By Ed Rampell
Actor French Stewart may be best known to national audiences for his roles in TV sitcoms, including as Harry Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun and as Chef Rudy in the current series Mom. However, he is no stranger to the Los Angeles stage, performing at the Sacred Fools Theater Company as both Queen Victoria and Sigmund Freud in 2010’s Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes and in 2012 as one of the silent screen’s slapstick masters in Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton, written by his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart. Now, the couple is acting for the first time together in Rogue Machine’s West Coast premiere of Joe Gilford’s Finks.
According to French Stewart, the title refers to the “friendly or cooperative witnesses” who collaborated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the Hollywood Blacklist era. During the Red Scare, HUAC not only purged Tinseltown talents who’d joined the Communist Party and supported progressive causes, but also non-radical artists who refused to inform on others. In order to save their entertainment industry careers, some witnesses became “finks” who “named names,” informing on colleagues — and even friends — during their congressional testimony, leading to 300-ish actors, screenwriters, directors, etc., being banned from working in Hollywood from 1947 to about 1960.
One of the few blacklistees to make a comeback was Jack Gilford, a notable actor who played Hysterium in 1966’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, acted in 1985’s Cocoon, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1973’s Save the Tiger. His son Joe wrote Finks and inspired Stewart’s character in it. In this Q&A French Stewart, who was interviewed by phone, discusses Finks and more.
@THIS STAGE: Where are you speaking from?
STEWART: The Rogue Machine theater in Venice. I’m basically going back and forth because I’m shooting an episode of Mom this week. So I’m between here and Warner Bros. until we open… It’s been hectic. I’ve got this recurring job on a show [the Syfy Channel’s Deadly Class series] in Vancouver, Canada…
@THIS STAGE: How did you get involved with Finks?
STEWART: I got a call from John Flynn [artistic director] of Rogue Machine. He just produced Justin Tanner’s show [El Nino], and we’d been friends for a while. He said, “I think we’ve got something for you.” He sent me the script. I loved it instantly. From the time I read it until now, politically it has become more relevant.
@THIS STAGE: Why?
STEWART: Finks really deals with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting of actors. Largely, in a way via show business, it examines how far the Constitution will stretch. That’s what we’re all going through right now: how far will the Constitution stretch before it breaks people or breaks the country? It’s an astonishing thing to be a part of.
@THIS STAGE: Does Finks include actual scenes that are supposed to take place at the HUAC hearings?
STEWART: Yes. There’s a lot of the transcript, word for word, with the characters who are there. Some of the characters are fictionalized versions of the actual people. The show is written by Joe Gilford, who is Jack Gilford’s son, and Jack Gilford was blacklisted. It’s really about his parents.
@THIS STAGE: His mother, whose actual name was Madeline Lee, gave very heroic testimony.
STEWART: Yes, she did. It’s really about the education of her husband. Because he wanted to stay clear of all the political stuff and just get a TV show. That’s what he’d been working for as a nightclub comic. It’s really about her educating him as to what is truly important and him having to make decisions about his career on something he’d never planned.
@THIS STAGE: Does your real wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart, play the character based on Madeline Lee?
STEWART: Yes, in the play her name is “Natalie Meltzer.” She’s the motor of the play.
@THIS STAGE: What is director Michael Pressman’s connection to the Hollywood Blacklist?
STEWART: His father was blacklisted very badly. Exactly like Michael, he was a television director. [David Pressman] was blacklisted and couldn’t work for a very long time. Even after the saga was over he really couldn’t break the list and so sometimes he’d go in and ghost direct for people and not got credit for it and get paid. It affected Michael greatly, clearly. We really do have a lot of people in the play that carry this horror of the actual experience because they went through it.
@THIS STAGE: The real names of some characters, such Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb, who were “friendly witnesses”, are used. But your character is called “Mickey Dobbs” and Vanessa Claire Stewart’s is named “Natalie Meltzer”, instead of Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee. Why are some characters’ real names used and fictitious names used for others?
STEWART: Well, I think there are parts of it – and I don’t know if I can speak for Joe [Gilford] as a playwright, once you get in and start dramatizing something it’s a difference between putting up something that’s like a documentary in style, as opposed to creating a drama and tweaking it here or there, but staying close to the essence of what it is. But that might be a question for Joe; I’m not sure.
@THIS STAGE: For the characters of Kazan and Cobb [who portrayed Johnny Friendly in 1954’s On the Waterfront, a movie justifying informing directed by Kazan and written by another HUAC informer, Budd Schulberg], are actual transcripts from their HUAC testimony used in the play?
STEWART: That is correct.
@THIS STAGE: Do you or any cast or crew members of Finks have any concerns that a lot of these families still exist and are around? Maybe the person who testified per se passed away but their children, grandchildren are still alive and in the L.A. area. Any concern that you might be ripping the scabs off of old wounds and stirring up a hornets’ nest?
STEWART: Honestly, what the play does is inform what’s happening right now in our current political environment. It’s not meant to drag anybody through the muck or anything but history is history. There’s no getting around it. Of course there are certain people who fared better and certain people who didn’t. You can talk about Kazan… why did he do it? Because at the time he was a very big star on Broadway [during this period the Group Theatre alumnus directed hits such as All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] and wanted to do film [directing more than a dozen features during the Blacklist era, including East of Eden]. He had a really big career. Progressives were really hanging their hats on him. So there’s still really a lot of talk back and forth whether he should have done it? …To me, it’s all really fair game.
@THIS STAGE: It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback when it comes to history. But if you were an actor during the HUAC/McCarthy era and your career was at stake, what do you think you would have done if you were subpoenaed to testify? Would you have named names, French?
STEWART: I thought about this a lot because there’s a lot of it that overlaps in my life just from surviving in show business. And when you throw on this extra layer of the Blacklist, which makes an impossible profession even more impossible, it really makes you wonder. I can’t ever imagine sitting in an organized situation and telling on my friends, I really can’t. But then again, it’s like that old Mike Tyson quote: “Your whole game plan goes out the window once you’ve been punched in the face.” So that I do not know. But I like to think I wouldn’t do that to my friends.
@THIS STAGE: Have you ever publicly taken a stand on a controversial issue? And if so regarding what?
STEWART: Yes. Both my wife and I were part of the lawsuit against [Actors’] Equity in the reigning in of the 99-seat discussion. We felt very strongly about that and felt we paid dearly in a public arena with our friends on a very delicate thing. Because we’re both very pro-union. But we were having a disagreement with our union because we felt the method of how they wanted to get the actors paid was going to be really hurtful to the theaters themselves that were trying to nurture these people to become something bigger so everybody could get paid. To be honest, it was heartbreaking. We lost friends over it. So that part of it rings very true. That’s not to suggest we were blacklisted, by any means. But it is an argument defending what you believe and it does have consequences.
@THIS STAGE: Do you think there could ever be another Hollywood Blacklist?
STEWART: I do. Nothing is impossible. People have spoken about the president’s “enemies list,” this odd signal player. The treatment of Jews, of people of color, the language he’s used. I think it’s stirring up a certain thing and so, sad to say, I wouldn’t be shocked by anything at this point.
@THIS STAGE: What psychological effect do you think the Blacklist’s persecution of dissenters has had on the children and grandchildren, etc., of these bullied, harassed artists? Is a trans-generational trauma passed down?
STEWART: Absolutely. Michael Pressman has talked about that very, very openly in our rehearsals. He felt quite a bit of guilt for being able to pursue his career unfettered, when his father hadn’t. It was the same thing with Joe Gilford – it’s part of their DNA. So there’s a certain degree of guilt. Do they deserve it? No, they do not. But it affects all of them. They grew up in a sort of artistic poverty that led to an actual poverty, and how can you not be moved by that?
@THIS STAGE: You appear on TV shows such as the network sitcom Mom and in movies. Presumably they pay much better than L.A. theatre does. So why do you do it?
STEWART: I mean, my love and a place where I won’t get penned into playing just one kind of part is theater. I like small theaters because it’s so intimate. I like large theaters, too. But that’s where I really get to work out in front of an audience and get better. That’s where my wife started playing small and growing, so there are jobs later on for actors that are playing. Vanessa did it with Stoneface and Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara. …I’m not adverse to somebody saying I’d like to waive my rights so that I can work out and work with my friends and become better and make something that will grow and make us all better as artists. Because there aren’t lots of TV jobs. But there are lots of actors, and they need something to do.
@THIS STAGE: Do you hope TV series or feature films will emerge out of your live stage shows?
STEWART: …Like with Buster Keaton, if Vanessa got the script that far along, they’re going to get a bigger star to do it. And I understand that. So that’s more of a long shot. It would be nice and it does happen, but it’s very rare so I don’t pin all my hopes and that type of thing. A lot of it is more growing a theater entity that can be a successful paying artistic machine for those contributing to its growth. But sometimes you have to tighten your pants in the beginning. It’s not about small producers making money, because largely they don’t. Largely they break even and make enough to keep things moving. A lot of times I just do it and take it at face value for what it is. The majority of these shows are a nice experience where you create something for a small group of people and then let it go.
@THIS STAGE: What’s it like appearing in a play with your wife, Vanessa? Is this the first time you’ve acted together?
STEWART: Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve acted together. It’s really lovely because there are giant parts of Finks that really overlap our lives… in show business. Certain pressures that come up and certain situations you find yourself in. That was why when we both read it we thought, “Oh, we’ve got to do it.” We felt we had a lot to say.
@THIS STAGE: You co-starred in Sacred Fools’ Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes and Stoneface, Are you still a member of Sacred Fools’ company?
STEWART: Yeah. I’m there all the time. I’m an associate member… my wife is still a member. I see them all the time. We’ll be going back next year because Vanessa has a musical she wrote that’s part of their season and I’m going to be in that… It’s called Deadly and it’s about H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer… My wife is a superpower.
@THIS STAGE: Is Finks your first time acting for Rogue Machine and what is it like working for them? How is it different from other companies, such as Sacred Fools?
STEWART: It is my first time acting for Rogue Machine, which I’m really excited about. I’ve got a great deal of respect for them – everybody in the theatre community does. [Electric Lodge] is a great new space. And I’m a big fan of John Flynn. It’s one of the most consistent theaters in town in terms of quality output… [Theaters] all have different personalities… I’ve never been in a theater that’s exactly the same.
@THIS STAGE: You graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Do you attribute some of your love of theater to the Academy?
STEWART: Oh, yes. It was a great education there… [I attended] when they were still in Pasadena. It really informed the way I work and look at things. I always felt you take the best job in front of you but if there’s not a job, keep your legs moving and do something. I’ve kept to that and it’s made me very happy. Largely my life has been the same for the last 30 years: Do a TV job, do a show; do a TV job, do a show. It’s how I’m happy and it gives me a full life so I can play different kinds of characters and not feel like I’m pinned down to any one thing.
“I always felt you take the best job in front of you but if there’s not a job, keep your legs moving and do something.”
@THIS STAGE: After Finks, what is next for you?
STEWART: A big nap. I’m going to take a nap. Because I just came off of a really busy summer, a lot of travel; I’ve got a five-year-old. I’m going to take some time, focus on my family — and of course, look for the next job.
@THIS STAGE: Is there anything you want to add?
STEWART: I think Finks moves with a certain speed and deliberateness. The length is very compact and good. The subject matter has a lot to say right now. You’ll be shocked at how little things change in a way and how history tends to forget itself. Then rev back right up to sometimes the darkest part of human nature. It’s a lovely play. My wife is fantastic; we’ve got a great cast. I’m very proud of it.
Finks is playing thru Dec. 8 at Rogue Machine, in Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. Venice CA 90291. Performances run 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 3:00 p.m. Saturdays and 7:00 p.m. Sundays. (Exceptions: no performance 11/16, 12/21, 11/17 show is at 8:00 p.m., added 11/26 at 8:00 p.m., 12/1 & 12/8 at 8:00 p.m.) Info: (855)585-5185; www.roguemachinetheatre.com.