Richard Collins, a screenwriter during the McCarthy era who was blacklisted for several years before he cooperated with the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, died Thursday in Ventura, Calif.
The onetime Communist Party member was 98 and the last of the group of writers and directors known as the Hollywood 19, 10 of whom went to prison for refusing to name names before the committee. He later wrote for “Bonanza” and other shows.
Collins, a longtime Los Angeles resident who went on to a three-decade career in television as a writer and producer of shows such as “Bonanza” and “Matlock,” died under hospice care after developing aspiration pneumonia, said his son, Michael Collins.
Called before the House committee twice, Collins was one of 19 unfriendly witnesses in 1947, when the congressional panel opened its investigation into subversive activity in Hollywood. He was not asked to testify but 10 who were called were cited for contempt after refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs. By 1950, all 10 — including Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Alvah Bessie and Albert Maltz — were in prison.
Anti-communist hysteria spread throughout the movie industry, causing a witch hunt that ruined lives and careers. When Collins was subpoenaed again in 1951, he identified more than 20 colleagues — including his friend and collaborator Paul Jarrico and novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg — as belonging to or sympathizing with the Communist Party. Many Hollywood figures, including Jarrico, never spoke to him again.
“Richard was unapologetic about what he did. He felt people were betraying their country,” said “Matlock” executive producer Dean Hargrove, who knew Collins for 30 years.
Collins may not have been apologetic, but he expressed regret over turning in friends. In an interview for Victor Navasky’s 1980 book on the blacklist, “Naming Names,” he called himself “a son of a bitch, a miserable little bastard. It was unfortunate but true. I was a good boy, doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Born in New York City on July 20, 1914, he was the son of fashion designer Harry Collins, who dressed the Vanderbilts and Astors. He grew up in Paris and New York before moving west with his family. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1932, he entered Stanford University, where he got to know Schulberg. He stayed for only one term, until the economic hardships of the Depression led him to drop out.
Returning to New York, Collins studied theater and joined the Young Communist League. According to his son, he got his first writing job through Schulberg’s father. By the mid-1930s he was working in Los Angeles and was active in the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party.
He drew the interest of the House committee in part because of a screenplay he co-wrote with Jarrico for “Song of Russia,” a 1944 musical drama about an American conductor who falls in love with a Russian pianist while touring her country. Committee members saw it as a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda and placed Collins on its list.
When he was subpoenaed in 1947, he told Navasky, he still felt “a great deal of respect and some affection” for his Hollywood friends who were party members. He sided with the other 18 unfriendly witnesses, even though he was already disillusioned with the party and its doctrinaire approach to literature. He said he quit the party that year.
“At that time,” he said, “it seemed to me that purely on American democratic constitutional grounds, there was a question of the propriety of asking a man his political beliefs.”
Four years later, however, he changed his mind. His work had dried up even before he had been summoned in 1947. He borrowed money to open a dress-cutting business but couldn’t make a go of it. He was by then caring for his aged parents and raising two children from his 1939 marriage to actress Dorothy Comingore, best known for portraying the character modeled on William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies in “Citizen Kane.”
He and Comingore were divorced in 1945. She lost custody of their children in a highly publicized 1952 court hearing, at which she was accused of being an unfit mother because of alcoholism and her Communist leanings. A few weeks earlier, she had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (In a 1991 movie about the blacklist era, “Guilty by Suspicion,” the character of an emotionally troubled actress hounded by the committee was inspired by Comingore.)
Michael Collins said politics did not break up his parents’ marriage, but it was a contentious issue. Director Joseph Losey, who was among those named as a Communist during the committee hearings, recounted in a 1985 interview with author Michael Ciment that after Comingore heard her husband testify on the radio, she was so distraught she cut off her hair. “I suddenly realized I was married to an informer,” she told Losey later.
Comingore died in 1971. Collins married Julie Danson in 1949; she died in 1991. In addition to his son, he is survived by daughter Judith Collard, two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.
Collins told Navasky that the main reason he decided to name names “was that I just thought it was ridiculous to go through life as a member of the Party — which taking the Fifth in effect said publicly you were doing — when I wasn’t” a member any longer.
Among the two dozen individuals he identified as Communists or sympathizers was screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who became the committee’s most prolific witness, naming more than 100 people.
With his testimony behind him, Collins went back to work, writing “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954) for producer Walter Wanger.
He also wrote the treatment for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the 1956 science-fiction movie about a town whose residents are replaced by emotionless alien clones. It was widely interpreted as a parable about the McCarthy era.
“There is a certain irony in that story,” Collins’ son said. “A lot of liberals thought it was about the committee and the brainwashing the committee did. From talking to Richard, he felt he and his peers had been brainwashed by the party, by Stalin. It’s an interesting kind of paradox that everybody faced in those times.”
In the 1960s Collins found steady work in television, producing dramatic series such as “Breaking Point” and “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre.” He later produced 127 episodes of “Bonanza” and 108 episodes of “Matlock” before retiring in 1992 at age 78.
He was considered a master of script construction and was admired for his casting and editing skills. He also was known as a generous mentor, who advised or trained many film and TV figures, including Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplays for “Shampoo” and “Chinatown,” and Gerry Sanoff, who wrote, edited and produced “Matlock.”
Despite his success, the stain of the 1950s never left him, said Sanoff, who recalled seeing people walk out of parties when Collins arrived because they disagreed with his decision to help the House committee.
“The legacy of this thing from the ’50s impacted him greatly. He had huge regrets about having done it,” Sanoff said Thursday. “That said, I’m not sure he would have done anything differently. I’m not sure he felt he had any choice.”