The suspension of filming on House of Cards Tuesday in response to allegations that star Kevin Spacey made sexual advances on a teen boy is a rare move in an industry that puts commerce first.
Shows are infrequently derailed by concerns other than their ratings performance, said TV historian and former network executive Tim Brooks.
“It usually depends on how popular the show is, not to put too fine a point on it,” Brooks said Tuesday.
In recent days, Hollywood has reacted swiftly to allegations of sexual harassment and assault: Harvey Weinstein was fired from the company he founded within days after initial reports of sexual harassment were published in the New York Times earlier this month.
And hours after news broke about the allegations against Spacey, Netflix said it was pulling the plug on House of Cards, though the streaming network said the decision was made before the BuzzFeed News report on Spacey over the weekend. The network has not commented on plans for a Gore Vidal biopic starring Spacey that is currently in production.
The widespread tumult has prompted unusual actions — such as Weinstein being booted from industry organizations — and created a climate of uncertainty. But a look back shows that Hollywood has dealt with disruption before, with even beloved shows and actors fighting to keep their balance amid controversy.
During Hollywood’s 1950s “red scare,” Brooks said, I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball was accused of being a communist sympathizer. The sitcom co-starred her husband, Desi Arnaz, who took action.
“Desi came out before a studio taping and said, ‘The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and that’s not real,”‘ using humor to effectively defuse the situation, Brooks said. The show’s No. 1 status also helped.
Popularity and audience acceptance of a star’s personal issues aided Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer when lead actor Stacey Keach served six months in jail for a drug-related arrest in England in the mid-1980s.
The 1984-85 season was cut short, but the series resumed in 1986 with Keach aboard and aired until 1987 on CBS.
Grey’s Anatomy was swamped by controversy in late 2006 when an on-set scuffle broke out between stars Patrick Dempsey and Isaiah Washington over Washington’s use of a gay slur regarding another cast member.
After Washington repeated the slur at the 2007 Golden Globes while denying he had used it, ABC rebuked him publicly, as did co-star Katherine Heigl. He was subsequently fired, and the medical drama from TV hitmaker Shonda Rhimes sailed on even as Washington blamed racism for his treatment.
Spacey’s cast mates
An actor’s popularity with his cast mates can determine his fate, Brooks said.
“If they like him, if they get along with him, it’s easy enough to say, ‘If I don’t get my career ruined in this, I’ll stick with him,”‘ he said.
How Spacey’s cast mates are reacting to him and the allegations remains to be seen. Robin Wright, who stars opposite Spacey as his wife, hasn’t commented publicly, but her Twitter feed includes a number of posts backing social issues including female rights and education.
Netflix and House of Cards producer Media Rights Capital had already decided to end the series at the end of next season, its sixth, but on Tuesday they chose to pause the production, which is filmed in Baltimore, “to give us time to review the current situation and to address any concerns of our cast and crew.” Spacey was not scheduled to work that day.
The move comes after actor Anthony Rapp came forward with claims Spacey made inappropriate sexual advances toward him in 1986, when Rapp was 14.
Spacey responded by saying he doesn’t remember the alleged encounter but if he acted the way Rapp alleges, “I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” He also spoke publicly for the first time about being gay, which draw backlash from some observers as an attempt at deflection.
The fallout for Spacey also included the loss of an award he was going to get later this month by The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The group says “it will not honor Kevin Spacey with the 2017 International Emmy Founders Award,” which is to honor “an individual who crosses cultural boundaries to touch humanity.” Spacey was to get it at a gala on Nov. 20 in New York City. Past recipients include Rhimes, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.
A release date for the final House of Cards episodes has yet to be announced. Netflix is developing a possible spinoff of the award-winning drama that helped put the streaming service on the TV series map.