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Writer Dies After Long-Awaited Triumph

Tragedy: Crash kills blacklisted Paul Jarrico after historic apology.

October 30, 1997|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN and FRED ALVAREZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Paul Jarrico, Monday night was the culmination of a five-decade crusade to gain justice for screenwriters like himself who were blacklisted during Hollywood's "Red Scare" era.

As point man on the Writers Guild committee working to restore credits long denied the writers, Jarrico, 82, received a standing ovation at a historic dinner in Beverly Hills that brought together all four major Hollywood talent guilds to officially apologize--for the first time--for their role in the blacklist enforced in the wake of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947.

"To see other writers have their credits restored, and be honored, was the best honor he could have," said his wife, Lia Benedetti. "It's what he always believed in, standing up for other people's rights."

But this script did not have a Hollywood ending.

On Tuesday, driving home to Ojai from another event honoring those blacklisted--this one a lunch at the Writers Guild headquarters in Los Angeles--Jarrico's car veered off Pacific Coast Highway south of Oxnard and crashed into a tree. He was dead by the time rescuers pulled him from the wreckage.

Police did not give a cause of the accident, but his wife and friends said he may have been exhausted from the emotional two days and fallen asleep at the wheel.

Jarrico was remembered Wednesday as an Oscar-nominated writer--for 1941's "Tom, Dick and Harry"--who, throughout his long crusade, had worried last about himself. "Don't worry," he said recently. "There'll be plenty of time for me. Let's get other people's credits restored first."

Monday's dinner, which paid tribute to him and several other blacklist survivors, was put on by the guilds representing not only screenwriters, but actors and directors. It featured re-creations of the House hearings and film clips from the works penned by the writers who were not protected by their own guild during the anti-Communist hysteria that led to the blacklist.

Jarrico did not let the solemnity of the proceedings affect his dry wit. After actor Kevin Spacey played him in a re-creation of the hearings, it was time for Jarrico to take the stage. Writers Guild of America West President Dan Petrie Jr. introduced him by saying, "And now for the real thing, Paul Jarrico."

Jarrico took the microphone. "There's been a mistake here," he said as the standing ovation died down. "I'm Kevin Spacey."

Born in Los Angeles, Jarrico was a sophomore at USC in 1933, the depths of the Depression, when he became active in left-wing politics. After he graduated, he got his first job as a screenwriter at Columbia Pictures and joined the Communist Party, remaining an active member until 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev exposed Josef Stalin as a mass murderer.

His script for "Tom, Dick and Harry"--a comedy starring Ginger Rogers--lost out in the race for 1941's best screenplay Oscar when the award went to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles for "Citizen Kane."

Jarrico served in the Merchant Marine and the Navy during World War II, and wrote two wartime films at MGM Studios, "Thousands Cheer" with Gene Kelly, and "Song of Russia" with Robert Taylor.

His writing partner, Richard Collins, later named Jarrico to the House panel as a Communist and "Song of Russia" became a symbol of Communist influence, even though Jarrico maintained that he was writing the script under orders from the U.S. Office of Wartime Propaganda.

"Louis B. Mayer never let anything he thought was Russian propaganda into his movies," Jarrico said in a Times interview several weeks before his death. "We even had to take out the word 'community,' because he felt it sounded too much like communism."

In 1951, Jarrico was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to cooperate. He was immediately blacklisted. RKO's chief, Howard Hughes, removed his screenwriter credit from "The Las Vegas Story," and Jarrico did not receive a credit under his own name again until 1968.

His first wife, Sylvia Jarrico, said he was never bitter. "It was a scary period, but he relished the idea of having other adventures and challenges. He often jokingly said that the blacklist released him from the restrictions of the film business."

In 1954, he organized an independent group of blacklisted men to make "Salt of the Earth," a documentary about a Mexican mine workers strike. Originally boycotted and long suppressed, the film is now recognized as a classic.

In the late 1950s, Jarrico moved for a time to Europe, where he wrote such films as "Marked Women," "All Night Long" and "Assassination at Sarajevo." He later worked on two popular TV series--"The Phil Silvers Show" and "The Defenders"--wrote the play "Leonardo" and served as regents lecturer at UC Santa Barbara.

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