Richard D. Heffner has been called many things — television host, professor, writer, editor, commentator — but there is one title he recalls with particular relish.
As chairman of the Ratings Board and administrator of the motion picture industry’s voluntary film ratings system, Heffner evaluated John Frankenheimer’s “Black Sunday,” a 1977 film about a terrorist attack.
“We gave it an R,” he said. “To censor it? No. Parents could take their kids if they wanted. [The filmmakers] fought and fought. They lost. They called me the mortician of the industry, by which they meant it wouldn’t make any money.”
Heffner presided over 20 years of such ratings wars and appeals while attempting to defend the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) from charges of censorship and butchery. At a Silliman Master’s Tea Thursday, co-sponsored by the Yale Film Society, Heffner peppered his career autobiography with behind the scenes accounts of the economics, politics and power plays of the ratings game.
While he is perhaps best known for his role as the MPAA chairman, Heffner is currently a professor at Rutgers University and has, for 46 years, been producing and hosting “The Open Mind,” an interview and debate program that airs on public television. His book “A Documentary History of the United States” is in its seventh edition; he has edited a definitive version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” and his latest book, “Conversations with Elie Wiesel,” hits the market in two weeks.
As Silliman Master Judith Krauss said, “He is an accomplished man who has bridged careers in policy, education and communications.”
Heffner offered a simple explanation of how anyone can manage the same feat.
“Live a long time,” he said, adding, “I’m just lucky; I went to a wonderful liberal arts college and had a broad-based education.”
Heffner was also thankful for his fortunate timing. When he began producing “The Open Mind,” television was a young medium, and he had much freedom in his interview content. When he joined the MPAA decades later, the institution was still young and controversial, and Heffner used his historical perspective to defend its actions.
“What they were doing in Hollywood was bound to bring the wrath of the gods upon us,” Heffner said. “In time there would be real censorship if I didn’t control the violence a little. As a people we were becoming more concerned with social institutions that lead to crime in the streets. If the industry wouldn’t regulate itself then, as Tocqueville said, an angry public will transfer its anger into tyranny of the majority.”
Heffner’s hard-line stance on violence lead one New York Times reporter to deem him “the man who gave violence an X,” until, as Heffner jokingly noted, he saw the particular film — Norman Jewison’s 1975 “Rollerball” — and wholeheartedly agreed with the rating.
Jared LeBoff ’03, co-president elect of the Yale Film Society, arranged for Heffner’s Tea after meeting him and enjoying his anecdotes.
“He has these great war stories about notable people, and he’s always at odds with someone,” LeBoff said.
Now, seven years after leaving his post, Heffner is also at odds with the MPAA. While he used to subscribe to the MPAA philosophy of “anything goes as long as it’s rated,” an overly commercialized film industry and lax morals prevent him from following this dictum.
“More parents are indifferent toward violence. We are faced with a clear and present danger, and that is what the media does to us,” he said.
Leaving the Tea with one last historical joke, Heffner said: “What happened to the good old American tradition of regulation? Harry Truman would be regulating the bastards right now!”