- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009


When, gripping the Oscar statuette in triumph, Sean Penn thanked the Academy by praising “you commie, homo-loving sons of a gun,” a lot of Americans groaned. There they go again. Why do Hollywood stars have to be such finger-wagging scolds who inject politics into everything?

I wasn’t one of the groaners.

Certainly many believe the Academy Awards is not the place for political statements and, usually, I would agree. Still there are circumstances in which politics are perfectly acceptable and I want to tell why Sean Penn may have been in the right. I am also an actor, perhaps not as famous as Mr. Penn, but just as committed to a craft I love. So to my fellow conservatives, you have to really know why Mr. Penn referred to “commies” and “homos.”

As a conservative in Hollywood, I can tell you it is painful to be attacked or even blacklisted Yes, I said blacklisted. It does still go on. Today there are directors, producers and studio executives who simply will not work with talented people who have been outed as conservatives or libertarians. That doesn’t just mean lost income for those entertainers who happen to be right-of-center, it also means being denied a chance to grow and develop as an actor, writer or musician. Imagine never being able to be who you are.

Mr. Penn certainly knows the horrors of the blacklist. While he has not suffered from the blacklisting of conservatives, as far as I know, his father suffered in the previous blacklist. I met Leo Penn in 1980, when he was directing the NBC series “The Gangster Chronicles” that I appeared in. He was a terrific man.

I later learned that Leo Penn was a bombardier for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II who used the GI Bill to study drama at the University of California at Los Angeles. He soon signed a contract with Paramount. But the studio refused to renew that contract when Leo Penn sided with the “Hollywood 10,” a group of writers and directors who refused to tell Congress about the penetration of communists into Hollywood guilds and unions. At the time, liberals and communists were fighting each other inside most of the nation’s major labor organizations. Some communists were funded and otherwise aided by the Soviet Union, a hostile power in the late 1940s; so some considered it a national matter.

Leo Penn considered it a matter of free speech and association - and his principled stand cost him a career on the big screen. He began a celebrated career as a stage actor on Broadway, not returning to the movies until he was offered a part in a littler-known 1959 film. The director, Clifford Odets, was the same man who had turned over Leo Penn’s name to Congress.

While I never had a conversation with Leo about the blacklist, I can only imagine how it hurt and how it would have influenced his son’s political beliefs. I know the fear and concern my young ones have for me because my beliefs are not in step with the status quo.

Also, I have something else to tell you as an actor. When you deeply embrace a character, it becomes a part of you. Now, I am not saying that if you are doing a huge “tent pole” action film, it is appropriate to opine. I really do not want to hear James Bond talk politics. But Sean Penn won his Best Actor award for portraying murdered San Francisco County Supervisor and gay-rights-hero Harvey Milk. That is an entirely different thing. Some of Milk’s crusading ideals are a part of Mr. Penn now just as his father’s experiences are. There is a thing some actors call a “blood memory” that connects and educates our emotional imagination.

In 1989, I appeared in a film called “Terrorist on Trial: The United States of America versus Salim Ajami.” It was ahead of its time and a very politically charged and important film. The commitment I had to the character I played was total. Had I won an Oscar for that piece, I can imagine making a statement that some would feel was inappropriate.

Mr. Penn is an amazingly gifted talent; his commitment to his character was total. The film “Milk” was about a deeply committed historical figure. Like his politics or not, he is one of the most important actors of our generation. In that euphoric moment of winning the Oscar and for a character he deeply felt, it was appropriate for him to make the comment he did. Imagine the euphoria of that moment he must have felt winning for a character whose passion matched his own. Did everyone expect a superficial statement from him? A mere “Thank You and Good Night” or” I want to thank my agent and dry cleaner”? I think not.

We must be vigilant in not letting our political differences stifle our freedom of speech by demonizing those we do not agree with. We must be vigilant to not hurt someone’s livelihood because of differing opinions. We must be able to discuss freely without fear. It is in this spirit that I come to the defense of Sean Penn … the defense of us all.

Robert Davi is an actor best known for his roles in “Die Hard,” ” Licence To Kill,” “The Goonies,” “Predator 2” and “Stargate Atlantis.”

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