The son of a Hollywood actor and a child star in his own right – featuring in Leave It to Beaver – Stephen Talbot, 74, was a student at Wesleyan University when he became involved in the 1969 Vietnam antiwar movement.
Turning his back on showbiz, he went on to become an Emmy and Peabody award-winning TV producer and journalist – with more than 40 documentaries to his name – although that formative experience has forever haunted him. Using recently revealed information about Nixon’s secret attempts to escalate the war in Vietnam, today he revisits the antiwar movement at a time when world peace is again under threat.
Q: Exploring the little-known story of the dramatic 1969 showdown between President Nixon and the Anti-War Movement, your documentary, ‘The Movement and the “Madman”’ is deeply personal. Why?
STEPHEN: I went to a Los Angeles all boys high school, now called Harvard Westlake. It had a mandatory Junior ROTC program and we wore uniforms, did drill and took military classes. It was the mid 60s and the Vietnam War had been going on for decades, but the American involvement started in a big way in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin.
At school, we were told we would be military officers and be involved in this war and were shown army training films about Vietnam. And then a tragic thing happened. One of our military instructors, a sergeant, was called up and sent to Vietnam. He was instantly blown up in a landmine and paralyzed from the waist down and brought home – one of the first victims of the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson even called him in the hospital. I’ll never forget how we had a football game in his honor, and the shock of seeing him wheeled out at halftime.
At college, I ran for freshman class president promising that, if elected, I would organize a Blues Festival on campus and do a teach-in about the Vietnam War. I said, ‘We’re in college and we’ve got deferments, but you never know. This war is looming over us all so we better learn about it’. I came of age in an era of tremendous political turmoil when campuses across the country were erupting with teach-ins, vigils and protests.
Q: And you made your first documentary about Vietnam as a student?
STEPHEN: Yes. The title was “March on Washington” which served as my senior thesis. I rounded up ten best friends and we headed off to Washington to make a documentary about the Mobilization on November 15 1969. We rented a U haul truck and fanned out across DC for several days filming everything. We made a scrappy short black & white film that captured the spirit of the event – and got me graduated from college!
Q: What do you remember the most?
STEPHEN: I remember it being very cold and raining but luckily we were all able to crash on the floor at the home of a young couple of lawyers for three nights. We figured out the schedule of events and divided up who would film what. The March Against Death – where people solemnly walked carrying the names of the dead – started two days earlier taking place round the clock. The famous pediatrician, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin and also Quakers marched alongside many famous people and lots of young people who just showed up.
On the second night, there was a small group of radicals who later became The Weatherman – and this is not in our film – who wanted to march on the South Vietnamese consulate. I was out in the streets, trying to figure it out, when the police descended on us and we were all tear gassed. That was my first dose of tear gas and it was very scary. Amazingly, all these medical people popped up and one guy rinsed out my eyes and sat me down until I caught my breath again.
Q: And this was the largest organized protest ever seen in the US?
STEPHEN: The best estimates for all the people taking part in the October 15 Moratorium, across the country, is around 2 million – the biggest demonstration that day was on Boston Common with over 100,000 people, with other big ones in DC and Los Angeles where many famous people including Harry Belafonte spoke. On November 15, two demonstrations – in DC and San Francisco – took place at the same time, attended by more than half a million people.
Q: Why do you describe Nixon as the “Madman”?
STEPHEN: Nixon was acutely aware that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency had essentially been brought down by the constant chants of protestors surrounding the White House. On the campaign trail, Nixon vowed never to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam but, in office, he came up with a plan to end the war: his “madman” strategy. In this documentary, Morton Halperin, a Defense Department veteran and an aide to Henry Kissinger, says, “His secret plan was to threaten the North Vietnamese with nuclear weapons. He was convinced that the way to make the threat credible was for the North Vietnamese to fear that he was crazy and might actually do this.”
Q: Talk about your early introduction into Hollywood?
STEPHEN: I was born and raised in Hollywood. My father Lyle Talbot was a movie star in the 30s working with Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. On TV he played the next door neighbor on Ozzie and Harriet for ten years. I grew up watching him act and it looked like a lot of fun.
Q: But he wasn’t too keen?
STEPHEN: No. My dad had worked with many troubled kid actors. Shirley Temple was among the few he really liked. But I talked him into letting me act and I had a wonderful time acting in TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason in the late 50s and early 60s. Then I played the role of Gilbert, Beaver’s friend in Leave It to Beaver, which I enjoyed. When they asked me to be on every episode, my parents said no. They wanted me to remain in school which, in retrospect, was a great decision. I also wanted to spend more time with my friends and play sports. The last show I did was The Lucy Show with Lucille Ball.
Q: Did your early involvement in the peace movement dissuade you from continuing acting?
STEPHEN: Absolutely. But, to this day, I still love good movies, television and theater. My dad was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild so I have tremendous respect for the profession. But, honestly, I just lost the drive to do it. I got so much more passionate about the real world – politics, war and peace.
Q: Why is now the right time to look back on the power of peaceful protest?
STEPHEN: One reason is that this is still an untold story. There are many stereotypes in popular culture in America about the anti war movement as being radicals and long haired kids who were disreputable, unpatriotic and violent. But, in fact, the anti war movement – which did, of course, have a radical element to some of it – was the largest protest movement that the country has ever experienced. And it was very broad and, at its best, really reflected the country. There were business executives for peace. The United Auto Workers, the biggest union in the country, was very active against the war. Teachers, medical people, professors. . .
Q: What can we learn today?
STEPHEN: War and peace are issues that never go away. And here we are in the middle of this terrible Putin invasion of Ukraine – another leader threatening to use nuclear weapons. Now whether he would really do that, or whether it’s a bluff, we don’t know. But it’s a very dangerous game to play with terrible consequences. So I think it’s an important time to talk about how people stood up to and resisted and, ultimately, stopped a war.
Q: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
STEPHEN: My family and being around a lot of young people helps enormously. I taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley for many years and enjoyed being around smart, young students who were eager to learn about the world. I’ve made documentaries all my life, but when I became senior producer at news show Frontline World, in the wake of 9/11, I mentored many young journalists, sending them out into the world to report, always worrying about their safety when I sent them into danger zones. Fortunately, every one came back. Passing on what I know and helping them make their own films, has kept me active and curious.
American Experience The Movement and the “Madman”
Premieres Tuesday, March 28 on PBS and Streaming on PBS.org
Photo: courtesy of Stephen Talbot.