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Obituaries

Roy M. Brewer, 97; Powerful Figure During Blacklist Era

September 23, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Roy M. Brewer, the powerful labor union leader who became one of the most influential figures in Hollywood during the blacklist era in the late 1940s and early '50s, has died. He was 97.

Brewer died from complications of pneumonia Sept. 16 at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in West Hills, said his daughter, Ramona Moloski.

The Nebraska-born Brewer had more than a decade-long background in union organizing and labor relations when he came to Hollywood in 1945 as the international representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.

Before resigning from his union post eight years later, he had earned a national reputation for battling suspected communist influence in Hollywood -- efforts for which he was praised by his admirers as "a shining example in the ranks of labor" and denounced by his enemies as the "arbiter of the blacklist."

"I can tell in five minutes if a person is a communist," Brewer told The Times in 1985. "I'm never wrong."

As a driving force behind the Motion Picture Industry Council, formed in 1947 to improve the business' image, Brewer was known for being able to destroy or salvage careers.

"If someone had been named in Red Channels," a booklet listing entertainers suspected of pro-communist leanings, or was "on various lists and wanted to work again, they had to write a letter disowning their political past," said Larry Ceplair, coauthor of the 1980 book "The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60."

The council "decided if the letter was apologetic enough, and they'd send it to the various studios and say, 'We think this letter is OK,' and the studio could then hire the person or not," Ceplair said.

As the "conduit for clearance," he added, Brewer "could open the conduit or close it at will."

In a 1996 interview with Daily Variety, Brewer said, "If people came to me and gave me evidence that they wanted to come out, I told them that they had to come clean, they had to name people, they had to come to our side and fight them.

"Most of these people were the victims of the communists; they are not communists," he said. "We had to find ways for the ones who were suckered into it to get out. That was my effort."

John Meroney, who interviewed Brewer for a book he is writing about Ronald Reagan's life in Hollywood, recalled a West Hollywood book-signing event a few years ago when the daughter of a blacklisted screenwriter confronted Brewer, saying, "You blacklisted my father."

"He said, 'Listen, I did not blacklist your father. I was not in the blacklisting business; I tried to help people,' " Meroney said.

"The basic fact about Brewer," Ceplair said, "was he was determined that anyone who had even a pink tint on their past would not work in Hollywood until that person purged himself or herself. There are a lot of stories about people he kept from working or wouldn't approve, or movies he tried to block."

Those included "Salt of the Earth," the 1954 drama based on a strike at a zinc mine in New Mexico, several of whose key figures (director Herbert Biberman, writer Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico) were blacklisted.

"They wanted to hire a union crew, but Brewer fought them every step of the way," Ceplair said. "He tried to get the sound and film labs to not work on the movie. His union controlled the projectionists in Chicago, and he got them to refuse to show the film when it came to some theaters in Chicago."

Patrick McGilligan is coauthor of a 1997 oral history called "Tender Comrades: A Back Story of the Hollywood Blacklist." He said Brewer "created and buried a lot of enemies, and he really stripped Hollywood of not just political militants but really creative people."

The union leader's anti-communist stance arose soon after he arrived in Hollywood and was faced with mediating the often-violent strikes by a rival labor group, the Conference of Studio Unions, which was challenging IATSE regarding jurisdiction over certain jobs.

Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Brewer testified that the Soviet Union was financing "the takeover of the motion picture industry" and that American communists were attempting to "control the unions."

In referring to the mass picket lines at Warner Bros., Brewer identified a dozen "prominent people who had been identified with communist activities," including screenwriters John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo. They became two of the Hollywood 10, who were sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the committee's questions.

The historic strikes in Hollywood marked the beginning of Brewer's decades-long friendship with Reagan, then on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and ultimately a Brewer ally in defeating the Conference of Studio Unions.

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