Longtime Deadline reporter Dave Robb has passed away at age 74. Considered the dean of the Hollywood labor beat, Robb was recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the brain stem.
This diagnosis came in late October. Robb experienced what was initially diagnosed as a small stroke. He and wife Kelly learned in follow-up visits that it was far more serious. He entered into hospice care just before Thanksgiving, and died peacefully at Los Angeles home late Friday night, his wife by his side.
I always called Dave Deadline’s cage fighter because if there was a wrong to be righted, he was the first man in the ring. Along with his unparalleled knowledge of the Hollywood labor game honed from 45 years writing about it from Los Angeles, Dave would often surprise us with investigative stories on myriad topics that we found about only when he turned them in.
The subjects ranged from rooting out convicted pedophiles who resided in a home that was commonly used to house child actors in town on productions, to his final bylined piece about an NRA-funded government program that teaches children to shoot guns, even as bodies pile up each year from mass shootings often perpetrated by young people with emotional problems. Those pieces had a common theme: rooting out wrongdoing. Dave kept our lawyers busy, but I believe we published every one of those that he investigated and filed.
An iconic reporter on Hollywood labor issues, Dave’s digging in these other areas led to the most memorable work of his 45 year career. Prior to Deadline, Dave served five stints at The Hollywood Reporter – each interrupted by his resignation when the trade wouldn’t publish something provocative he uncovered. He served a stint at Variety, wrote investigative books, and wrote for the New York Times, Associated Press, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Daily News, Spy magazine and The Nation.
He was an advocate for the under-represented and disenfranchised in Hollywood: African-American and Native American actors, child actors, stunt performers, women. He exposed Hollywood’s dirty little secret, of not crediting screenwriters for their contributions on major movies because they’d been blacklisted in that shameful communist witch hunt. Robb helped writers living and dead get their due on films that included Lawrence of Arabia.
Even at 74, Dave was competitive and tenacious. Deadline had a team of terrific reporters covering the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes from boardrooms to picket lines. Initially prideful and protective of his turf, Dave was also changeable. He eventually warmed (kinda) to his teammates. Dave got his mini-stroke diagnosis after the WGA strike ended and the SAG-AFTRA strike was winding down. I told Dave, we got this, and to throttle down and focus on getting better. Knowing that might not be enough, I told him he had a job here for life. I never imagined that would be so brief.
Since his diagnosis, Dave and I have been speaking regularly and at length, because he tasked me with writing his obit. I’ve done those many times at Deadline. To work with a staffer, a friend and kindred spirit on his own obit, that was a new one. I’ve struggled with the assignment for weeks.
I spent hours with Dave at his home. I was unprepared for what I found. Dave had sharp edges and a gruff exterior, but that was all gone. He was beaming, the happiest I’d ever seen him. Despite such an ominous terminal diagnosis, Dave accepted it, and was grateful he felt no pain. He’d thought his chain smoking might be the thing that got him. This was a better way to go, because it allowed him to reflect on his life, to say proper goodbyes to friends and those he loved, to be at peace with his lovely wife Kelly. They were inseparable, and she was on Dave’s arm for every Deadline event. This publication quietly does a lot with fewer staffers than our tenured rival trades, and the key to our culture is the devotion of a staff that will rise to the occasion because they believe in the brand. Nobody waved the Deadline flag more enthusiastically than Dave Robb.
“As strange as it might sound, these weeks have been some of the happiest and most meaningful of my life,” Dave told me. “There has been no pain, and no fear. I’ve accepted it and I’m at peace. I’m filled with gratitude at the love pouring in, and out of myself. It has been remarkable.”
He’d informed Deadline staff, and all the journalists, publicists and labor officials who regularly took part in a Friday night poker game he and others held for 43 years. Dave could play a mean hand of cards, and in fact his first crack at journalism came when he was hired while at the poker table. That is how he started as a copy boy for the San Francisco Examiner in 1978. The following year, he returned to L.A. and got a job as an editorial assistant at THR. The publisher Tichi Wilkerson asked him, “What are you looking to get paid?” He said he wanted $200 a week. She said, “Would you take $185?” and he said, “Sure,” he was soon writing stories and was put on the labor beat.
Cheryl Roden, former Officer for the WGA, once said, “Dave Robb doesn’t care whose ox is getting gored – as long as someone’s ox is getting gored.”
That would be a common feeling for anyone who found themselves on the business end of his craft, but it masks the empathy that was the locomotive for his investigative work. Usually, Dave would see things that seemed wrong or shady. He’d investigate, and write stories that exposed and often fixed things. That makes him a rare breed. Reporters like Dave might never get rich, but wow, they come away with great war stories to tell.
Like the time Dave wondered why Lew Wasserman’s MCA Universal was the only company allowed to simultaneously rep talent and run a studio. He used the Freedom of Information Act to push the FBI to fork over files from an investigation that focused on Ronald Reagan, the former SAG president who by then was seeking a second term in the White House. Robb wondered: had there been a quid pro quo between Reagan and Wasserman? It seemed he’d be hard-pressed to prove it because when he asked the feds for Reagan’s grand jury testimony, they refused.
“It was 1984, six months before Reagan was running for a second term,” Dave told me. “I was at Variety, and I sent away to the FBI for an FOIA for all the Reagan stuff the FBI had investigated. Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department had investigated MCA Universal and the waiver that they got from SAG that allowed them to be the only company that could be an agency and a producer, able to hire their own people. They investigated this waiver. They suspected Reagan had taken a bribe from Wasserman. So the FBI sent me the big box of files and a letter that said, here are the documents requested.”
There was a surprise in there Robb had not expected.
“I opened the box, and somebody had slipped in Reagan’s grand jury testimony,” he said. “Somebody there risked their career to do that, and now I had this federal grand jury testimony all about questioning him and his tax records. It was a treasure trove. I told Tom [Pryor, then Variety’s editor], this is what we got. I wrote it up, even though they’d never found a bribe. He went to his son, Pete, who was Variety‘s managing editor and Pete said, ‘Let’s run it…but you got to call Lew. He’s expecting your call.’ ”
“I call his secretary, I tell her who I am and what this was about, that the Justice Department suspected Mr. Wasserman of having bribed Ronald Reagan. And she said, oh my. So she put the call right through to Lew Wasserman.”
What was it like, asking the most powerful and feared man in Hollywood if he had bribed the sitting U.S. President while Reagan ran SAG?
“He was like a stone,” Robb told me, noting it was the most difficult call he’d ever make as a reporter. Robb’s story about the government’s investigation of MCA Universal and Reagan was a giant scoop. There were many others.
Like the time screenwriter Paul Jarrico came to Variety and, told Dave was the investigative guy, came to him and said, “Do you know who the real writer of Lawrence of Arabia was?” This triggered the first of many stories Robb wrote that revealed the true identities of work that blacklisted writers did on major movies, and restore credit. Robb found there were dozens of them who were desperate for money, and could only earn it if they wrote anonymously, because of the lingering stigma of being blackballed by Hollywood during the witch hunt for communists.
Michael Wilson, who wrote the initial screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia for director David Lean, had never received credit because of his refusal to testify about his alleged membership in the Communist Party. Instead, the British co-writer Robert Bolt received full credit, until 1995, when the WGA declared that Wilson more than deserved his name in the credits. Between trade gigs at the time, Dave broke it on the front page of the New York Times, one of several stories he wrote for that paper that nudged Hollywood studios to right a shameful wrong.
For his efforts, the WGA surprised Dave at a 1997 luncheon in Los Angeles he was there to cover, awarding him a plaque proclaiming that he had “pricked the public conscience with his tales of the blacklist years and kept this issue alive.” Dave always believed the choice of the word “prick” was not coincidental; the writers felt that his ability to be regarded as one was the reason changes got made.
The plaque was signed by 24 blacklisted writers and others who had benefited from Dave’s reporting. One of the signers was Jarrico, the writer of Salt of the Earth whose career had been stunted by the blacklisting, and who got Robb started on exposing it. Jarrico was tragically killed, driving home from that lunch. Robb said, “That was the proudest day of my life and the saddest day of my life.”
During one of his THR stints, Robb investigated THR society columnist George Christy, who wrote glowingly about Hollywood scene setters, and, rumor had it, would take bogus acting credits from them that qualified him for SAG’s health insurance. I was at Daily Variety at the time, and when the whole controversy exploded, leading to the resignations of Dave and the trade’s terrific editor Anita Busch, I told him I didn’t see why this was important to quit his job over. After all, Christy was from another era of Hollywood, and wrote glowingly about everyone. It made more sense when he explained it to me.
“A couple of years earlier, I’d found out he was doing this,” Robb said. “I rented a bunch of the movies that he said he was in, and he wasn’t in any of them. I called the SAG Pension and Health and said, ‘Hey, I found this.’ They asked me to hold off a few months. They filed a federal suit against him and I got a nice exclusive, big story. The Hollywood Reporter was glad we had it first, instead of somebody else.”
What creased Robb was that Christy didn’t stop, and Dave’s boss chose to overlook it.
“Two years later, he did it again,” Dave said. “I totally nailed him. He wasn’t just writing his columns about people giving him credits. He had offices in their building, and from their offices, he was praising them. He was doing so much shit, beyond taking home swag, and he was doing all this after having already been sued. I wrote that story up, and [THR publisher] Bob Dowling wouldn’t publish it. He believed that Christy was sort of the old guard and that I was pushing too hard. I really liked and respected Bob. He would come to me with editorials that he’d write, and I would go over them with him.”
In hindsight, Robb said he regretted not being more flexible about the awkward internal situation.
“Now, I really do regret having pushed so hard,” he said. “I could have stepped back and said, the hell with it. But not back in those days. I was hired there five times and left five times. I was stubborn. Part of that is what made me a good reporter, but sometimes it makes me not such a good person.”
We discussed the difficulty editors have in choosing the battles their publications will wage, and it isn’t easy, but it is part of the job. Dave was glad to be one not making those decisions. The reason he, and later Busch, left was because he felt Dowling’s public characterization of the events made it seem that Dave was somehow in the wrong.
“He said something about me in the papers, that Dave Robb got too close to this story and took it personally,” Dave said. “Anita took offense and quit in protest and so did the film editor. The thing is, George Christy should have been fired after the first story, but Bob saw him as the face of the paper. He wrote a society column everybody read. Bob just bet on the wrong horse. What Christy did that first time was a fire-able offense. I think you would have fired him.”
Dave stayed in close touch with Busch as they went the freelance route. He was first on the scene when she endured her own surreal crisis, discovering a dead fish with a rose in its mouth on her car windshield, with a note that told her, “Stop.” She took it to mean the investigative stories she was writing for the L.A. Times on clients repped by Anthony Pellicano, including Steven Seagal and Michael Ovitz. It was real “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” intimidation tactic stuff. We all know about Pellicano and the legal settlement with Ovitz (who admitted no wrongdoing). What stuck with me was that when the fear was that Busch’s car might have been wired to explode, it was Dave who got behind the wheel and started it up.
“What happened there was, she called the police and she called me and I lived on an Olympic so I got there before the cops did,” he said. “The police showed up and they looked at it, and then the SWAT team showed up, these big guys, and they checked it out. They said, we don’t think there’s a bomb here, but nobody wanted to drive it up onto the tow truck. And so I said, I’ll do it. They’d said they thought there was no bomb, so I figured, what the hell?”
Protecting kids working in Hollywood was another sweet spot for Dave. For Deadline, he wrote stories about convicted pedophiles dwelling in a hotel where productions housed kids working on productions. They were gone by the time Dave got done, and I wondered how he’d unearthed all this. Turns out, he’d been covering the subject for years.
Guided by IATSE Local 884 business manager Linda Stone, Dave’s keen interest in the plight of child actors began with the 1982 accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which two young children along with actor Vic Morrow were killed when a helicopter crashed on top of them. Dave’s investigative reporting revealed that the producers intentionally avoided hiring studio teachers, as required, because they knew a studio teacher would take a dim view of a risky scene that turned into a horrific tragedy. Studio teachers are required on set when actors under age 18 are employed, but not just to stand in for schoolteachers. “They’re explicitly tasked with protecting their welfare,” Dave said.
His interest in studio teachers led to him to write stories about studio teacher imposters, unlicensed individuals who were passing themselves off as legit in order to get hired to supervise and orbit around child actors. After being outed in a Dave Robb story, one fled to China.
“Hollywood is the only industry in America where you can actually employ babies and toddlers, so I always felt that somebody’s got to keep an eye on this.
“In Hollywood, you can only hire kids who are 16 days old, you can’t hire younger,” Dave said. “But what they were doing is finding premature births. They’d get premature babies and hire twins so they could swap ’em back and forth to meet the hours. And so even though they met the age requirement, they were still small. They prohibited that, after. They actually had what they called baby wranglers. That was the job description.”
He also exposed the exploitation of film interns, who worked without wages, in violation of labor law. “Now they get paid,” said Dave.
Dave’s main passion was the Hollywood labor guilds. He was the son and grandson of union members. His father was a member of SAG. Both grandfathers were union members, one an oil refinery worker and the other a ship’s carpenter. His grandmother was a unionized cannery worker. Dave was over the years a member of six different unions: Laborers (road crews and oil refinery), Janitors (elevator operator), Teamsters (airport parking cashier), Railway Workers (switchman), Electrical Workers (electrician’s assistant) and the Newspaper Guild.
He told me he believed that unions created the middle class in this country, kept employers in check, and he fully believed that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes were inevitable because the shifting sands of the digital age put workers at a disadvantage in the age of buyouts and no residuals.
Dave also believed that union leaders had to be honest, and spent much of his time investigating and reporting about Locals around the country which were not, and which were rumored to have mafia involvement.
When Dave resigned five times from THR, it created time for him to write books, and do freelance investigating. The books still hold up.
“I had a great time writing books and going broke doing it,” he said. “But there are not too many people who got hired and left the same paper five times. I wrote some really good books, and it was part of why journalism was such a great adventure for me.”
One of them, The Stuntwoman, told the true story of Hollywood heroine Julie Johnson. It is being adapted to direct by Guy Nattiv, who directed Golda, the superb film about Golda Meir’s thwarting of a surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur holiday in 1973.
Dave’s other books included Operation Hollywood, about how the Pentagon shaped and censored movies; The Gumshoe and the Shrink, the true but little-known story about the 1960 presidential race between Nixon and JFK. Gumshoe also was optioned for movies and Operation Hollywood was the subject of two documentaries. David also co-wrote Shtetl, the memoir of Dr. Rose Fromm, a Los Angeles psychiatrist who grew up in a small Polish village before World War II.
He served as chief investigator for a group of WGA members suing major networks and talent agencies for ageism. He worked for Dolly Gee, a lead attorney in the case, now a federal district court judge. They won a settlement of $75 million.
This is not to say Dave only wrote critically about the establishment. He hailed the good works of the Actors’ Fund, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. He explored how the guilds and unions worked in cooperation with the AMPTP to save Hollywood during the Covid pandemic.
He was the first to break the news that the Motion Picture & Television Fund was in financial trouble, which helped rally the industry to save the venerable charitable institution.
In our last call, Dave was clearly winding down, though he was proud of his hanging tough in hospice. His final ask of me was to request that in lieu of flowers anyone might send when he got laid to rest, his preference was for donations to the MPTF.
Hospice is an unpredictable thing, and some people go quickly. Dave and I had a last laugh when I said I was not surprised that he outlived expectations, because he was the guy who would go out swinging, and clinging to life. He lasted three weeks on hospice. Everyone here at Deadline will miss him and his spirit will still loom large here.
This report was greatly helped by the contributions of Joe Bridgman, Dave’s best pal who was best man when he married Kelly in 2004.