Affordable History: Celebrity Politicians

By JON ALLAN

— Autograph May 2009

1961 inscribed photo of George Murphy prior to his Senet term

In 1965 singer-songwriter and humorist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about entertainers in politics entitled “George Murphy,” a spoof on the recent election of that dancer-actor to the Senate.

Hollywood’s often tried to mix

Show business with politics,

From Helen Gahagan

To Ronald Reagan,

But Mister Murphy is the star

Who’s done the best by far.

Of course Ronald Reagan did go on to “do the best by far” with his election to the presidency in 1980. But the history of actors crossing into U.S. politics predates Reagan and Murphy, and goes back to Congressman Julius Kahn, who performed on stage in the 1880s opposite Edwin Booth, Joe Jefferson and other top stars of the theater before spending almost 20 years in the House, from 1904 until his death. P.T. Barnum, who served in the Connecticut Legislature in the 1860s, was Mayor of Bridgewater and twice ran for Congress.

Still, when you mention actors turned politicians, Reagan is usually the first name that comes to mind. While his story is so well known that it doesn’t bear repeating, Reagan is connected to a number of other celebrity politicians who may not be as familiar. He and George Murphy fought the left wing political activists in Hollywood for control of the unions and, like Reagan, was president of the Screen Actors Guild. Murphy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and was expected to easily win re-election in 1970 despite a bout with cancer. Then it came out that he had been accepting a regular fee of $20,000, a car and a credit card from Technicolor Inc. The hint of bribery lost him the race to Gene Tunney, the son of the former heavyweight boxing champion. Throughout his film career and after leaving the Senate, Murphy was an easy autograph signer, although his Senate signatures are often Autopens and he is of only moderate value.

California: Home of the Celebrity Politician

Secretarial Arnold Schwarzenegger

Perhaps because it is the center of the entertainment industry, California has had more than its share of actors who transition into politics. Today, California’s governor is A-list entertainment celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose story has played out in the press since his first election to governor. As his friend and Predator costar Jesse Ventura found out, it’s easier to win an election than run a state. Schwarzenegger has filled collections with non-authentic autographs since reaching stardom so use extreme caution in purchasing his autograph.

Jesse Ventura signed page from a wrestling magazine

Another Californian of early note was Helen Gahagan Douglas, who served in Congress from 1945-51. A stunningly beautiful Broadway star, Douglas was known for her one role in the film She and was married to Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas. In 1950 she decided to run for the Senate and faced off against fellow Congressman Richard Nixon who dubbed her the “pink lady” and intimated she was pro-Communist. She authored the term “Tricky Dick” and went on to become a heroine of the women’s liberation movement.

Will Rogers Jr., son of the legendary humorist, was elected to Congress in 1943. When a bill he had authored to save the Jews in Europe failed, he resigned from Congress and became a highly decorated tank commander. He lost a race for the Senate in 1946. In The Will Rogers Story, in which he played the role of his father, his costar was the former Mrs. Reagan, Jane Wyman.

Hollywood Celebs Take their Fame Back to their Home States

Fred Thompson went from politics, where he was the Republican counsel of the Watergate Committee, to “B” movies, then back to politics as a Senator from Tennessee. He then made the unusual move of resigning from the Senate to star as the conservative DA on Law and Order. In the last presidential primary he seemed to have a reasonable chance of winning the Republican nomination, but it soon became obvious that he had little passion for the run and pulled out.

Inscribed 6x9 photo of Al Franken, Minnesota's new senetor

By the time this article comes to print it is quite possible another entertainment celebrity will be in the Senate, if Al Franken’s slim victory in Minnesota stands up to court challenge. Minnesota has a reputation for electing out of the mainstream figures. Before Franken there was Jesse Ventura, who not only won the governorship, but did it on the Independent Reform ticket. Ventura, a wrestler, action star and commentator, spoke his mind, politically correct or not. It wasn’t his attacks on religion or his lifestyle that brought him down but the grind of trying to balance budgets and work with legislatures.

Ambassadorial Actors

8x10 photo signed by Shirley Temple Black in 1983

The post of ambassador is one of the few political appointments given to amateurs. Just ask Reagan friend, Psycho’s John Gavin, whom he sent to Mexico. The most famous movie star ambassador was Shirley Temple, aka Shirley Temple Black, film’s greatest child star. An active Republican, she served as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, was Representative to the United Nations and the first woman Chief of Protocol. She wanted very much to hold office and unsuccessfully ran against fellow Republican Pete McCloskey, a Korean War hero and opponent of the Vietnam War. She lost by a substantial margin. Temple’s early autograph can be very expensive, and in later years she signed Shirley Temple Black and has tried to inscribe signatures so that the inscription cannot be cut away. No matter what form, she is an excellent investment.

Like Temple, another famous actress and playwright, Clare Booth Luce, served in Congress from Connecticut and was appointed Ambassador to Italy and later to Argentina. Luce, the wife of Time-Life owner Henry Luce, came in second to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1947 national poll to determine “the American woman you most admire.” Another Connecticut actor turned politico was John Lodge, who starred in films and on stage opposite Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo and others. He was a member of the famed Lodge family and brother of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Not only was he a Republican Congressman, but he was also Connecticut Governor and Ambassador to Argentina, Spain and Switzerland.

From TV to Congress

Ben "Cooter" Jones signed while in office

After establishing themselves as national figures in TV shows, actors have gone to their home states to run for office. Among those in recent years have been the actors who played “Gopher” and “Cooter.”

Fred “Gopher” Grandy of The Love Boat was a Republican who returned to Iowa, where he was elected to Congress and served from 1987-95. Grandy tried to distance himself from his acting career after he entered politics, but he did tell People magazine, “If there were no Gopher, there would be no Fred Grandy for Congress.” He lost a race for Governor in 1994 by only four points.

Democrat Ben “Cooter” Jones of The Dukes of Hazzard was elected to Congress from Georgia, serving from 1987-93, was defeated for re-election, and lost again in a 2002 congressional race in Virginia. Congress has also been the desire of others like Ralph Waite, the father on The Waltons, who ran for Sonny Bono’s seat but was beaten by his widow, Mary. Nancy Kulp, “Miss Jane” on The Beverly Hillbillies ran for Congress from Pennsylvania. An open bi-sexual, she lost the race to Sheila James Kuehl, who ran with Kulp’s former costar, Buddy Ebsen. “Zelda Gilroy” on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, who was also an open lesbian, has been a powerful and popular figure in the California House and Senate for almost 20 years and announced a possible run for California Secretary of State. Gopher, Zelda and Cooter were good at signing autographs, both in and out of office.

Politics and entertainment are two of the most popular areas of autograph collecting and the mixture of the two makes for an interesting specialty. With a few exceptions such as Reagan and Schwarzenegger, very few of the autographs are terribly expensive. Both professions are spent in the public eye, and the entertainer, looking for votes, is quite apt to authentically sign. Of these names, few have not signed authentically for me.