Abraham Lincoln Polonsky
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Thu Oct 28 08:42:14 MDT 1999
Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1999, Thursday, Home Edition
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST'S ABRAHAM POLONSKY DIES
By Myrna Oliver, Times Staff Writer
Abraham Polonsky, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter and director who
continued his creative output without credit for two decades during the
anti-Communist era, has died. He was 88.
Polonsky, who scripted and directed such films as "Force of Evil" and "Tell
Them Willie Boy Is Here," died Tuesday at his Beverly Hills home after
suffering a massive heart attack.
His film credits numbered a scant nine, but Polonsky remained highly
respected in Hollywood for his work as well as for his refusal to testify
before the House Un-American Activities Committee on his flirtations with
The eclectic Polonsky wrote not only screenplays, but also five novels,
top-quality radio and television scripts, essays and even legal briefs
during his short stint as a lawyer.
An American wartime spy whose full name was Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, he
was in many ways an odd target for the blacklist.
When Polonsky first decided to write after practicing law and teaching
English at what is now City University of New York, he scripted radio
dramas for Orson Welles and wrote novels. He didn't need Hollywood.
But he decided that being a filmmaker would provide an excellent cover for
his wartime work in Europe with the Office of Special Services, the
forerunner of the CIA. Besides, he told The Times in 1970, American
servicemen in World War II were guaranteed the same jobs they left, and he
liked the idea of a $ 450 weekly screenwriter's pay waiting for him.
After a debut credit for collaboration on the script for "Golden Earrings"
in 1947, Polonsky found real success with the John Garfield boxing film
"Body and Soul." That script netted him an Oscar nomination and a contract
from Garfield to co-write and direct "Force of Evil" in 1948. Critic Andrew
Sarris described that film noir, starring Garfield as a racketeer's lawyer,
as "one of the great films of the modern American cinema."
But Polonsky was to have only one more writing credit, for "I Can Get It
for You Wholesale" in 1951, before politics intervened. The promising new
director would not direct again for 21 years until "Tell Them Willie Boy Is
Here" starring Robert Redford in 1969.
When the Un-American Activities Committee convened in 1947, 10 of those
subpoenaed refused to discuss Communist Party affiliations or name party
members. Dubbed the Hollywood 10, they were held in contempt of Congress,
fired from their jobs and imprisoned.
Polonsky, who had been a member of the Communist Party, was subpoenaed for
a new round of hearings in 1951 in Hollywood. He refused to testify, and
Rep. Harold Velde called him the "most dangerous man in America." Polonsky
was fired from 20th Century Fox and had to leave Hollywood--and the movie
business--to get work.
"If you said you were sorry you were a radical and had seen the errors of
your ways, you were let off. That's like saying you have no right to make
political experiments in your mind," Polonsky told The Times in 1968 when
he returned to directing. "That's the kind of thing they do in Communist
countries, but we're supposed to be a free country. We need to be a
genuinely free country and not merely pretend to be one."
Polonsky more than made a living--even increasing his earnings, he often
said with a chuckle--by writing such television shows as "You Are There"
and the series "Danger." In 1956, he also wrote one of his five novels, "A
Season of Fear," featuring not a screenwriter but a Los Angeles Department
of Water and Power civil engineer imperiled by anti-communist zeal.
Never completely abandoning Hollywood, the outcast Polonsky co-wrote the
1959 film "Odds Against Tomorrow," the writing of which was attributed to
John O. Killens. Later a leader in the fight to have credits restored to
blacklisted filmmakers, Polonsky earned his own credit for that screenplay
in 1996 from the Writers Guild of America.
Remarkably unembittered by his experience, the easygoing Polonsky said
philosophically in 1996: "Everything in life has its fundamental lack of
But Polonsky was not charitable toward colleagues who had testified and
named names (including his) in the 1950s. Although he taught in recent
years at USC's School of Cinema-Television at the same time as motion
picture composer David Raksin taught in its School of Music, Polonsky
pointedly refused to speak to him. Raksin had admitted having been a
Communist and named 13 others in testimony before the Un-American
And when the Academy of Motion Pictures set out to award director Elia
Kazan its lifetime achievement Oscar earlier this year, Polonsky said:
"I'll be watching, hoping someone shoots him."
Polonsky told The Times he was willing to forgive anybody other than Kazan
who apologized for testifying to the committee. "But Kazan," he said,
"didn't just betray his friends. He took out an ad in the New York Times.
He elected himself the head of the opposition. He acted like a big shot. I
admit I'm prejudiced. He's a creep. I wouldn't say hello to him if he came
across the street."
Earlier this year, Polonsky was honored, along with screenwriter Julius
Epstein, with the career achievement award of the Los Angeles Film Critics
In the 1990s, Polonsky helped write the McCarthy-era docudrama "Guilty by
Suspicion" and appeared around the country in programs observing the
anniversary of the blacklist. His USC film course dealt with philosophy and
was titled "Consciousness and Content."
As a novelist, something he aspired to become in his youth, Polonsky
published his first effort in 1940--"The Goose Is Cooked," co-written with
Mitchell A. Wilson under the joint pseudonym Emmett Hogarth.
In addition to "A Season of Fear," his other novels were "The Enemy Sea" in
1943, "The World Above" in 1951 and "Zenia's Way" in 1980.
Polonsky was married to Sylvia Marrow from 1937 until her death in 1993. He
is survived by his wife, Iris; his son, Hank; and two granddaughters.
Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights
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