Friday, February 11, 2011
FORGOTTEN ONES: LARRY PARKS
Larry Parks is one of the truly tragic actors in Hollywood history. Portraying entertainer Al Jolson, Parks' talent was never truly realized. Then in the 1950s, he was blacklisted in the Communist witch hunt, and his career never fully recovered. Larry Parks deserves to be remembered more than just playing Al Jolson.
He was born Samuel Klausman Lawrence Parks on December 13, 1914. Parks grew up in Joliet, Illinois, graduating from Joliet Township High School in 1932. He attended the University of Illinois as a pre-med student, and played in stock companies for a few years before signing a movie contract with Columbia Pictures in 1941. As did most Columbia contract players, he played supporting roles in higher-budgeted films, and larger roles in B pictures.
When Columbia was preparing a screen biography of Al Jolson, many big-name stars were considered for the title role, including James Cagney and Danny Thomas (both of whom turned it down), but resident contractee Larry Parks was reportedly the first actor to be interviewed. Parks impressed the producers and won the role. At the age of 31, his performance in The Jolson Story (1946) earned him a "Best Actor" Academy Award nomination. Reportedly, Jolson and Parks did not get along, because Jolson was jealous of this good looking actor playing him. Jolson felt that no one could play Jolson but Jolson.
Now that Parks was a full-fledged star, Columbia kept him busy in elaborate productions (including a couple of costume epics) until he appeared in the sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949), which was another huge boxoffice hit. His co-star in the film, Barbara Hale, teamed with him again in the comedy feature Emergency Wedding.
In 1951 Larry Parks was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under threat of being blacklisted in the movie industry, but he begged not to be forced to testify. He eventually did so in tears, only to be blacklisted anyway. Larry Parks eventually gave up the names of his former colleagues and submitted to the HUAC. Parks also told the committee, “I would like to point out that in my opinion there is a great difference between – and not a subtle difference – between being a Communist, a member of the Communist Party, say in 1941, 10 years ago, and being a Communist in 1951. ... Being a member of the Communist Party fulfilled certain needs of a young man that was liberal in thought, idealistic, who was for the underprivileged, the underdog. ... I think that being a Communist in 1951 in this particular situation is an entirely different kettle of fish when this is a great power that is trying to take over the world.”
But the trauma of testifying under such circumstances is evident in Parks’ remarks, as he came to realize that the committee was not responding to his straightforward reply to the summons. Despite having made notes to himself the night before on how to remain calm before the panel, his resolve broke under the stress of steely questioning. “I would prefer, if you would allow me, not to mention other people’s names,” he said in tears. “Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer. ... This is not the American way.”
Following his admission before the committee, Columbia Pictures dropped him, and a romantic comedy he made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was shelved for three years. Parks made only a few more films, but continued to eke out a living acting on the stage and doing occasional television programs. He last appeared, in a major role, in the John Huston film Freud the Secret Passion (1962).
Parks died of a heart attack at the age of 60 on April 13, 1975. Parks remained upbeat during his blacklisting, but the stress took its toll on him. He was married to actress Betty Garrett in 1944. (Betty Garrett is perhaps best known today as Archie Bunker's neighbor Irene Lorenzo on TV's All in the Family and as landlady Edna Babish on Laverne and Shirley). Her career also faced turmoil as a result of her marriage to Parks, and the two spent much of the 1950s doing theatre and musical variety shows. Together they had two sons, actor Andrew Parks and composer Garrett Parks. He was also the godfather to actor Jeff Bridges.