"I don't vilify all Republicans, I don't believe all Republicans are evil, I believe there are lots of good people who just believe differently," Tim Robbins told a packed audience last week in Santa Monica, where he was interviewed by liberal comedian Marc Maron.
Is Mr. Robbins ... mellowing? Either that, or he's having a midlife crisis.
For more than 20 years, the Oscar-winning actor-director was one of Hollywood's most visibly committed lefties, both as activist and artist. He and longtime partner (and "Bull Durham" co-star) Susan Sarandon dependably aligned themselves with the radical left, whether opposing the Gulf War right from the start or backing Ralph Nader's quixotic 2000 campaign for President. As an actor and director, Mr. Robbins satirized the right ("Bob Roberts") and sanctified the left ("Cradle Will Rock").
Then, in 2006, Mr. Robbins broke political character in a truly strange way. According to Federal Election Commission records, Mr. Robbins donated $500 apiece to ten Republicans, including tea party stalwarts Rep. Michele Bachmann and J.D. Hayworth, who mounted a primary challenge to longtime incumbent John McCain for the Arizona GOP Senate nomination in 2010.
Mr. Robbins never denied his mysteriously out-of-character donations — and never publicly discussed them. Until now.
Mr. Robbins addressed the issue — a little haltingly, a little humorously — in an appearance Wednesday as part of the LATalks Live series of discussions between paired celebrities.
Whether Mr. Robbins resolved the mystery is open to question.
During the post-talk Q&A session, I asked Mr. Robbins about those 2006 donations: Were they seriously intended, or part of a prank.
"Honestly, I don't remember doing that," he said with a grin as the crowd nervously laughed. "I think my accountant brought the checks to me and handed me the check, and I wondered how it could have happened, and what had I done."
Apparently trying to laugh it off, he continued: "I felt I was in one of those paranoid thrillers from the '70s where someone paralyzes you — only I was forced to write checks, and I'm writing checks to the worst Republicans ever. I gotta say, I still don't know. I was ashamed. I wrote and asked for my money back, but no one gave it."
As if Mr. Robbins' explanation wasn't evasive enough, he chuckled every step of the way, inspiring the crowd to rising, and finally raucous, laughter.
But then, after centering himself in his chair, he proceeded to give a more serious answer that included some surprising comments hinting that Mr. Robbins may be in the process of trying to shed his reputation as a knee-jerk radical.
"One thing I will say is that I'm really SICK of divisiveness," Mr. Robbins declared. "I've been all over this country and was really vilified during the [Iraq] War for having the stupid assumption that maybe we should find the weapons of mass destruction before starting a war. ... Basically, places like Fox [News Channel] said I can't go anywhere because people are so pissed off at me for being against the war. When in fact, the opposite was true.
"Everyhere I went in the country, people were thanking me," he continued. "Even Republicans were thanking me when they admitted they disagreed with me, because they said, 'Thank God you said what you said, because it shows that we have freedom and more than one voice here still.'
"I had the experience of Clint Eastwood having my back," Mr. Robbins recalled. (In 2003, Mr. Eastwood, an independent-minded Republican, publicly defended Mr. Robbins after the Baseball of Fame canceled a planned 15th anniversary celebration of "Bull Durham." Hall president Dale Petroskey said that the couple's high-profile opposition to the recently-launched Gulf War undermined U.S. troops in harm's way.)
"As crazy and twisted as some of the more radical Republicans are, and the more they take over the party, I say 'Go ahead,' " Mr. Robbins said. "Because those Republicans who want what we want, to better the nation, will come over to where we are. It's very difficult for someone with pride to come over to your side if you vilify them."
Mr. Robbins took aim at growing left-right polarization, as if he was determined to reinvent himself as a "no-labels" centrist.
"The sooner we realize we have something in common, that we can talk to these people and have a laugh, the sooner we'll be able to make a change," he said. "What we have now is a divisiveness with different sides represented by different [TV] networks at each other's throats. And what do we get? High ratings and a divided public. A divided public means that we won't be united behind simple issues like 'We want clean air' or 'We want clean water.' As long as you're keeping those people divided, they're not going to get enough force and power to change things. So I'm always looking for common ground."
"That is a long way to go to deny something," Mr. Maron replied, laughing.
"I'm not denying it at all," said Mr. Robbins, before injecting another note of ambiguity: "But you know that movie 'The Manchurian Candidate ...' "
"Maybe don't use the word 'evil,' but can we use the word 'wrong'?" to describe Republicans, Mr. Maron pressed, humorously.
"I'm very hopeful right now," Mr. Robbins concluded, sticking — sort of — to his guns.