is very insecure about this because television doesn't have the history of the theater. They actually think Janet Reno may be right--that they are responsible for the violence in society!

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