In 2005, Mort Sahl Reflected on Activism, Politics and Social Change Within Hollywood

Mort Sahl
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 14, 2005, Variety published the following interview with Mort Sahl. The revolutionary comedian, who died on Oct. 26, provided an unfiltered view on the entertainment industry, from Depression-era cinema and the Hollywood blacklist to how current films tackle race, politics and culture.

For half of the last century and on into the next one, Mort Sahl, 78, has been the comedic conscience of America. Since 1968, when he debuted at San Francisco’s legendary Hungry i nightclub, he’s been walking onstage in his trademark V-neck sweater, a newspaper tucked under his arm, serving notice to every pundit and politician from Eisenhower through Bush that there was nowhere to hide.

He was the original truth-teller, pioneering a new kind of stand-up — barbed bipartisan political humor — paving the way for everyone from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Chris Rock.

In 1958, he co-hosted the Oscars. In 1960, Time magazine put him on the cover, calling him the most notable American political satirist since Will Rogers and “the patriarch of a new school of comedians.”

Woody Allen, speaking in Robert Weide’s PBS American Masters documentary, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, said his own training as a stand-up comic “came largely from watching Mort Sahl.”

In Allen’s view, Sahl “made the country listen to jokes that required them to think. He was the best thing I ever saw. He was like Charlie Parker in jazz. There was a need for a revolution, everybody was ready for a revolution, but some guy had to come along who could perform the revolution and be great. Mort was the one.”

What follows is Sahl’s stock-in-trade lacerating humor with a twist—instead of simply critiquing our society and our political leaders, Sahl has turned his attention to the entertainment business and Hollywood, the place he’s lived and worked and tried to believe in for most of his life.

The Depression — optimism vs. reality

The movies were all cotton candy. Shirley Temple and everything like that. Then, somehow, we went from the saccharine to the profane without crossing home plate. That’s what’s wrong now; now it’s hopeless. During the Depression, there was still hope. There was still optimism. Sure, we saw a lot of formulaic junk that wasn’t true. But we had a place to hang our hopes.

WWII— heroic dreams

World War II was the last time I was in the majority, and I’ll tell you what, I liked it, I really liked it. I volunteered for the service, I wanted to be a hero. I wanted girls to admire me for it. We were gonna make a great trade-off. We were gonna be brave because the brave win the fair, and the fair, their reward is to be loved. And I believed all that because I saw it in the movies. In other words, the movies dreamed well back then. I’ll tell you how well they dreamed — I was in the ABC movie Inside the Third Reich, the Albert Speer story, and I remember when we were doing research for it we found out that Hitler was watching Astaire and Rogers every night.

Holocaust and the movies

Well, Hollywood has never really stopped talking about the Holocaust. But that’s the easy way out. It’s easier to be a good Jew that way than it is to have what your grandfather told you was a real Jewish conscience. A conscience would mean standing up to the threat now, not 40 years ago.

Remember Mephisto? That picture shows you what happens to guys who cooperate with the devil. It lets you know that it’s tempting, but they get you in the end.

There’s another movie called Birgit Haas Must Be Killed, made by Laurent Heynemann. In that picture, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort not only show you what the Secret Service does to move world politics and public opinion, but they show what it costs — that a man who loves has a better life than a man who kills and doesn’t love.

I don’t know what happened here. Everybody keeps saying, “Well, everything changed when the conglomerates bought the studios,” but really I don’t remember them (the studios) being all that wonderful before.

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Mort Sahl, 1960s Courtesy of Everett Collection

McCarthy and the Blacklist

We went from making really honest and heroic movies like The Best Years of Our Lives and then four years later we got the blacklist, which was the defining moment in Hollywood. Suddenly, Goldwyn is making I Want You and Dorothy McGuire is telling Farley Granger he can’t eat at the table ’cause he doesn’t want to go to Korea.

And I believe that the guilt people felt about letting their friends be hung out to dry has haunted them ever since. They never got past it. The results are a Hollywood that wants to appear noble — so we’ve got people who adopt a Lithuanian child and go to see the Dalai Lama and wear a ribbon for AIDS. It’s all to take their minds off what they’ve really become.

Kennedy, Garrison, Stone and Arnold

I was an investigator in (New Orleans DA and Kennedy assassination investigator Jim) Garrison’s office for 10 years and afterwards tried to get a script going. I must have talked to 80 people and they all kept telling me about Lee Harvey Oswald or that it was too tough to touch. And then Oliver Stone was big enough to do it. But he didn’t mention anything I was witness to. I’m still waiting for that movie.

I’ll tell you how insane America is. The other night, I was at Cafe Roma and I saw (California Governor Arnold) Schwarzenegger in the cigar room. I was standing with Jim Garrison, talking about who killed Kennedy, and those are Schwarzenegger’s in-laws, and now he’s running for a second term as a Republican. The whole thing is maddening.

Madison Ave. to Vietnam

Well, the networks were doing the job of calling people to conscience. But the movies were a different story. We had a whole period of espionage films like Charade and Masquerade. A bunch of those, where the guy would say: “I’m a CIA agent. No, I’m not. I’m your uncle. No, I’m not.” They take another rubber mask off, and say “I’m your father.” They called it intrigue. But it wasn’t the truth of what was happening.

The right had decided to play hardball. They killed the kids at Kent State, they killed Bobby (Kennedy), they killed Martin Luther King, they killed Jack (Kennedy). And as far as I’m concerned, they executed him publicly as a lesson to anyone who was virtuous. The government was using Madison Avenue focus-group, demographic techniques to brainwash people. You could say the mind is a terrible thing to wash. So this was all going on in the country, and it wasn’t documented. If you go to see an Italian picture, the guy says “This is a fascist country” and he makes a movie about it.

We make a movie about Vietnam and the director says, “There’s no doubt we made a terrible mistake going there, but we’re not fascists. We just make mistakes.” Hollywood stopped believing in themselves, and they forgot how to tell the truth.

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Mort Sahl, 1960s Courtesy of Everett Collection

Nukes, Strangelove and Cheney

Hollywood certainly didn’t do too well when Sidney Lumet made Fail Safe, in which the president, to show the Russians that he’s sincere, orders a bomb dropped on New York while his wife is out shopping. Sincere? It showed that he was totally out of his head.

I don’t think we did too good with Dr. Strangelove either, because Strangelove minimizes the risk of fascists. It’s like, “these guys are pretty ridiculous, and they’ll fall apart of their own weight.” Well, Dick Cheney hasn’t. He shows no indications of doing so either, at least not in the near future.

Reagan and his progeny

You know, Gore Vidal wanted to be a senator from here. Gregory Peck did. Norman Lear did. Robert Vaughn did. Paul Newman wanted to run in Connecticut. So how come the dumbest guy, Ronald Reagan, got elected twice, and nobody in this town even thought he was a good actor?

Race and the Trump card

The movies have dissolved the Black man as a political force. The Black man has become a guy who just wants to get his necklaces and his tennis shoes and run a record company, so he can be as good as Donald Trump. You know what Preston Sturges would have done with Trump? He would have been Rudy Vallee, and he would have been a joke. But look where it is now. A guy who’s in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Atlantic City is telling people what it is to be a failure. And there’s nobody on the air to satirize it.

Give ’em hell, Harry

Look back at the first “Dirty Harry“; it was written by Harry Julian Fink, who was a real fascist, but he believed, in his heart, that it took that to clean up the streets. By the time they make the fifth one, sure Dirty Harry says, “Make my day,” but Harry’s as bad a hoodlum as the guy he’s chasing. They turned it around. By that time, they were in the money business.

At least, in the ’70s, they were trying. Is there anybody like Jerome Hellman or Hal Ashby today? Are there any guys that want to raise hell?

We don’t need another Hollywood hero

Critic Manohla Dargis in the New York Times the other day was talking about the movie Stealth. She says: “The heroes in Stealth continue the love affair Hollywood, that hotbed of liberalism, has long had with militarism.”

Well, my heroes aren’t the guys in the Stealth plane. My heroes are the guys who went to Canada so they won’t have to do that.

For instance, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was at the UN recently. Listen to him. He doesn’t sound like anybody in an American movie. I saw that movie about him, The Revolution Will Be Televised. It was made by some BBC students. Pretty good documentary, with great stuff. And, uh, they showed it at the Nuart, naturally. (Sahl laughs boisterously.)

What happened to Butch?

Gregory Peck and William Holden look fit on the bridge of a battleship. Bedford does not look believable on a bridge, and Eastwood doesn’t even look like an officer. He’s a sergeant, maybe — a buck sergeant. There’s something that happened here. The most masculine actor we have, Sean Connery, is not an American.

Peckinpah was great. Get him together with (Steve) McQueen, he could do no wrong. Sam’s films were violent because he thought that we were hypocrites and that we were presenting another face to people than what we saw in the mirror. And that’s the reason that in The Wild Bunch, Bill Holden gets up at the prostitute, sees the baby crying and it’s literally, “cut to suicide.” He’s had enough of himself. And you see it. Most Westerns, most movies, don’t present that kind of complex hero.

Sam was wild. He’d strike terror in people’s hearts. I brought him to Newman. I brought him to Eastwood. They were plenty scared. He was a great man. And he was nuts. And he had his own way of looking at things. He went to shoot a picture in Vegas once and a guy from Variety said to him, “Do you gamble?” And he said, “Yes, I get up every day.”

He was a real American. A real one, and with McQueen, it was the best combination you could find. They got it down to the bare-bones truth.

Musical chairs and the fountain of youth

I don’t know the studio chieftains now. You know, they’re gone before you get to know them. It’s been an amazing development. They don’t become institutions anymore, they become prisoners of an agent’s hysteria, too.

I think that started with CAA packaging everything. That probably started 30 years ago, with those guys that came out of the Morris office. And the Morris office didn’t want to do anything. If you were on The Andy Griffith Show, they wanted to let you die there.

Now it’s all about the youth, the whole idea of youth. Only youth will support the movies. Well, they won’t support anything very long. They’re good and they’re generous, but they’re fickle. You drop off the side of the mountain, the youth don’t come look for you. They don’t miss you.

Women in showbiz

You open up a magazine and it says, “The new women who arc the new story editors at the studios.” And they show a bunch of skinny chicks in black pantsuits whose fathers were agents. And they’re all sort of equine looking at a distance. There was a time when comedy would have been savage enough to take that on, you know, not only The Sun Also Rises, but the daughter also rises. Instead of that, they’re telling you it was an even competition. I mean, did it help women for Sigourney Weaver to be a spaceship commander in Alien?

Activism and Arnold redux

Politics in Hollywood has become about going to the Hollywood Bowl wearing those ribbons so that Norman Lear or somebody like him will see that and know they’re a good person who deserves a job. Take Schwarzenegger. Who’s going to run against him? Meathead? Rob Reiner is going to run against him? Warren? Who’s going to run against him? Those guys are good for about one dinner at the Beverly Hilton, but that’s it.

Nets, the King of Pop and Baretta

All three networks have gotten rid of any kind of foreign news coverage. You don’t even have real honchos like (CBS founder Bill) Paley anymore. I don’t think their shows are about anything. Now they’re gonna make E-Ring. You don’t really believe Dennis Hopper thinks the Pentagon is virtuous.

I just don’t know why more people don’t take a chance. Something that would touch your heart instead of all three networks having a guy that comes on at 11:30 and ridicules Michael Jackson and Robert Blake for a year and a half. That’s some kind of town.

“About” actors

There are some very talented actors in this town. There’s Kevin Kline and William Hurt and Laura Linney and some others, but look, if Jack Nicholson had made pictures like About Schmidt at the beginning of his career, he never would have been Jack Nicholson.

Wesley and Moore

Latin America has Che Guevara and we have Michael Moore. When Moore finally found a presidential candidate he approved and endorsed General Wesley Clark, a guy whose greatest political statement was to advocate the bombing of the bridges on the Danube, Moore’s political position became clean he’s on the left-side of the fascist wing,

Belting the “bible”

On my TV show years ago, Jack Riley walked on the set and saw me reading Variety. He said, “I’m surprised to see you reading that publication!” I asked him why and he said, “Because I thought you had more of a world perspective than that.” I said, “If there’s no world news in Variety this week, that just means the president didn’t buy an ad.”

Morality and action movies

All you have to do is look at the movies and you can feel the bankruptcy. Instead of trying to change the world for the better, Americans are saying life is a bowl of mud. We went from a time when we couldn’t address anything of substance to where we go to a movie now and treachery is a given. Everybody’s shooting everybody. It seems we’ve convinced the American public that truth is darkness. Once you buy into that, then the war’s over.

Hope against hope

Where have we come? Where the hell are we? I don’t expect young people should have any hope, based on what they’ve seen, but I’m cursed. I saw something better.