Mention the existence of a secret society in Hollywood and people's minds will jump to the obvious: the Church of Scientology. But in fact, there's another underground network in the entertainment industry, one that fills many of the same needs as Scientology but with none of the strange rituals and bizarre mythology. It's a network of showbiz conservatives, a breed that's less rare than you might think in famously liberal Hollywood. And it's the subject of my first story for The California Sunday Magazine, a kick-ass publication that I'll be writing for more this year.
In liberal Hollywood, Republicans have formed one of the industry’s most influential (and most discreet) political organizations.
The California Sunday Magazine | May 19, 2016
DAVE BERG WAS invited to Friends of Abe during a commercial break on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Berg was a producer on the show, and one of his many duties included keeping Leno’s guests company between segments — making small talk, coaching them through their appearance, asking if there was anything they wanted Leno to mention. During a taping in 2007, Berg sat down next to the actress Patricia Heaton, who was promoting a new sitcom. Before he could say anything, Heaton leaned over and said in a playfully conspiratorial tone, “I hear you’re a conservative.”
Berg felt his face flush. A trim, sandy-haired native of Chicago who’d run CNBC’s Los Angeles bureau before landing at The Tonight Show, Berg went to great lengths to keep his political views to himself. “How did you know?” he asked. Heaton wouldn’t say but told him about a group starting up where he could speak freely. “We’re going to have a meeting at my house,” she said. “Would you like to come?”
Buddy Sosthand was unwinding at a bar in Albuquerque after a day of stunt work when the discussion turned to the 2004 presidential election. Sosthand told a fellow stuntman he had supported Bush. “I can’t believe you, as a black person, would vote for George W. Bush,” the other man said. Their argument became so heated that the two nearly had to be separated.
After Sosthand had cooled off, an actor named Chris Ashworth approached him. “Were you saying what I thought you were saying?” Ashworth whispered. Sosthand asked why Ashworth’s voice was so low. “You got to watch yourself,” replied Ashworth, who mentioned something about an industry group called Friends of Abe that he might want to join.
Clint Howard, a longtime character actor, found himself seated next to stand-up comedian Tom Dreesen on a flight back to Los Angeles from a charity golf tournament several years ago. The two men began to talk politics, and Dreesen asked if Howard had heard of Friends of Abe. Howard, the younger brother of director Ron Howard, said he had always wanted to become a member but didn’t have an in. Dreesen gave him the phone number of actor Gary Sinise and told him to call. Not long after, Howard rang up Sinise. “I was waiting for you, brother,” Sinise said.
Howard told me this story recently over tostadas and Coronas at an old Mexican joint tucked among the studio lots of Burbank. Even in the dimly lit dining room, I recognized him right away. He’s that guy from that movie, the face you recognize but can’t for the life of you remember from where. (In Howard’s case, it’s probably Apollo 13 or The Waterboy.) Bald on top, Howard has grown out what hair remains into gray ringlets that wouldn’t be out of place at a Renaissance Fair. His wife hates it, he told me, but the wacky-guy look — his words — has led to steady work playing characters with names like Creepy Rodney and Drug Dan.
There are many misconceptions about Friends of Abe, Howard explained. The group doesn’t endorse candidates or raise money for campaigns. It doesn’t get out the vote. There’s no party line. Within the group are libertarians, evangelical Christians, Donald Trump supporters, Donald Trump opponents, moderate Republicans, gay Republicans, atheist Republicans, Tea Partyers, and military veterans. Yeah, a lot of people get the wrong idea about the group because it’s a secret society, he said, but more than anything, Friends of Abe is a safe haven and a fellowship — sometimes even a therapy session — for conservatives in show business.
Secret society. Safe haven. Fellowship. Therapy session. Whenever I talked to Friends of Abe members, I heard this kind of language again and again, and there’s no question the group is all of these things. It’s also a place for members to find work, swap ideas for a project, even meet a romantic partner. But what these descriptions overlook is that Friends of Abe — a group few people in or out of Hollywood have heard of — has become one of the most influential political organizations in the entertainment industry. What began in 2004 as a regular lunch among Sinise, Dreesen, and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Hanoi Hilton) has grown to nearly 2,500 members, including Clint Eastwood, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Jon Voight, Jerry Bruckheimer, Dennis Miller, Robert Duvall, and Tom Selleck.
Over the years, Friends of Abe has become an essential stop on the Republican Party circuit. Nearly every Republican candidate for president in the past decade has spoken at the group’s monthly gatherings. Donald Trump considered Friends of Abe so important that one of his earliest events after he announced he was running for president was a speech before the group. Ted Cruz turned to members for help shooting commercials, writing lines for speeches and debates, and obtaining celebrity endorsements. Although the group does not support individual candidates — until recently, it was a 501(c)(3)-designated charity — members have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans running for office.
This past January, Howard spent three days in Iowa campaigning for Cruz. “I did phone banking,” he told me, as the waiter brought our food. “I checked out the campaign bus — it was just like a writers’ room — and I attended some rallies. What Cruz believes in, what he stands for — he’s my guy.”
Is it hard to be a conservative in Hollywood? I asked. “It’s a money business,” he said. “The people who have most of the power and most of the control, they’re liberals. I would never tell a young actor who’s conservative to come out of the closet. It would put their career at risk. Imagine the industry that you love and make a living in has gotten to the point where you have to hold your tongue every day. That’s awful.”
We finished our lunch and stepped out into the blinding afternoon light to say our goodbyes. That evening, as I read through my notes, I realized that Howard had avoided saying the words Friends of Abe throughout our two-hour lunch. He had kept to protocol. “The first rule of Friends of Abe,” members are told at their induction meeting, “is don’t talk about Friends of Abe.”