The death of Marlon Brando last week revived painful memories of the actor’s controversial appearance on “Larry King Live” on April 5, 1996, in which he criticized Jewish Hollywood moguls for their seeming insensitivity to blacks and other minorities. The interview, coming at a time when public criticism of Jewish influence still was mercifully rare, caused shock and outrage. Community leaders charged that in saying “the Jews” ran Hollywood, Brando was resurrecting a dangerous canard. Mortified, Brando offered a tearful public apology the next day.
He probably shouldn’t have. The transcript shows that he never said “the Jews” run Hollywood. What he said was that “Jews” run Hollywood. One is a political statement and a false one, the other is a sociological observation and arguably true. The difference is the word “the.”
Sounds petty? Try it out loud: “The Americans went into Iraq last year.” Now say: “Americans went into Iraq last year.” Hear the difference? The first one is the right one — not because all 280 million of us invaded, but because the ones who did were wearing our uniform and sent by our government. They were acting for all of us, like it or not, and so they were “the Americans.” The difference is instinctive.
Now try this: “Koreans run dry-cleaning in New York.” “The Koreans”? No, just a random group of immigrants. It’s a sociological observation, not a political one.
Try it again: “The British got chased out of India.” “The chemical industry opposed the new rules.” Or, for that matter: “The Jews helped push foreign aid through Congress.” Not a random group of landsmen, but “the Jews,” meaning the organized lobby that — like it or not — acts in our name, funded by our donations.
No, “the Jews” don’t run Hollywood. But Jews do, just as Koreans predominate in New York dry-cleaning and blacks rule basketball. It’s a sociological observation. And it’s no secret. Almost exactly a year before the notorious interview, during the lengthy battle for control of Universal Pictures after the Seagram takeover, the New York Times ran a box on its front business page listing the top 10 Hollywood studios and the top two executives at each. Of the 20 individuals named, 19 were Jewish.
So what? Well, Brando believed that Jews had a tendency — and an obligation, given their history — to be more sensitive than others to the sufferings of minorities. He felt the studio moguls had failed, and he was disappointed and “goddamned angry.” And he seems to have felt, based on his extraordinary half-century involvement with Jewish culture (described by Michael Bronski and Ellen Adler this week on Page 1), that he had a right to say so. Perhaps he was naive. Perhaps we were.
Here are excerpts from the interview as they appeared in the Forward of April 12, 1996.
King: … We have discussed this off the air, as well, that you’ve always admired the culture, the Jewish culture.
Brando: Oh, the Jews are amazing people. They are truly amazing…. People generally don’t realize that per capita that Jews have contributed more to American — the best of American culture than any other single group. If it weren’t for the Jews we wouldn’t have music. If it weren’t for the Jews we wouldn’t have art, we wouldn’t have much theater. We wouldn’t have, oddly enough, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and all the standards that were written by Jews, all the songs that you love to sing….
King: So you’re very affectionate for — right? Well, you’ve hung out with many —
Brando: The secret of the Jews is their worship for the word seichel. That doesn’t mean that they are superior people. It just means that they are culturally advantaged in the same way that the Chinese and the Japanese are….
King: You told me that you are sending your children to Jewish schools?
Brando: Yeah, my kids go to a Jewish school.
Brando: Because I think that the Jewish schools, one, are the safest and the best.
King: You are also critical, though, are you not, of many of the Jewish people who run a lot of important studios in Hollywood and who you feel… do violent films?
Brando: You have to understand something that generally people do not understand, that people who hate black people, the people who hate Jews, the people who hate anybody who is not free, white and 21 and Protestant, are carrying around in their bodies, and have visited on their children, this extraordinary magic that was created by a Jew, called the, uh, Salk vaccine, which prevents polio. …
King: Are you critical… of the Hollywood that makes violent movies?
Brando: I think that — I — I am very angry with some of those Jews. I am very goddamned angry.
King: At some of the Jews?
Brando: At some of the Jews who have known — who have suffered terribly at the hands of the Russians, of the Germans and the Poles and all of the antisemitic elements in Europe, and it was a godsend to come to America, where they could be free….
King: Then what are you angry at?
Brando: And then Sam Goldwyn and all of the rest of them, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, they — Hollywood is run by Jews, it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of — of people who are suffering. Because they’ve exploited — we have seen the — we have seen the Nigger and Greaseball, we’ve seen the Chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything, but we never saw the Kike. Because they knew perfectly well that that is where you draw the wagons around.
King: When you say — when you say something like that you are playing right in, though, to antisemitic people who say the Jews are —
Brando: No, no, because I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say, Thank God for the Jews.