"I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings with terror," Burgess Meredith recalled yesterday. "I remember feeling that our lives depended on it." Blacklisted as a Communist "fellow traveler," Meredith lost jobs and friends during the early 1950's heyday of the late Wisconsin senator.
Meredith reenacts those hearings Sunday night on TV, playing the man who more than any other destroyed McCarthy: Boston attorney Joseph Welch. The crucial 1954 hearings that ended McCarthy's career are central to the three-hour NBC television movie "Tailgunner Joe."
Meredith clearly reveals in the chance to put the McCarthy era to shame before a national audience. "I've played a lot of parts and roles over the years but I was more delighted to play this role than any other," he said. "I was called a Communist and I remember that fear."
At least four other actors in "Tailgunner Joe" were victims of McCarthy-inspired blacklisting in Hollywood and on television. Actress Patricia Neal flew all the way from London for one day's work, to play the role of Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, one of the few to challenge McCarthy at the height of his power. Even the picture's producer, George Eckstein, remembers vividly his own youthful fear of blacklisting because he once signed petitions protesting treatment of accused Communist actors.
"We try to put the blame where it belongs," Eckstein said. "In the whole post-Watergate atmosphere there is a lot of desire for this type of self-examination that wouldn't be possible before." Beginning more than two years ago, Eckstein steered the $2-million "Tailgunner" project through batteries of the NBC attorneys and emerged intact with a brazen expose of that ear.
"Tailgunner Joe" is powerful enough to excite some old political passion. Already some right-wing defenders of McCarthy are denouncing the Eckstein movie to the conservative public.
One of these is writers Anthony Hilder, 42-year-old former assistant to Myron Fagan, the man who originated the Hollywood "Red Channels" blacklist. "This movie is a white-wash of the reds," Hilder said angrily, after seeing a preview at NBC's Burbank studios. "The movie is made for the simple purpose of malignatizing McCarthy in the minds of Americans."
Hilder characterized "Tailgunner" as a Disneyland documentary" with little relevance to the actual facts. He grieves that the movie "distorts, deceives and disgraces the image of the late, great Sen. Joseph McCarthy."
While they deny and such scheming, many of those involved in making "Tailgunner Joe" hope the movie will help prevent any such rerun of national paranoia. "This is a political subject we've been avoiding for too long a time," said 51-year-old actor John Randolph, who was blacklisted from 1951 to 1965.