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Frances Chaney, 89; Versatile Actress Tainted by the Hollywood Blacklist

December 14, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Frances Chaney, a radio and stage actress whose career was curtailed after she was ostracized as pro-communist along with her blacklisted husband, the late Ring Lardner Jr., has died. She was 89.

Chaney died Nov. 23 in New York City of Alzheimer's disease.

The actress, although certain that the post-World War II anti-communist witch hunt cost her job after job and stunted her career, disavowed any purported guilt by association.

"Everybody assumed, poor Frances, she never would have been blacklisted if it hadn't been that she married Ring. Not true," Chaney said during a 1994 "Remembering the Blacklist" symposium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Ring Lardner Jr., who died in 2000, was the last survivor of the Hollywood 10 who were imprisoned for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 on whether they were or had ever been communists.

Lardner was held in contempt of Congress after he told committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas: "I could answer that question the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but if I did I'd hate myself in the morning." After losing appeals, Lardner in 1950 served 10 months in the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Conn.

Not only were the 10 convicted, but they also were fired by studio heads and barred from working until they cleared themselves of any communist taint -- the beginning of a so-called blacklist that would prevent hundreds of actors, writers, directors and others from working for more than a decade and permanently ruin many careers.

Technically, Chaney was considered "gray-listed," because she was never publicly named by the House committee. But she considered the distinction so slight that she freely described herself as blacklisted.

"They certainly could have listed me on my own," she said in "Red Scare," Griffin Fariello's 1995 oral history of the blacklist. "I had done all the things that you do.... I had collected money for Spanish refugees and all the other causes. All my friends were progressives, if not communists."

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, on July 23, 1915, Chaney came to the U.S. at a young age and, after studying acting at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, found work on Broadway and in radio.

Her career flourished. She was the voice of the character Burma in the radio juvenile adventure "Terry and the Pirates," which ran from 1937 to 1939 and was renewed with a war theme in 1943. She also played Marion Kerby, the friendly female ghost, in the radio version of "The Adventures of Topper," beginning in 1945.

Chaney appeared on such popular radio series of the late 1930s and early '40s as "Mr. District Attorney" and "Gang Busters," a realistic FBI-oriented series.

She married David Lardner, Ring's younger brother, and with him pursued leftist causes and started a family. In 1944, he was killed by a land mine in Germany while covering World War II for the New Yorker magazine.

Chaney moved her children to Hollywood, and started working in the film industry as the war ended. She married Ring Lardner Jr. in 1946 and soon became caught up in his House committee hearings and litigation. After his release from prison, the family moved to Mexico and later back to Connecticut.

Jobs were scarce, but Chaney became hopeful in 1954 when she got a role in dramatist Paddy Chayefsky's "Holiday Song," a play for "The Philco Television Playhouse."

Impressed, Chayefsky wrote another television show with Chaney in mind -- but after many frustrating calls with the producers, she was told the part had already been cast. The play was "Marty," which evolved into a 1955 movie in which Ernest Borgnine earned an Oscar for best actor.

When "Holiday Song" was repeated soon after the "Marty" fiasco, with another actress in her role, Chaney realized she was losing jobs because of the blacklist.

"That was clear-cut; I knew where I was," she said in Fariello's book. "So I did everything I could to work in theater."

She understudied actresses Maureen Stapleton and Claudette Colbert on Broadway and became known for playing "Jewish mother" roles in "Golda," starring Anne Bancroft, James Lapine's off-Broadway "Table Settings" and three productions of Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing."

On television, she landed a role that lasted 10 years on the soap opera "The Edge of Night." As the blacklist's power began to fade, she appeared in a 1963 episode of "The Defenders" starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father-and-son lawyers. The show tackled controversial subjects, including the blacklist.

More recently, Chaney appeared on "Law & Order" and had bit parts in a handful of movies, including one as a long-married wife in the documentary portion of "When Harry Met Sally" in 1989.

Chaney is survived by a son and daughter from her first marriage, Joseph and Katharine, and a son from her second marriage, James; two stepchildren, Peter and Ann; seven grandchildren; and eight great-granddaughters.

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