First of a four part series based on thousands of secret government documents detailing how the powerful FBI chief took aim on Hollywood to manipulate every aspect of the TV show “The FBI,” the media and his own legacy.
By David Robb
HOLLYWOOD, CA (Hollywood Today) 2/27/08 — The Secret Files of “The FBI,” Part 1: J. Edgar Hoover in Hollywood is the dramatic story of how Hoover, already famously obsessive, was even more so in the control of the TV show “The FBI” and other aspects of Hollywood to fashion the FBI legend and his own legacy.
These Hollywood Today Newsmagazine articles are set against one of the most turbulent eras in American history — Watergate, the civil rights movement, assassinations and the Vietnam War. They are the culmination of years of work by acclaimed Hollywood investigative reporter and author David Robb working from 5,000 pages of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Fade in, 1966: The actors were all in place, and the cameras were rolling on Sound Stage 3-A on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California for the hit ABC television series “The FBI,” which was just starting its second season.
Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, the FBI’s No. 3 man, was visiting the set that day to watch the show being filmed. He was in good spirits, but what he was about to see would shock him.
“Action!” yelled director Christian Nyby.
The scene they were shooting that day was the TV series’ standard opener. At the beginning of each episode straight-arrow FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine, (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) would walk into his boss’ office to get his next assignment. But instead of getting his orders and marching out of the office as usual, this time Zimbalist flopped down in a chair, propped his feet up on his boss’ desk, lit a cigar and pulled a half-pint of whiskey from his coat pocket.
“To hell with it,” Zimbalist said, still in character as Erskine and taking a long swig of whisky. “I’m not doing any more work today.”
DeLoach, looking on from behind the cameras, was horrified. And without a moment’s hesitation, he bounded onto the stage, waving his arms. “What the hell’s going on here?” he yelled, stopping the filming. “This is not in accordance with our agreement!”
Indeed, this scene wasn’t in the script that had been approved by the FBI – as all the show’s scripts were. It was a gag that had been arranged by the show’s director, and all the cast and crew were in on it. And after a long moment of silence, with DeLoach standing there with a dumbfounded look on his face, the entire set burst into gales of laughter.
“Everybody broke into laughter,” Zimbalist said in an interview for this story, “and of course, Deke did too…eventually.”
“They played a joke on me,” DeLoach recalled, chuckling at the memory.
But FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s almost total control over the show was no laughing matter. More than 5,000 pages of internal FBI memos about the show obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Hoover controlled every aspect of the show’s production, approving the cast and crew, the writers, the directors and every word of every script. Anyone with a criminal background was banned from working on the show, as was anyone suspected of being a “pervert,” or of even being remotely connected to the “worldwide Communist conspiracy.” Hoover even controlled who could advertise on the show.
The FBI files also show that Hoover hated Quinn Martin, the creator and executive producer of “The FBI,” and frequently threatened to pull the plug the long-running ABC show.
“Nothing Martin does will change my opinion that he is a rat,” Hoover wrote in an angry scrawl at the bottom of a memo dated July 22, 1965 – two months before the first episode of the show aired.
Quinn Martin had already had a huge hit on ABC with “The Untouchables,” starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, and in 1965, at age 43, the bookishly handsome producer had three hit shows on ABC at the same time – “The Fugitive,” “12 O’clock High” and “The FBI,” and was well on his way to becoming one of the top producers in television history. Martin would go on to produce such hit shows as “The Invaders,” “Cannon,” “The Streets of San Francisco” and “Barnaby Jones,” among many others.
None of that, however, impressed Hoover, who was not used to someone else running the show.
“I have no desire to have any personal contact with project after Martin’s insolence and lies,” Hoover fumed in another handwritten memo just before the show’s 1965 debut
The FBI memos – although heavily redacted – show that the entire hierarchy of the Bureau was involved in making sure that the FBI was depicted on the show in only the most favorable light. Hoover and his No. 2 man, Clyde Tolson, read every script, and Hoover often wrote mean-spirited, imperious and humorless notes in the margins.
“See that it is done,” he wrote haughtily on one memo.
“I want no equivocation about this either here or at the studio,” he wrote on another.
“I want no yielding on the restrictions I have laid down,” he ordered on another.
“Hollywood will take a yard if you give them an inch,” he sneered in another.
And if his orders weren’t followed, he could cancel the show on a whim because in 1954, he’d persuaded Congress to pass Public Law 670, which gave him the authority to decide who could – and who could not – commercially exploit the FBI name and insignia. One word from Hoover, and ABC would have to cancel the show.
Hoover, whose lifelong obsession was ferreting Communists and Communist sympathizers – “fellow travelers” – out of Hollywood, brought that fixation to “The FBI,” as well.
In a memo, dated May 26, 1965, FBI Special Agents assigned to the show had run a background check on an actor who the producers “were most anxious to employ.” It turned out, however, that the actor had signed a petition in 1951 on behalf of the “Hollywood Ten” – the ten men who had gone to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. The actor was questioned about this, and the FBI Special Agent assigned to the show determined that he was not a Communist or a Communist sympathizer, and that it would be all right for Quinn Martin to hire him.
But Hoover, who in the 1940s and ‘50s had hounded hundreds of Hollywood actors, writers and directors who he suspected of being Communists, was not about to let someone appear on his show who was a ‘fellow traveler.’
“No,” Hoover wrote back in his small, barely-legible scrawl. “I do not want even a fellow traveler in the cast nor one who is stupidly naïve.”
That the director of the FBI could so completely control the cast and creative content of a Hollywood production raises serious First Amendment issues. It also raises questions about the role numerous governmental agencies play today in shaping the content of films and television shows. No one in government today has the power in Hollywood that Hoover wielded over “The FBI” series, but his effectiveness in shaping the show to his liking was so complete that it inspired President Richard Nixon in 1970 to urge other governmental agencies to follow Hoover’s lead and develop shows of their own. Today, numerous governmental entities – including the FBI, the CIA, the Office of Homeland Security and the Pentagon have liaison officers who try to influence and shape the content of films and TV shows.
“The FBI” aired Sunday nights on ABC during a nine-year-span from 1965 to 1974 – an era that coincided with the Vietnam War, Watergate, mass protests, civil unrest, assassinations and widespread abuses by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
None of this, however, was ever shown on the series, which Hoover frequently referred to in memos as “our TV show.”
On Hoover’s orders, the FBI agents depicted on the show were not allowed to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. They couldn’t be shown tapping phones; they could not be shown with girlfriends, and they could never, ever do anything wrong.
In 1967, Hoover ordered the producers to re-write a script that depicted the killing of a police informant. “The Bureau will not accept for review any script reflecting the intimidation, injury or killing of any informant depicted on our program no matter when law enforcement agency he is assisting,” an FBI memo stated.
And in 1969 – four years into the show – Hoover decreed that he would no longer allow any more killings to be shown on “The FBI.”
“We must carefully screen the scripts in our TV show so as to eliminate violence,” Hoover wrote in his small, cramped hand, at the bottom of a memo dated July 13, 1969.
And that was it. After that, not a single killing occurred on the show for the next five years.
A year later, Hoover ordered that the show no longer make any references to the Mafia. An FBI memo dated Aug. 28,1970, states that the FBI Special Agent assigned to the show had been instructed “to tell the production staff that no reference to La Cosa Nostra or the Mafia are to appear in any future script.” And that was that – no more Mafia.
And when Hoover was told in a Dec. 3, 1971, memo that Warner Bros. Studios was thinking about extending the 60-minute show to 90 minutes, Hoover wrote “We do not want a 90-minute format” the bottom of the memo. Parenthetically, one of Hoover’s aides noted that Warner Bros. vice president Bernard Goodman “has been so advised.” And of course, “The FBI” stayed an hour-long show until it went off the air in 1974.
Hoover also had the final say in who could, and could not, work on the show.
In an internal FBI memo dated March 8, 1972 – just two months before Hoover’s death – Milton A. Jones, the FBI section chief who oversaw the TV series, wrote that the FBI had never allowed “drunkards, kooks, perverts, faggots, junkies and others of this ilk” to work on the show. This included, he said, “people like Jane Fonda and Dalton Trumbo of the Hollywood Ten.”
“The names of thousands of persons have been submitted to us since 1965 as potential actors, writers and directors for episodes of ‘The FBI’ series,” said an FBI memo dated Oct. 2, 1973. “Their names have been checked against the Bureau’s files and the fingerprint files of the Identification Division. The overwhelming majority of these persons have been approved for use in the television series. In the remaining cases, Bureau files and/or files of the Identification Division have contained information indicating that embarrassment and/or criticism could result from the use of these persons on ‘The FBI’ series.”
Besides Fonda and Trumbo, FBI documents show that Bette Davis and Robert Blake were also blackballed from appearing on the show: Davis because Hoover felt that she was a “communist sympathizer,” and Blake because he once mouthed off in a newspaper interview that he would “rather play a so-called bad guy in an episode of ‘The FBI’ than a so-called hero in a movie, and I’ll tell you something else: I’d make Efrem Zimbalist look like the heavy.”
And at the bottom of a news clip of that interview, Hoover wrote: “See that Blake never appears on ‘The FBI.’”
Actress Angel Tompkins, who appeared on the “Death Watch” episode of the show during its sixth season, was banned from ever appearing on the show again because a year after her episode aired on Feb. 14, 1971, she appeared in Playboy magazine.
“On one occasion,” an FBI memo said, “we also found it necessary to remove a person from the list of persons O.K.’d for use in our television series. One such individual is actress Angel Tompkins, who was the subject of an indecent photo-article in the February, 1972, issue of Playboy magazine – which article cited the fact that she had appeared in ‘The FBI.’”
“It is shocking that the FBI could interfere with my constitutional and artistic rights just because I appeared in Playboy,” scoffed Tompkins, who is a longtime member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild.
Hoover, who believed that Hollywood was awash with Communists, had a particular loathing for Jane Fonda, Hollywood’s leading anti-war protester in the late-1960s. So when an irate viewer of “The FBI” wrote in to complain that the show’s star, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., had read a promo at the conclusion of the show’s Sept. 27, 1970, episode for “Hurry Sundown” – an upcoming ABC Movie of the Week starring Jane Fonda – Hoover became apoplectic.
The viewer wrote that by advising viewers to “stay tuned for ‘Hurry Sundown,’ starring Jane Fonda,” Zimbalist had “wittingly or unwittingly” abetted “radical pro-Communist groups to which traitorous conduct is laudable.” The irate viewer said that this announcement “cheapened the FBI program in my opinion,” adding that movies in which Jane Fonda appear “might well be boycotted by Americans.” (And this was before she went to Hanoi in 1972 – a few months after Hoover’s death – and was famously photographed smiling and sitting on the seat of an anti-aircraft gun used to shoot down American warplanes.)
After reading the irate viewer’s letter, Hoover leaped into action. But first, he’d have to have the irate viewer investigated, as he did with everyone who wrote in to his office. Over the years, Hoover had received hundreds of letters about the show, and everyone who wrote in – every man, woman and child – was investigated.
For instance, just before Christmas of 1971, a kid from Philadelphia wrote in with a question about the show.
“Dear FBI,” the kid wrote in a child-like hand. “What kind of money do you use in your show? And I really like your show. Please write back.”
Hoover wrote back, all right, saying that “the money used on the show is real” – but not before he had the kid investigated. A note in the FBI files states: “Bufiles contain no record of correspondent” – which means that the Bureau’s files were checked to see if there was an arrest record or anything derogatory about the kid before Hoover wrote back.
The same routine was followed when a little boy from La Mirada, California, wrote in about an apartment building that had been shot up during a shoot-out on the show. “At the end of the program, the FBI Agent told the owner of the apartment that he was sorry about the bullet holes they shot into his building,” the kid wrote in a hand-written letter clearly penned by a child. “I would like to know who pays for the damages that are made by the bullets?”
A few days later, Hoover wrote back to the kid saying that “damages to private property are generally paid by the United States Government” – but not before he had the Bureau’s files checked to see if they had anything on the kid. “Bufiles contain no record of correspondent,” a note attached to the boy’s letter said.
Hoover even had senators and congressmen investigated when they wrote to his office.
In 1967, when Indiana Congressman Richard L. Roudebush wrote to Hoover saying that he’d received a letter from a constituent with a complaint about the accuracy of one of the shows, Hoover had the constituent and the congressman investigated.
“We have had cordial correspondence with Congressman Roudebush in connection with constituent matters,” Hoover was told in a memo. “He was elected to the 87th Congress in 11-8-60. Bufiles contain no derogatory information concerning him.”
And when U.S. Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana passed the same citizen’s letter of complaint along to the FBI, Hoover had the Senator investigated, as well.
So after Bureau files turned up nothing derogatory about the irate viewer who had written in to complain about the promo for the Jane Fonda movie, Hoover wrote him back on Oct. 1, 1970, saying: “You may be sure that your observations regarding the announcement at the conclusion of the program highlighting the motion picture ‘Hurry Sundown’ will be brought to the attention of appropriate officials of QM Productions, the organization which produces ‘The FBI’ television series.”
FBI documents show that Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand-man, then ordered the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the show to “immediately contact the production staff of ‘The FBI,’ apprise them of the contents of the enclosed letter and advise them in no uncertain terms that spot announcements by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. or any other member of the cast of the television series highlighting motion pictures featuring persons of the ilk of Jane Fonda are highly objectionable.”
A follow-up memo noted that the SAC in Hollywood “telephoned the Bureau to advise that Philip Saltzman, producer of ‘The FBI,’ had just received word from ABC in New York that all future spot announcements by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., highlighting motion pictures scheduled to follow our television series had been canceled.”
A month later, in November of 1970, Hoover would flex his muscles again – this time by threatening to cancel “The FBI” unless ABC fired a nightly news anchor who had criticized him.
Next: Part 2 of The Secret Files of ‘The FBI’: “I Cannot Approve Further Portrayal of FBI”
Author David Robb is the former labor, legal and investigative reporter at The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety. This series is a follow-up to his 2004 book “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.” Michael Ravnitzky provided research for this series.
Captions:Among handwritten Hoover notes: “Nothing Martin (producer Quinn Martin) does will change my opinion he is a rat.” “I never intended this to be turned in to a Roman Circus…We must carefully screen the scripts in our TV show …” “We do not want 90 minute format.”