Hollywood is a famously brutal place to work. So many talented people are competing for so few spots; rejection — and the insecurity that comes with it — is the norm. It’s not just actresses who see their careers evaporate at 35, replaced by the latest crop of ingénues living at the Oakwood Apartments. It’s also successful editors and screenwriters and producers who suddenly find that their phones have stopped ringing for no apparent reason. Their careers have dried up and they don’t know why — that’s what’s so difficult to bear. Conservatives in the industry face an additional question with no clear answer: Have their political views stifled their careers?
Within Friends of Abe, there’s a fierce debate over whether a blacklist exists. “Anyone who denies it is intentionally misleading you or clueless,” says actor F. Lee Reynolds. “There is actual blacklisting. It does happen,” says actress Mell Flynn. Neither Reynolds nor Flynn nor anyone else I spoke to could offer proof that conservatives have been deliberately excluded from jobs. Most members say that the bias is more subtle: People hire those they know and like and, typically, those are people who think and act as they do.
Whether a blacklist exists will likely never be proven, but the fact that many members are convinced that it does speaks to the psychological need that Friends of Abe has served to fill — and never more so than at the new-member lunches. Every month or so, a few dozen initiates and their sponsors gather in the private room of the Bistro Garden restaurant in Studio City and introduce themselves and say why they want to join. On one occasion, a line producer described being dropped from a project after she expressed pro-life views. On another, a stuntman talked about how his colleagues said American troops are murderers. Grown men and women break down in tears as they reveal what they’ve gone through — and express relief in letting it all out. “It’s people who don’t have a tribe,” says John Sullivan, a documentary producer and director, “and when they find out they have a tribe, they’re so happy.” “You unburden your soul and say, ‘I have this secret that I’m not allowed to share with anybody,’” says the comedian Evan Sayet.
If this description sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, that’s how Friends of Abe members talk about the lunches. The anonymity, the sponsors, the confiding, the emotional release, the lingo (“Hi, I’m John, and I’m a conservative”) come straight from AA. “They are very similar organizations,” says Rob Long, a former executive producer on Cheers and a columnist for National Review, “because it’s like, ‘Don’t talk about it. We don’t need any scrutiny here. We’re just here for fellowship.’ To this day, Friends of Abe is the only social group in Hollywood outside of AA where the budget classes mingle.”
NO ONE CAN remember how Andrew Breitbart found his way to Friends of Abe, but one day there he was at a meeting, pounding away on his laptop. A driving force behind the Drudge Report, he had become one of the most well-known conservative provocateurs on the internet. In many ways, he served as Sinise’s opposite. Apart from a short stint after college as a studio gofer, he’d never worked in the industry. He was pugnacious and irreverent. He was also prone to grandiosity — the first time he ever logged onto the internet, he wrote, “I was reborn.” Soon after he joined Friends of Abe, he declared it was “the most beautiful and clean thing” to come out of Hollywood in years.
The co-founders of Friends of Abe had succeeded in creating a community more quickly than they had imagined, but they hadn’t changed the content of what Hollywood produced. Sinise was always skeptical that this should be a goal of the organization. Breitbart, though, believed that Friends of Abe could be more than a fellowship — that it could be a place where conservatives joined forces to produce movies and TV shows that run counter to Hollywood’s liberal consensus. Breitbart boiled this notion into a rallying cry. “Culture,” he liked to say, “is upstream from politics.” What happened on a soundstage or on a studio lot had greater influence on the direction of the country than what transpired in a hearing room on Capitol Hill — an idea that he drilled into the heads of everyone he knew in Friends of Abe, at once instilling them with a sense of greater purpose and flattering them with a sense of their own importance.
Breitbart threw himself into the cause. He recruited new members, presided over luncheons, and built the group’s first website. When the founders rebuffed his idea to turn the site into a public platform for combating liberal prejudice within the business, Breitbart launched Big Hollywood in 2008. Written by industry friends, the site was a mix of pet peeves, thoughtful critiques, and rants — not unlike what could be heard at a Friends of Abe happy hour. Breitbart’s online operation soon grew from a single homepage to a network of websites. An early booster of the Tea Party, it drew millions of readers a month and turned Breitbart into a media star.
According to Dave Berg, the former Tonight Show producer, “In the story of Hollywood conservatives, Breitbart was like the Apostle Paul” — the messenger who carried the word to the outside world. And then he was gone. On the morning of March 1, 2012, Breitbart dropped dead of a heart attack while walking near his home.
Or so they say, anyway.
Still, by most other measures, Friends of Abe has been a success. Recently, Lionel Chetwynd and I met for breakfast at Art’s Delicatessen in Studio City, an industry hangout, and talked about the group’s influence on the business that had employed him for 40 years. Chetwynd is thought of as the intellectual leader of Friends of Abe, and he’d been thinking a lot about the organization and its future.
We had spoken a few weeks earlier, when he had told me how Friends of Abe started. But now Chetwynd told me he’d left something out. During that key meeting in Sinise’s trailer, as they debated what the group would become, he stepped out for a walk with a producer friend. As the two talked, he began to see the wisdom of Sinise’s quiet approach. One day, he realized, there would come a point when Hollywood conservatives wouldn’t need Friends of Abe to meet people like themselves. They would be everywhere, and they’d know who they were. I later asked him, was that why he decided to break the first rule of Friends of Abe and talk to me? Yes, he said. It had been 12 years since the organization had been founded, and he could now imagine a future — it is close at hand — when Friends of Abe no longer has to operate in secret.
Wow, imagine a country where people have the right to speak freely, without fear of persecution for expressing their beliefs! Wouldn’t THAT be something. You might even want to write blanket protection for such a natural right specifically into the founding documents of such a nation; you could call that document…oh, I don’t know, say, a constitution or something like that.
Nah, too far-fetched, too open-ended. It would never work.