In the conversation around faith and film, Ron Austin is an elder statesman. He has worked a lifetime in the entertainment industry, and his essays and books, including In a New Light: Spirituality and Media Arts, have influenced generations of filmmakers (much of his writing is also on his website). His seminal essay “The Spiritual Frontiers of Film” is reprinted in our summer issue. It’s a challenging and worthwhile read—but on the lighter side, we also wanted to ask him to tell a few stories from his career.
Image: You once met Charlie Chaplin. What was that like?
Ron Austin: I was very impressed, of course, by Charlie Chaplin, once the most famous man in the world, and at that time only in his sixties. He directed our dress rehearsals at a theater company in Hollywood that included his son Sidney. He also hosted our opening night party at his luxurious home, so I did get a close look. To realize that this great man and true comedy genius was a mere human being, charming but with flaws, was a vaccination against celebrity worship. But to this day I refer to him as Mister Chaplin.
Image: Tell us about your acting teacher Viola Spolin and what you learned from her.
RA: I am more indebted to Vi Spolin than any other teacher. She was the pioneer of improvisational theater in America (her son, Paul Sills, founded Second City in Chicago) but beyond the acting skills, she imbued us kids at her Young Actors Company with a sense of integrity based on art being rooted in truth.
Image: Is it true that you were blacklisted as a communist sympathizer during the fifties and not allowed to work in Hollywood? What effect did it have on your life and career?
RA: Yes, I am the last living blacklisted writer from that unhappy era. There are too many myths about the blacklist, and I don’t want to contribute to them. As Dalton Trumbo, one of the leaders of the Hollywood Ten (the most prominent blacklisted writers), later said, “We were all victims.” The blacklisting of suspected leftists during the height of the Cold War was often unfair, but the Communist Party was in its own way as oppressive and irrational as the witch hunters.
I was blacklisted because I had been a member of the Young Communist League while in college, but like many I had become disillusioned and quit the communist movement years before I was interrogated. The real reason I was blacklisted was that I would not provide the names of others who had been involved. This was a prerequisite for being cleared, even though they knew I was no longer active.
The result was immediate hardship, in that I was fired from my first job as a TV writer and I had a family to support. The long-term effect, however, was beneficial. I was forced to become a social worker and worked for almost three years in the heart of east LA. This encounter with real poverty opened my eyes and heart in a way that youthful ideology never could.
Image: In the seventies, you wrote and produced classic TV shows like Charlie’s Angels, Mission Impossible, and Hawaii Five-O, often as part of a team. What was it like to write collaboratively in that context? And what stands out to you now about the world of seventies-era TV?
RA: My collaboration with Jim Buchanan as a writing-producing team probably saved my sanity as well as my marriage. We divided our work, and so even when we were producing a TV series we were able to go home for dinner now and then. More seriously, I believe collaboration is essential in the media arts just as it is in life.
Seventies TV was pretty trivial for the most part but it paid well and enabled me to do other things. It was occasionally even fun—but not often.
Image: You were a producer as well as a writer. What exactly do producers do?
RA: Given the many abuses of that title in Hollywood, you might well ask. In movies the producer credit might indicate anyone from somebody who raises money or controls a star (or is married to a star) or perhaps someone who actually worked on the picture. It also used to mean the guy who owned the studio.
In TV the producer actually works. What I did is now called “show runner” which meant you were always on the run. You supervised all aspect of the production, from fixing the script to casting to approval of the final editing. Most definitive, however, was your responsibility not to go over budget!
I used to define my job as not being required to do anything at all. This meant that I had hired all the right people to do their jobs. Sometimes this even happened!
Image: You’ve also worked on small, emotionally complex films like Blue in Green and serious documentaries like The Hidden Gift: War and Faith in Sudan. Was there a point in your career in which you felt like, “This is it, I’m finally living out my vocation?”
RA: You are quite right. These small independent films were fulfilling in a way that the Hollywood products couldn’t be. Hidden Gift was a documentary about the abuse of human rights in Sudan and as an appeal for help was shown in Washington, DC, and at the UN. Although the situation is even worse now I think we helped some desperate people at that time. I produced it, but the crew risked their lives to make it.
Blue and Green was an independent feature and a genuine experiment in collaborative film-making. I’m still proud of the results and of my one-time students for making a remarkable and very self-sacrificing effort. The new technology makes this kind of communal work even more possible now and I think this is the future of the film art.
Image: Do you have any great Hollywood stories you’re longing to tell?
RA: I have many funny stories about the real Hollywood but not for a family magazine. Most verify Chaplin’s adage that once something is too sad it becomes funny. Besides, the punchlines are invariably expletives. I can think of only one with a moral.
Jim and I were junior screenwriters at Columbia studios at a time when writers were officed on the lot—probably to make sure we were working. The producer who hired us was a notorious cheapskate who wanted to save money by putting us in a dressing room rather than an office—probably one with barely room for two grown men. But I had gone to high school with his secretary, and she wasn’t crazy about her miserly boss, so she arranged for us to get Kim Novak’s dressing room. (For you kids, Kim Novak was a major star at the time.) It was more luxurious and grand than any office on the lot. It had a bar, fireplace, and a sun porch. And since producers never deigned to come to see writers, our skinflint never learned of our elegant quarters. I’m not sure if there’s a moral in this story other than be kind to your secretary.
Image: What are your favorite career memories?
RA: The high points in Hollywood were all people—a remarkable collection of varying talents, some from other countries, geniuses and frauds, lots of sinners, not too many saints, but often fascinating. Instead of making up stories we should have just written about the bizarre characters around us, our fellow birds in the gilded cage.
The most enjoyable times were spent at the writers’ tables in the studio commissaries among the older generation of screenwriters. They were generous mentors and very funny, usually at the expense of our employers.
It was my privilege to know these men and women who wrote some of the best of old Hollywood’s movies even while railing against the system. But that Hollywood, old
Hollywood, died in 1969. I know because I was at the funeral.
Image: What happened in 1969?
RA: That was the time when the full effect of the newly created “youth market” was felt. Adults switched to TV and the traditional adult and family audience was fragmented and lost. The “youth market” was pure commercial manipulation of alienated kids. It created the pseudo-rebel of the sixties, and it wasn’t just Hollywood that was then infantilized.
When old Hollywood died, what was lost wasn’t just the superficial glamour and romance but an idealism that kept us going. Those were the good times. The most painful moments were in screening rooms watching what they had done to our scripts. But don’t get me wrong about my days in Hollywood. I’d do it all over again. As long as I got paid.