LOS ANGELES, March 14 (UPI) -- Realistic or not, there is growing talk in Hollywood about concern that political activism by actors could lead to an entertainment industry blacklist, reminiscent of the one during the McCarthy era.
To this day, there are some who deny that there was a Hollywood blacklist or a "witch hunt" for communists in the movie and TV business during the 1940s and '50s. Whether there was a formal list or not, there is no denying that actors, writers and other Hollywood professionals were denied work because of their political views.
More recently, a few conservatives in Hollywood have complained that they are similarly shunned for being "politically incorrect."
The run-up to a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq has featured an energetic public debate about the propriety of liberal celebrities exploiting their fame to oppose Bush administration policy, although there has been little criticism of celebrities -- such as "Law & Order" star Fred Thompson, comedian Dennis Miller or musician Kid Rock -- speaking up for the war.
That part of the debate is simply the latest periodic flare-up of a long-running controversy. Talk of a blacklist is much more disturbing, even if it turns out to be unnecessarily alarmist.
Talking with reporters in Hollywood last Monday, Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris ("The Hours") suggested that critics of celebrities who speak out should go back and read the first amendment to the Constitution. On the subject of a blacklist, Harris was somewhat more forceful.
"If they get into a blacklist -- or even a hint of that -- all hell's going to break loose," he said.
Harris will star later this month in "Trumbo," a new theater piece by Christopher Trumbo based on the letters of his father, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Robbins and Chris Cooper will take their turns after Harris in the production at New York's Westside Theatre.
"There's not a better time to do it," said Harris.
The Screen Actors Guild raised the specter of a blacklist two weeks ago, issuing a statement warning against economic punishment of actors who speak up -- either for or against the war. SAG President Melissa Gilbert told "Access Hollywood" this week that it is a real concern.
"There is a sense out there, people have these Web sites going where they're asking folks to sign a petition to insist that actors are fired off the shows they're on," said Gilbert. "And they're getting 30,000 signatures."
John Wells, producer of "The West Wing," said he hadn't seen any indication of a coming blacklist.
"Things are heated in the country politically right now," said Wells, "but I don't think (blacklisting is) a real problem, certainly not one that I've witnessed yet."
Martin Sheen, the Emmy-winning star of "The West Wing," said he has received an "avalanche of hate mail" since speaking out against the war.
Peter Boyle, one of the stars of the CBS comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond," told "Access Hollywood" he is keeping his opinions to himself -- out of fear.
"I've made a commitment to not make any anti-war statements," said Boyle, "because I'm afraid of President Bush."
At this year's Oscar nominees luncheon, Best Actress nominee Diane Lane ("Unfaithful") said she doesn't even take sides at a ball game -- she just wants the best team to win -- and declined to get involved in the political debate.
"I have no investment in partisanship," said Lane.
An expression of neutrality sounds like a safe way to go, but you have to wonder how long it might take before somebody suggests that even neutrality is insufficiently patriotic -- given the president's admonition immediately after Sept. 11 that "if you are not for us you are against us."
Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Actor nominee for "Gangs of New York," described the Catch-22 that celebrities find themselves in -- as they are constantly quizzed by reporters about their political views.
"The media are sick and tired of people in my profession giving their opinion, and yet you're asking me my opinion," said Day-Lewis. "And when I give it you'll say, 'Why doesn't he shut up?'"
Talk of a blacklist may be premature, but the content of the debate is becoming increasingly toxic in some quarters. Vigorous debate may be healthy for a free society, but the temperature can only rise so much before it becomes destructive.
As a character in Pulitzer Prize-winning writer V.S. Naipaul's novel "Half a Life" observes: "Books aren't so easy to burn, unless you have a good fire already going."
In the end, critics of anti-war celebrities may be protesting too much. After all, as those same critics are so fond of pointing out, 87 percent of Americans said in a recent CNN poll that celebrity opinion on the war had no influence on their own thinking.
So if Mike Farrell, Janeane Garofalo, Jessica Lange and the rest exercise their constitutional right to express their political opinions, what's the big deal? Would any American seriously wish to live in a country where expressing a political point of view is a punishable offense?