Mike Farrell was first approached seriously about running for high political office in California nearly two decades ago. But the actor who played Captain B.J. Hunnicut on M*A*S*H and who now promotes public-policy causes turned down the consortium eager to back his candidacy for governor or U.S. senator because it meant a year away from his two young children. Farrell got the call “about running in this crazy recall circus” just a few weeks ago. This time, his kids are grown. But Farrell still said no, and says he will continue to say no, even though everyone who knows him believes he’d make a far better guv than Ronald or Arnold.
“First, I have an aversion of going with hat in hand asking people for money,” Farrell notes. “I’m also not much interested in associating with those people, even though I have some very good friends who are public servants and also decent, thoughtful, committed individuals. And, lastly, I’m not an administrator. I don’t want to run anything.”
And that’s the problem: Hollywood talent who are Democrats don’t want to run, don’t want to walk, don’t want to even get their foot in the door for political office.
What’s stopping them?
It’s a ridiculously obvious question, yet the answer is perplexingly elusive. Or maybe it’s as simple as: They’re cowards.
Their Republican counterparts — Reagan, hillbilly singer Roy Acuff, George Murphy, Fred Grandy, Shirley Temple Black, Clint Eastwood, Fred Thompson, Sonny Bono and now Schwarzenegger — keep going and going and going for elective office and multiplying and multiplying and multiplying as political candidates.
(And that’s not even counting the next generation of Republican media stars about to leap into races: TV hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and, here at home, KABC radio talker Larry Elder.)
Filmmaker, philanthropist, funnyman Paul Newman (who’s going to sue the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for misusing the name HUD) would make a more viable candidate than Schwarzenegger. So would environmentalist Robert Redford, who at least role-played The Candidate. But neither Butch Cassidy nor Sundance has ever tossed so much as a costume cowboy hat into the political ring.
“Democrats in Hollywood have more sense. For one thing, they can separate reality from the movies,” insists Andy Spahn, political adviser to DreamWorks SKG. “Besides, politics is a funny business. Running for office is a very unpredictable challenge. I don’t think any race is a given. Could Robert Redford be elected in Utah?”
That’s a senatorial contest ready for prime time, along with any campaigns starring Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Ed Asner, Alec Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, et al.
And then there’s Babs . . .
“Never,” pledges Barbra Streisand’s philanthropic and political guru, Marge Tabankin. “Because it’s not what she wants to do. She thinks of herself as an artist. Being interested in politics doesn’t mean she wants to be a politician.”
There was the comic Pat Paulsen, who ran for president in 1968 and four other times on no particular party ticket and under the campaign theme “United We Sit.” The 89-year-old Al Lewis, Grandpa from The Munsters, was the Green Party nominee for governor from New York. And in Ohio, Democrat Jerry Springer, the mayor turned trash talker, can’t get back into the election game.
Glenda Jackson doesn’t count because she ran for a parliamentary seat in Britain. Warren Beatty couldn’t make up his mind whether to run as a liberal Democrat or on a third-party ticket. Broadway star Helen Gahagan Douglas went to Congress for two terms, but lost a Senate bid to Richard Nixon. Pathetic, really, that the only actor even remotely famous who ran as a Democrat for recent political office — Bono’s Palm Springs congressional seat — was The Walton’s Ralph Waite, and he ignominiously lost to Sonny’s widow, Mary, the un-Cher.
The possibility that Hollywood Democrats might have some personal liabilities in their past can’t be what’s stopping them in the post-Clinton age. It’s hard to imagine any extreme behavior that Jay Leno and his writers have not made safe for American living rooms through humor. Besides, Reagan was the deity of messy divorces (Jane Wyman disliked him to the end), and George W. was a drunk until 1986 (while his semiofficial economic adviser Larry Kudlow, the CNBC host, has been an on-off cocaine addict), and Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde and Rudolph Giuliani were adulterers. Now, sex, politics and videotape star Rob Lowe is an official adviser to Schwarzenegger’s campaign. Is anyone off-limits?
“Cable, which has to fill up endless amounts of airtime, chat and gossip shows, the explosion of reality programming in prime time — all have taken the shock effect out of anything a candidate could do,” maintains Tara McPherson, assistant professor in USC’s School of Cinema/TV, where she teaches courses in television, new media and contemporary popular culture. “Except maybe child molestation, and even Roman Polanski got away with that and this spring won an Oscar.”
As for California, in the 2002 midterm election and again in the weeks leading up to the recall petitioning, pundits were poised for a “Terminator Meets Meathead” battle that never materialized. Rob Reiner, too, had entered the statewide political fray by spearheading a proposition, the Early Childhood Development Tobacco Surtax Tax, which passed by a knife’s edge in 1998. But unlike Arnold, Hollywood Democrats such as Reiner were hindered from running because of the pretense of anti-recall party unity.
Insists Reiner’s political consultant, Chad Griffin: “Rob made it clear he considered the recall to be an abuse of the electoral system. He opposed the drastic cuts in children’s health care, domestic-violence centers and education that a right-wing Republican would force on the voters and cost them $60 million.”
As for Reiner’s political future, Griffin says, “Rob has been very consistent. His goal is making Prop. 10 a success and directing films. He’s not ruled out any run.”
Farrell, in retrospect, would have been a worthy opponent for Schwarzenegger. Born in Minnesota and the son of a carpenter, Farrell even did a hitch with the Marines. He is president of Family Motion Pictures, whose purpose is “to make movies that encourage adults to bring their children with them to the theater.” Like Reagan before him, he’s a leader of the Screen Actors Guild. He serves on California’s Commission on Judicial Performance and lectures against capital punishment. He led this year’s anti-war activism among artists. He’s married to America’s onetime TV sweetheart Shelley Fabares. And, in the cartoon series, he provided the voice of Superman’s father.
“Everyone’s been asking Mike to run for years. He’d be just incredible. But he doesn’t want to do it,” notes Tabankin, his longtime pal. “It doesn’t surprise me people like Mike don’t want to run for political office. What does surprise me is that Democrats have so little appreciation for those in the artistic world.”
Music mogul Danny Goldberg blames Democratic Party snobbishness.
“Republican political advisers have obviously been nurturing Schwarzenegger for years,” he maintains. “Farrell, Dreyfuss, there are hundreds of Democrats who are actors or performers who would have fit the bill. But there’s a cultural resistance on the Democratic side to acknowledge what people like to bring to the table. People have to be encouraged and groomed to run. It’s a very subtle process.”
Obviously, too subtle for us mere mortals in the land of the brave.
Contact Nikki Finke at email@example.com.