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Blacklisted Screenwriter Tarloff Dies

June 28, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happened so quickly. The knock on the door came as Frank Tarloff was in his studio office writing a prosaic domestic television sitcom called "I Married Joan." An investigator handed him a subpoena to appear before the dreaded House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Fifteen minutes later, he got a wire from the William Morris agency: "We no longer represent you." He was fired from his job immediately. And that is how Tarloff, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter whose difficult and rewarding life came to an end Friday at age 83, joined a who's-who of Hollywood writers who were blacklisted by anti-communist zealots in the 1950s.

Some Hollywood notables did testify before the committee, incriminating colleagues and friends for harboring political sympathies that ranged from liberal to communist. But Tarloff, who briefly had been in the Communist Party in the 1940s, became an "unfriendly witness," took the 5th Amendment and refused to cooperate.

His career was so damaged that he and his family moved to England. For 12 years, he was forced to use phony names and "front" writers.

But when he died at home of lung cancer Friday, Tarloff was satisfied that he had made the only choice possible for him. Tarloff would outlive the blacklist, share an Academy Award in 1965 for the script of "Father Goose" and spend the rest of his life bearing witness to an infamous chapter in the Cold War that continues to divide Hollywood to this day.

"Why did I risk this thing? I tell them I knew that someday it would be over for me," he said in "Red Scare," a book of blacklist-era oral histories by Griffin Fariello. "For those who talked, it's never over. Their whole lives they carry that pain of having informed."

In the short term, Tarloff's refusal to inform derailed his life. Friends stopped visiting because they were afraid FBI agents might be hiding in the bushes.

"I don't know if people can imagine how scary that period was," his widow, Lee Tarloff, 75, a retired singer, said in an interview Sunday. "He didn't feel like a hero. He was frightened. But he said I can't rat on anybody."

"I said I wouldn't be here if you did," she recalled. "I respected him and loved him the more for it." Lee met her husband, a Brooklyn native, when she was 17. They began to date a few years later after she sang in an off-Broadway revue he had co-written.

The couple married and moved to California in 1942. He got work immediately at MGM and she got singing jobs while the couple raised two children. Frank Tarloff joined the Communist Party in the mid-1940s, as did a number of American intellectuals at a time when communism was viewed as an opponent of the rise of fascism and the excesses of Stalinism were yet to be known.

He is recalled as saying he went to a few meetings, found them "very boring" and lost interest completely after a few years.

He had not attended a meeting in years by the time he was subpoenaed by the HUAC at the height of the Red Scare, around 1952, his family said.

He had tried to avoid getting subpoenaed by getting out of the family car blocks away from his house and walking discreetly home while his wife drove to the garage.

Like others who were blacklisted, Tarloff saw his career wither.

"It was something my sister and I were instructed not to talk about, or even tell my closest friends at school," said his son Erik Tarloff, an author, who was 4 then.

Tarloff continued to get work through "front" writers and under the pseudonym David Adler, but the strain was beginning to take its toll.

It was at the suggestion of a friend that the Tarloffs moved to England, prepared to just make do--but were surprised to begin some of the happiest years of their lives.

Frank immediately got work as a writer and Lee began singing show tunes in clubs. They moved to Eaton Place in the elegant Belgravia district.

"In England, they treated him as a hero. They thought the whole thing was ridiculous," Lee Tarloff recalled.

And in England, a producer commissioned Tarloff to co-write "Father Goose," a 1964 film starring Cary Grant as a shiftless bum on a wartime South Seas island who shelters Leslie Caron and a group of schoolgirls fleeing the Japanese.

Tarloff's moment of reckoning came when the screenplay won an Oscar in 1965. It was co-written with S.H. Barnett and Peter Stone--who saw Tarloff for the first time at the awards ceremony.

With an Oscar as benediction, the Tarloffs returned to Los Angeles a year later.

Hollywood is still divided over whether to forgive those who did inform, such as acclaimed director Elia Kazan. When he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in March, some Hollywood notables remained seated and did not applaud, and fights erupted outside between protesters and his supporters.

Lee Tarloff said she did not think that friends who testified to HUAC believed in what they had to swear to. "They did it because they needed to support their children and their wives. You really were selling your soul," she said. "My husband knew that."

Tarloff is survived by his widow, of Beverly Hills; their son Erik and daughter Julie Owen, both of Berkeley; and three grandchildren.

Details of the memorial service are to be announced.

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