We talk on the phone Monday, September 18, 2006.
Luke: "When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Lionel stumbles. "Boy, nobody's ever asked me that. I didn't have a pleasant childhood. I wanted to get a job. I wanted out. You know what? I can't answer that question. That's interesting. Can we move on?"
Luke: "What did your parents want from you and for you?"
Lionel laughs. "I didn't have a close relationship with my parents. They didn't like me. My father wasn't around much, which left my mother in a state of existential franticness. I was born in England in the East End of London. We were cockneys.
"We emigrated to Canada in 1952. I grew up in Montreal. I left school at 14. My father had gotten into trouble and money was needed. I went back to school and got expelled. I went to work in a telephone manufacturing [plant]."
Luke: "What did your mother want for you and from you?"
Lionel: "Just a contribution to the weekly household funds. I understand the question but it's not within the context the life we led. She had no ambition for me whatsoever. 'Go out and get a bloody job and bring your pay packet home.' I understood that to be the order of things. When I joined the Army, I sent money home."
Luke: "Did you hate authority?"
Lionel: "By the time I got to highschool, that was a problem, but by the time I got into the Army, I embraced authority."
Luke: "Did you get into trouble?"
Lionel: "Yes, for rambunctious behavior. Today they'd pump me full of ritalin. My teachers resented me."
Lionel: "As a conditional student, I got into junior college without finishing highschool. I got my B.A. from St. George.
"Since my days in the Army, I nurtured this fantasy of being a writer. There's a lot of spare time in the Army."
"I had narrow horizons for most of my life. You're asking me big questions. I didn't frame things in those terms. It took me a while to see myself as having sufficient autonomy to form those choices."
"When I got to college, I got involved with the socialist end of things, the New Democratic party. I did some union organizing. Then there was a seismic shift in Canadian politics with people such as Pierre Trudeau (the most famous member of the "three wise men from Quebec" along with Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier) leaving the regular left and went to the Liberal party [left-of-center]."
Luke: "What kind of Jewish involvement did you have?"
Lionel: "Not nearly as much as I do today. Montreal was and is a continuum of ghettos between the English and French. The English are then divided into Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Within the Jews, there were various economic distinctions. I was not given to going to the Jewish summer camps. Certainly the Canadian Army was not a great center for Jews."
Luke: "Where was God in your life?"
Lionel: "I always believed in God but it was not shaped by religiosity or ritual. I did organize my own bar mitzvah."
Luke: "Did your relationship with God make life less lonely?"
Lionel: "Yes. I always had a sense of the future. I had a sense of my own destiny. That I could be more than I was. A lot of that came from my instinctual belief in God, which I did not get from my upbringing or my parents."
Luke: "Where your did your facility with words come from?"
Lionel: "No idea."
Luke: "Did you have relatives in your life?"
Lionel: "No. [British activist, writer, and broadcaster] Claire Rayner is my sister. My father's family was successful."
Lionel's parents died within a few days of each other circa 1981. "At their request, they were buried in an Anglican churchyard. Much of the time they did not acknowledge they were Jews."
Luke: "How did you get your first Hollywood credit [co-screenwriter for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz]?
Lionel: "I was living in London. I met [fellow Canadian] Ted Kotcheff. He directed my first effort - a stageplay called Maybe That's Your Problem. Not a magnificent success. I still have the reviews. They were the worst reviews one could imagine. That I had the courage to walk down the street in London after these reviews is amazing.
"As Canadian expatriates tend to know, Ted and I talked about how small-minded Canada could be. I told him there was only one Canadian novel of significance -- The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He said that he owned the rights to the novel and gave me the opportunity to write the screenplay."
Luke: "Why did you say Duddy was the only significant Canadian novel?"
Lionel: "Canadian novels had been of the Robertson Davies variety in which nobody goes to the bathroom and nobody has sex. We used to say that Canada is a Scottish country. It was settled by the Scots and it has all the marks of that world -- dour, quiet, constrained, proper, Presbyterian world. The Kiwis are the middle-class English of the 1930s and the Australians are the Irish -- where the men thumped their women and then go see a porn movie. We always envied the Australians. They seemed so carefree compared to us. We were a tight-ass people.
"Duddy Kravitz was Mordechai Richler's first. He wrote the same novel over and over again. Duddy Kravitz was a new voice for Canada. A non-dour, non-Scottish novel in the spirit of Philip Roth speaking about an ethnic experience that didn't exist in Canadian literature. You read the novel and said, 'My God. Does this mean that we belong?' It was a novel about Canadians like me.
"Suddenly I was making money writing. It was a joyous experience. If you can take the ego hits, you can lead a good life around your kids at home.
"I had an agent, Bill Haber, who told me, 'You have no star desire.' At the time, I thought, 'Like hell I don't. I'll show you.' In retrospect, he was right.
"It was the height of the me-generation. People are more forgiving now of those who want to have families and lives and normal things."
Luke: "Did you have a relationship with Mordecai Richler?"
Lionel: "No. He always resented my involvement. He wasn't a pleasant guy. He was frequently petty."
Luke: "How did you journey from left to right?"
Lionel: "Jimmy Carter was president. I had supported Jimmy Carter. I had two young kids. I was struggling to make my way. It's hard to be faced with a double digit inflation rate. Interest rates were 16%. Stagflation. A disaster. I cared about the Cold War, Israel, Russian Jews. Everywhere you look, we were losing.
"He gave this moral lassitude (malaise) speech. He said it was our fault. Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to Ronald Reagan. I was mesmerized by the optimism, by his clear moral sense. I had the opportunity to write some speeches for him, particularly on the Middle East."
Luke: How did you come to write 1981's Miracle on Ice?
Lionel: "Frank Von Zerneck called me. I grew up with hockey. I love it. There was no familiarity time. When I got to Herb Brooks, I was up and running. Our time together was exponentially levered."
Luke: "What did you think about Miracle?"
Lionel: "There was a sense of deja vu with Miracle. When I heard Miracle was happening, and I read the script, I asked the Writer's Guild for an arbitration but they wouldn't give it to me. Herb Brooks is a wonderful guy but not a verbal man. I met with Herb for hours. I provided lockerroom speeches for him in the film but they weren't what he told he'd said. Then these speeches showed up, these quotes. Let me stop here. I want to take the high road.
"I'm so distrustful of the [interview] process, Luke. You've got to forgive me. It's stressful. Nothing personal."
Lionel: "No. At this point, you are supposed to reassure me."
Luke: "Right. I acknowledge your feelings."
Lionel: "Now I feel a lot better."
Luke: "I'm a friend of Cathy's."
Lionel: "You sound like Mike Wallice. 'But I'm a Jew. How can you suggest that I did anything wrong with that Ahmadinejad interview?'
"You're a Jew this week. You're a friend of Cathy's. That's good."
Luke: "How did you get brought on to the Sadat project?"
Lionel: "I pitched myself to producer Dan Blatt and enumerated all the reasons why nobody else could do Sadat like I could do Sadat.
"After it aired, I was put on trial in Egypt [in absentia] for bringing shame to an Arab nation. I claim that the reason I was put on trial was because I did such a good job of telling Sadat's story. I was sentenced in absentia.
"We had the original story of how Carter agreed to give up the Shah for the hostages to assure his reelection. I wasn't on set in Sonora and they canceled those sequences. And they added a scene that implies that Sadat went to Jerusalem because he was deeply moved by a letter he got from Jimmy Carter."
Luke: "After Miracle on Ice, you developed the niche of writing movies quickly after the historical event."
Lionel: "I see. The implication being what? That I'm a shlockmeister who can do it quicker?
"One cannot deny the obvious. That's true. I work quickly. I annotate my scripts. I have several sources for each scene. It sounds like Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Path to 9/11) should've annotated more thoroughly."
Luke: "Were there any special obstacles writing the Carl Foreman movie?"
"The second Mrs. Kramer knew nothing about what had gone on [Carl was blacklisted]. She decided that we had no right to discuss this.
"PBS decided that this wasn't a good movie to have out there because it impugned the great liberal god Stanley Kramer.
"I established this rule that we would only interview people who could speak firsthand about what had gone on. She couldn't do that because she wasn't there.
"The central thesis of our film was that the blacklist was frequently used to settle personal accounts."
Luke: "In which of your products has the final product been most disappointing?"
Lionel: "So Proudly We Hail represents the biggest lost opportunity. I never pulled it off. I wrote and directed it so it is my own fault. I was given every opportunity but it didn't work. I don't know why it didn't work."
Lionel won't talk about his falling out with David Horowitz. Lionel co-founded the Wednesday Morning Club with David. It's now run by David.
Luke: "What did you think of Fahrenheit 9/11?"
Lionel: "The story was that Michael Moore got so pissed at DC 9/11 that he made Fahrenheit 9/11. It's a propaganda movie. I did Celsius 41.11[: The Temperature at Which the Brain... Begins to Die], which certainly got less attention. It's also a propaganda movie.
"If I'm looking for verisimilitude, I shouldn't be going to his movies."
Luke: "Didn't you find some part of his movie entertaining?"
Lionel: "He's as entertaining as hell. That's the problem. That's why you've got to hate him."
Luke: "That footage of Wolfowitz licking his comb."
Lionel: "That's cheap. That's what his films are about. Wolfowitz has a life of distinguished public service."
Luke: "What's it like to grow old in Hollywood and still find work?"
Lionel: "I don't know yet being such a young child... So many of my friends no longer work. It's troubling. It's been said, 'In Hollywood, you do not retire. You are retired. They'll let you know when it's over.' One day I'll be just another guy in white shoes sitting in Nate 'n Al's [Beverly Hills deli] having breakfast and wondering who those young kids are over there. That hasn't come yet and I'm not going to contemplate it until I have to.
"The town is unforgiving about age. As we say: 'Whatever happened to him?' 'It dried up.' It was decided that his soul had leprosy and he was no longer needed."
Luke: "How much has your conservative politics affected your career?"
Lionel laughs. "It has not been helpful."
Luke: "Yet you have a huge list of credits."
Lionel: "Yes. But you'll notice a period of interruption [from 1987-1991].
"My wife smoked during her pregnancies because that's what people did then. Our youngest son teases her, 'Do you know what I could've been?' He has a fine law degree. He was a columnist for a national magazine. He was covering the White House at 23 for the Wall Street Journal. He was professional baseball player. He's 6'2".
"There were places where I was denied work. The famous remark by a gay executive, a major buyer, about me: 'We don't hire him here because he's a conservative and they can not write caring characters.'
"I forced the guy to have lunch with me because we had the same lawyer and I confronted him with what he said. He freaked out and wouldn't say anything. I said, 'Relax. I'm not going to sue you. But I'd have thought that you as a gay man would've shied away from that kind of vicious stereotyping.' He clammed up. I had dessert and coffee. I made him stick it out.
"I won't say his name. One can figure it out if one checks on my credits. It will become apparent where I didn't work.
"People hire in their own image.
"One reason I have a lot of credits is there a certain thing I do, which I do well. Historical material. But there are disadvantages to not being in the mainstream in Hollywood.
"Opposing the Writer's Guild strikes in the 1980s, more than anything, turned my world upside down. It was interpreted as an expression of right-wing politics, which it wasn't. I'm a big believer in the Guild. It was an expression of my dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Guild at that moment."
Lionel Chetwynd calls me back Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006.
Lionel: "At a screening, an older guy said, 'I used to be the late night engineer at [one of L.A's independent television stations]. One night we ran High Noon. We had an old copy. There were these credit cards with the names scratched out [as producer].'"
"HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] was indefensible and Carl Foreman was a victim."
Luke: "How did you come to know Carl Foreman?"
Lionel: "He was living in England and a producer at Columbia Pictures when I worked there [1968-1972]. We would go for lunch. He'd give me advice on writing. He'd read my attempts at writing. If something was going on, I could always call Carl. He was a mentor."
Luke: "Why aren't you appalled that he was a former Communist and that he wouldn't name names?"
Lionel: "For me making judgments on former communists, the line is August 1939 when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Carl left the Communist Party over the Hitler-Stalin pact. He woke up to Stalin. That's what he told me. He went before HUAC and said he was a Communist Party member but that he'd given his word to his friends that he wouldn't name names [of other Communist Party members] and so he didn't. It was a matter of personal honor.
"The Communist Party line was that you did not plead the Fifth Amendment [against incriminating yourself], you did not admit to being a Communist, and you did not recognize HUAC's authority to hold these hearings. The American Communist Party took its cues from the Soviet Union."
"The naming of names was a farce because HUAC already had the names."
"The film doesn't make a judgment. It presents the experience in his words and interviews those who were there at the time and are still alive. No one who was there at the time has come forward to say that this documentary is false. And I sent it around to a lot of people who were there at the time."
Luke: "Do you think Elia Kazan was wrong to name names?"
Lionel: "We're not talking about the film anymore.
"It's a personal calculus. Kazan is called to task for his hypocrisy of naming names. In the catalogue of the great sins of the period, I don't think he's outstanding. What Carl Foreman did was honorable."
"I do not speak well of those who destroyed people's lives for having been a member of the Communist Party."
Luke: "What about destroying someone's life for being a member of the Nazi Party? What is wrong with destroying someone's life for having belonged to the Communist Party?"
Lionel: "I'm uncomfortable with the publication of books like Red Channels, where people who were not members of the Communist Party but had supported one movement or another suddenly found themselves published in this book and that this was used as evidence that they are subversive. Employment was denied them.
"Some parts of the civil rights movement was Communist. Paul Robeson was a Communist. But that doesn't mean that the entire civil rights movement of the period was a Communist front [which is essentially what Red Channels alleged]."
Luke: "Do you believe that the American Communist Party was a force for evil?"
Lionel: "Yes. Do I believe that everyone who belonged to the American Communist Party was a knowing agent of evil? No. In the 1930s, during a time of great economic upheaval, there were all manner of reasons why someone could've looked at the communist message and it held promise."
Luke: "Couldn't you say the same thing about the Nazis? And if not, why not?"
Lionel: "Because Nazism was at root a political ideology based on racial purity. Communism presented its face in the 1930s in the United States as a platform for economic equality. They were dealing with different issues."
Luke: "Where did you get the idea that making this Carl Foreman documentary would redeem you in Hollywood?"
Lionel: "I wasn't doing it for redemption. I thought that this would be the one thing I could do that they wouldn't attack me. This is something that even the Hollywood Left can embrace -- the story of a victim of the Blacklist and the evil that HUAC wrought. "
Luke: "You're saying that the Blacklist and HUAC were evil?"
Lionel: "I'm using the phrases of others.
"This is much more of a gotcha interview.
"I thought that much of what we were saying was consistent with the conventional wisdom of Hollywood about the Blacklist. We were doing it through Carl's eyes, not necessarily my eyes. It seemed to us that this project would resonate with the Hollywood Left in a way that our other projects would not."
Luke: "But there was some yearning to make nice with the powers that be?"
Luke: "Why did you make the film?"
Lionel: "Because I owed it to Carl."
Luke: "His second wife [Eve Foreman now Eve Williams-Jones] was very pretty."
Lionel: "She turned his life around."
Luke: "I can see how."