He Taught Hollywood How to Act

May. 4, 2017
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Jeff Corey (1914-2002) was never a star but became the tutor to the stars. He played in a raft of post-World War II pictures including such noirs as The Killers and Kidnapped and costume dramas as Wake of the Red Witch and Bright Leaf. Corley arrived in Hollywood—like many New York actors—after Congressional reactionaries shut down the Federal Theatre Project in the late 1930s. His resume of roles was increasing until—once again—politicians intervened. Corey ran afoul the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the infamous Congressional body that inaugurated McCarthyism before McCarthy lent the witch-hunt his name.

Corey tells his story in Improvising Out Loud: My Life Teaching Hollywood to Act. Written with his daughter Emily Corey, the memoir has finally been published by University Press of Kentucky. In it, he calls HUAC’s chairman J. Parnell Thomas “prone to the theatrical,” but not as a compliment. The investigations of Communist infiltration of Hollywood by the splenetic, gavel-wielding Congressman led to prison for several actors and screenwriters and subpoenas for many more.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Corey chose not to flee into exile when his subpoena arrived. Instead, he pled the Fifth Amendment at his HUAC hearing and refused to provide the committee with the names of fellow actors who might have been associated with the Communist Party. He admits to his own “investigations into the Communist Party in the 1930s” but was soon repelled by Soviet repression. He served no prison time but was blacklisted by the American movie and television industries for 12 years.

To keep working, Corey organized an actor’s training class whose alumni would include Leonard Nimoy, Carol Burnett and Jack Nicholson. As word got out, the studios that blacklisted him sent their stars his way for coaching. Impatient with “theoretical palaver,” his homemade version of the Method emphasized practical outcomes.

By 1961 with McCarthyism in retreat, Corey was hired for a guest spot in “The Untouchables.” An unlikely benefactor, Pat Boone, leveraged his power as a successful pop singer to bring Corey back to the movie studios for a second act in Hollywood that included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit and In Cold Blood.


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