Oliver Crawford: one of Hollywood's last surviving blacklisted writers

Oliver Crawford.jpg

Longtime television writer Oliver Crawford, who died on September 24, 2008, was memorialized recently at the Writers Guild. I recorded the memorial and compiled the following from remarks delivered by Crawford's daughter, Vicki Crawford, with a few additional comments from her sister, Joann Kaufman, her brother, Kenny Kaufman, and others who attended.

When my father died last fall at the age of 91, he was one of the last surviving blacklisted writers.

But when he was first summoned in 1953 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he wasn’t quite sure what to do.

The only way to save yourself and your career was to name a name – to rat on a friend of yours who was supposedly a Communist or Communist supporter. If you did so you were a friendly witness and you could keep working. If you didn’t you were blacklisted, unemployable and banned from working in your profession.

He was at the beginning of his career and was under contract with a production company owned by Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht. He went home and talked to my mother, who said, “You will not enhance this family at the expense of another.”

So my family left Los Angeles and headed east, ending up in New York, in a place called Seagate. Life was a struggle, but my father was familiar with struggle. He was born and raised in Chicago -- my grandmother would wash the butcher paper the meat was wrapped in and give it to him to draw on. His mother named him Oliver after a traveling performer who came through her village when she was living in Transylvania. Years later she thought it was magical and mystical that my father, too, went into show business.

My father always interested in the arts. He studied at the Goodman Theater and the Art Institute of Chicago, and throughout his life he saw the world through the lens of an artist. In exile in New York, he took on many jobs, including designing window displays. He created a comic strip called “Oskie” and had a showing of his artwork at a local gallery.

After four years, in 1957, my father got a call to come back to Hollywood. He said, “What about the blacklist?” They said “Shhh. Don’t say anything.” So we returned to Los Angeles, and my father’s career never stopped.

My father was always writing. He penned novels and plays, as well as writing for dozens of television shows. When I would go out to dinner with my father, I always felt like the third wheel because my dad would be talking to himself, writing. My father once told an interviewer: “If an idea grips you, if you have something to say, write it, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t or that it isn’t any good. In due time you’ll come to your own conclusion as to what the material is.”

I joined my father on the sets of many of the shows that he wrote. I was on the set of “Star Trek” and stood where William Shatner said, “beam me up.” I was on the set of “Bewitched,” meeting my then-heroine, Elizabeth Montgomery. He took me to San Francisco to see Karl Malden when he was doing “The Streets of San Francisco.” I truly believe that I sailed through elementary school because my father would put my teacher’s names in his scripts, and they really liked that.

In many ways, my father was ahead of his time. His teleplay “Death Valley Days,” which he wrote in 1962, was about religious tolerance. Many of his television episodes also contained subtle and not-so-subtle social commentaries. His 1969 “Star Trek,” called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” featured a man who was half black and half white. He was one of the first to write about cloning, in a 1969 “Land of the Giants.” His “Bold Ones” in the early ‘70’s dealt with surrogacy.

Even his episode of “Love American Style” in 1970 called “Love and Grandma” focused on a young woman whose grandmother was shacking up with another man at a retirement home. A novel he wrote called “The Execution,” which was made into a TV movie in 1985, featured five women who survived the Nazi camps and who later sought to kill one of their torturers. At the time he said the story appealed to him because, “You don’t have to explain the villainy. You don’t have to explain your villain. He’s there.”

My father received multiple Emmy nominations and a Writers Guild Nomination for “The Outer Limits.” He won the National Conference for Christians and Jews Brotherhood award for “Death Valley Days.”

He received two Morgan Cox awards for his service to the Writers Guild. He was the only member of the Writers Guild of America West to serve an unprecedented 26 years on the Board of Directors. He was never nominated. He was always a write-in vote. One of his proudest accomplishments was getting the anti-Communist loyalty oath removed from the membership application. Though he was one of the few writers who was able to overcome the blacklist, the experience profoundly shaped his life. He recently wrote a play called “Ollie, Folly and the Blacklist.”

My father was a survivor. He survived the Depression, World War ll and the blacklist. But what really impresses me when I reflect on his life is that he always found a way to enjoy life.

Last year my father and I were talking about the blacklist. This is what I recall of our exchange. He said: “My decision not to name is the same process for the person who decided to name. It’ self-searching and gut-wrenching, and we both feel we made the right decision.

I said, “Wait a minute, what if the person who named you was sitting right here at the kitchen table? What would you say to them?”

“Good to see you. Good to see anyone.”

“No, no, no, no, no. This person’s decision derailed your career, uprooted us as a family, and who knows what else.”

“No. Water under the bridge. I had a very good run, a successful career and a wonderful woman -- your mother, bless her.”

He then said, “I’d offer him a cup of coffee, but since I’m not stable on my feet, you’d have to get it.”

I said “Dad, you’re 90. Don’t mellow on me.”

And he said, “No regrets.”

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