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Birth:
27 Aug 1921 1
Death:
06 Sep 1998 1
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Full Name:
Leo Z Penn 1
Birth:
27 Aug 1921 1
Death:
06 Sep 1998 1
Residence:
Last Residence: Malibu, CA 1
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Social Security:
Card Issued: Unknown Code (PE) 1
Social Security Number: ***-**-8017 1

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Stories

Sean Penn on His Blacklisted Dad: 'There Was No Loyalty

My father, Leo Penn, was a patriot to his core. The son of Spanish-Lithuanian immigrants, he was born in Lawrence, Mass., in 1921, a child of the Great Depression. His father moved the family to California on a Greyhound bus after finding work as an orange picker and later as a leather-goods maker in East Los Angeles. It was from the sloping foothills of City Terrace of the '30s and '40s, above the orange groves leading into the San Fernando Valley on one end and Chavez Ravine on the other, that my dad lived, firsthand, the great promise of America. Over the years, his father opened a bakery and came to whittle out a reasonable slice of middle-class life.

Then, as my father hit his late teens, came World War II. Underage but with youthful patriotic vigor, he tried to enlist with the Army infantry but was passed onto what was the Army Air Force when a doctor determined his feet were flat. My dad signed up to serve the United States and flew with a B-24 Liberator as a tail gunner and bombardier. Theirs were low-altitude night bombings over Germany's war machine. For these particular missions, an airman's average life expectancy was a total of seven sorties. At seven, these enlisted men flew on a volunteer basis only. My father's squad broke all records, volunteering to fly 37 missions in all -- 30 more than what was required. Shot down twice, his captain, Myron McNamara, was able to guide the damaged aircraft over Allied lines before my father and the entire crew parachuted to safety.

Leo Penn returned to the U.S. a highly decorated war veteran and began a burgeoning career in film and onstage. He played leading roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. Then, the sky fell. Based on his support of Hollywood trade unions, a commitment to the same social democracy that had been the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt and his refusal to give names to the rising neo-Nazi-inspired House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was blacklisted by chicken hawks (among them Ronald Reagan) and barred from working in motion pictures by the same country for which he had risked his life those few short years earlier.

In fact, few among the Blacklist's principal architects ever risked career, much less life, in the defense of an American principle. And as with so many others, the country and the media stood by like frightened sheep. In the end, there was no loyalty for a soldier -- and no courage to cusp the pack of cowards and the ignorant disposition to identify with a popular lunacy. But the man I grew up with never showed bitterness. It seemingly was an effortless belief for him, that his great country simply had gone through a "bad stage" but that its foundation was never to be diminished, the flag was never not his own, and he never doubted it. He was a gentle and fair-minded man.

I remember as a kid walking down a beach path with my father as we stumbled upon the set of Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976). My father and Kazan had worked together and known each other before the Blacklist period. After all the years, Kazan recognized him and called out his name. It was the first time I ever witnessed my father ignore someone.

But, conversely, when the daughter of director Edward Dmytryk started a dog-grooming company in my hometown, I asked her to come by and see if she wanted to take care of my dogs when I left town. I mentioned this to my dad, and he immediately spoke well of her father. I asked, "Hadn't Edward Dmytryk also named names as Kazan had?" He said, "Yes, but not until he himself had done jail time for refusing to cooperate." Evidently, it was in jail where Dmytryk's view had shifted. What separated Kazan and Dmytryk, in my dad's assessment, was that what Dmytryk did, he did for his beliefs and following sacrifice -- as if considering him a perhaps hostile but loyal opposition nonetheless.

In Kazan's case, it was clear he had cowered and sold out himself and all those for whom he might otherwise have broken the Blacklist. Kazan was in an extraordinary position of influence, and he squandered it in shame. It took heroes like Kirk Douglas, years later, to finally break its back. My father often would say to me, "Everybody's got their own truth, kid." And that is true, though some remain untold, and unchallenged.

I will never forget at my father's funeral, as the honor guard passed the flag, folded into a meticulous triangle, over my lap to my mother beside me, stating, "In the name of the president of the United States, for his distinguished service." Indeed, it was distinguished. And so now is it our turn. We still sit silently while chicken hawks and bottle-blond and unsubtly augmented pundits sing cheap poison in best-selling books, bloated radio and skin-deep TV. Still today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet to offer a clear acknowledgment of its own complicity in the shameful witch hunt of the 1950s that was the Blacklist. In the name of patriotism and patriots (most of whom would never have even asked for it) and in the name of our own dignity … it's time

Leo Penn, 77, Stage Actor And a Director for Television

Leo Penn, an actor whose decade on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1940's and 50's stalled his career and eventually led him to direct, primarily in television, died on Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 77 and lived in Malibu.

The cause was lung cancer, said Mara Buxbaum at PMK Public Relations in Manhattan.

Mr. Penn began his acting career at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he studied drama in hope of teaching. Instead, after performing in a play on campus, Hollywood beckoned and Mr. Penn responded. After a stint as an officer and bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he signed a studio contract with Paramount in 1945, which they refused to renew when Mr. Penn was blacklisted after supporting the Hollywood 10, a group of screenwriters, directors and producers who were ultimately imprisoned for their refusal to answer the House Un-American Activities Committee's questions concerning Communist sympathies.

Mr. Penn survived the blacklist by acting in television and in the theater, landing leading roles in stage productions like ''Maya,'' directed by Sanford Meisner; ''The School for Scandal,'' directed by Frank Corsaro; ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' directed by Elia Kazan, and ''The Girl on the Via Flaminia'' and ''The Iceman Cometh,'' directed by Jose Quintero.

It was on a street corner outside the Circle in the Square Theater in 1957 that Mr. Penn, playing Hickey in ''Iceman,'' the role originated by Jason Robards, met his wife, the actress Eileen Ryan, who was also a member of the cast. Within a week they had moved in together; they married in a matter of months. The union lasted 40 years and produced three sons -- the musician Michael and the actors Sean and Chris. Last year, the couple acted together once again in ''Remembrance,'' Graham Reid's drama about a former British soldier and a Catholic Irish widow who fall in love in the Belfast cemetery where each has buried a son. Their son Sean produced the play at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles.

Mr. Penn's movie career finally recovered when he was offered a role in Clifford Odets's 1959 film ''Story on Page One.'' Ironically, Mr. Penn had just learned that it was Odets who turned over his name to the Congressional committees responsible for authoring the blacklist and that guilt may have prompted Odets's call. ''And there went all my integrity!,'' Mr. Penn joked in a 1997 profile in The Los Angeles Times. ''That feature bought us our first house.''

Back in the Hollywood mainstream, however, Mr. Penn grew weary of acting. ''I looked young for my age, and I was tired of being cast as baby-faced killers,'' he said in the same prfile. ''I had directed one play, off-Broaday, and thought I might like to direct.''

Through a friend, he was able to maneuver his way onto the set of ''Ben Casey,'' where he worked his way from jack-of-all trades, rewriting scenes and doing odd jobs, to directing episodes of the show. ''I've been a happy gypsy ever since,'' he said.

Mr. Penn directed more than 400 hours of prime-time television, including episodes of ''Ben Casey,'' ''I Spy,'' ''Police Story,'' ''Kojak,'' ''Matlock'' and ''St. Elsewhere.'' His two-hour episode of ''Columbo,'' ''Any Port in a Storm,'' won an Emmy Award.

He also directed the 1966 film ''A Man Called Adam,'' and the 1988 film ''Judgment in Berlin.''

''Leo was wise,'' said his longtime friend Ernest Frankel, a retired television producer and writer, of Mr. Penn's directorial abilities. ''He always insisted on making the most pedestrian material as good as it can be.'' In their book ''The American Vein,'' Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi agreed: ''It is not absurd to suggest that Penn is 'mainstream' TV at its most excellent and as such, he has made the ballroom a better place.''

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Penn is survived by three grandchildren.

 

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