William 'Willie' Wilkerson III, the son of Hollywood Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson took it upon himself to write an article apologizing for his father's role in the blacklists. Brooke talks to Willie about how the legacy of his father's behavior has followed him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we heard, in the course of that work, Miller contacted Billy Wilkerson’s son, Willie Wilkerson, who ended up writing an apology for his father's redbaiting for the Magazine. Willie says he’s wanted to publicly apologize for 15 years. Even though he wasn't even born when his father began his anti-Communist crusade, Willie says he's been in the shadow of the blacklist his entire life.
WILLIE WILKERSON: I am the victim of what is known as reverse blacklisting. The people that my father named went on to have children, who then went into the entertainment industry, who then wouldn’t give me employment. So by issuing an apology, it hopefully levels the playing field and stops this terrible anger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You write in your apology, quote, “The movie brass refused him entry into their club and squashed his dream, so he found another dream exacting revenge.”
WILLIE WILKERSON: I mean, this is the classic revenge story that rivals “The Count of Monte Cristo.” In 1927, he wanted to start his own film studio as an independent. The problem was that the movie moguls at that time, they owned the talent, they owned the distribution, they owned the theater chains. So it would have been very difficult for my father as an independent to produce something and to get it distributed to their movie chains without them inviting him into his club. Now, we don't know the reason why they rejected him, but he took that rejection very personally because he realized then that he could not have the dream that he wanted to, which was to build his own studio. So he started The Reporter in 1930, and he would get his gangster friends to guard his reporters as they broke into studio executive offices in the middle of the night to steal sensitive material, so that he could publish it front page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willie, do you have any proof of these accusations?
WILLIE WILKERSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is part of the public record; it’s been written about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you were 11 when your father died.
WILLIE WILKERSON: That’s correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did he talk about the blacklist? Did he talk about Communism?
WILLIE WILKERSON: No, this was one of the, the forbidden subjects at the dinner table. And, of course, being a kid, it just piqued my curiosity even more. I mean, after his death in 1962 I read [LAUGHS] “Das Kapital” by, you know, Marx and Hegel, ‘cause I wanted to find out what this forbidden subject was. Growing up, there was a gun in every drawer. My father slept with a revolver by his bed. He drove armor-plated cars. My mother and my father got into these screaming matches at the dinner table. My mother demanded that we as a family be relocated to Europe because there were ongoing death threats against my family, of which –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From whom?
WILLIE WILKERSON: We don't know. We can only presume from the people that my father maligned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, like Dalton Trumbo is gonna slap your father with a death threat?
WILLIE WILKERSON: You know, there would be anonymous phone calls calling the house, apparently, that my mother would tell me about. Obviously, I mean, this really rattled my mother. She wanted to be relocated with my sister and myself, and my father be left in Hollywood to fight his own battles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This apology you wrote on behalf of your entire family, you kept from your family. Was it because you didn’t think your family would be on board? Did you think that you had a right to speak for all of them, without letting them know?
WILLIE WILKERSON: This came very quickly, and I just sort of made an executive decision standing on my feet. I suppose, if I had gone to, you know, my sister or my son or, or my cousin Ron Wilkerson and had a chance to mull this over, I mean, they probably would have maybe talked me out of it. So I said, look, I’ve been meaning to do this for 15 years, I’ve got to go ahead and do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In spite of all of this, you call your father a great man.
WILLIE WILKERSON: There’s also an element in this karmic aspect where the truth will set you free. I feel obligated, as his biographer, to tell the true story of his life. I mean, ei - 80% of it is just absolutely remarkable, the things he achieved, the people that he helped. I mean, he discovered more movie stars independently outside of the movie system than any other individual. But there was that 20% which makes me cringe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willie, thank you very much.
WILLIE WILKERSON: It’s a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willie Wilkerson is the son of Hollywood Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson.