Douglas Brinkley: His Sean Penn Conflict of Interest

Historians in the News

From the Scrapbook of the Weekly Standard (3-14-05):

Veteran comic actor Douglas Brinkley, best known for his pitch-perfect television cameos as a shamelessly sycophantic, celebrity-smitten history professor--Scrapbook readers will doubtless remember Brinkley's hilarious performance as "the candidate's biographer" on last season's since-cancelled John Kerry Show--may finally be getting the A-list entertainment-industry treatment he's long deserved.

Brinkley's standing among his fellow thespians has never been in question, of course: Despite his relative obscurity in a less-prestigious medium, even the biggest of big-screen personalities clearly consider him one of their own--both socially and professionally. It was just a couple months ago, after all, that New Orleans Times-Picayune society columnist Chris Rose reported the following Tinseltown-on-Location-in-the-Big-Easy megascoop: "Saturday night, [Sean] Penn showed up at The Columns on the Avenue, taking a front porch table with a group of guys that included local historian Doug Brinkley, whose connection to Penn is that they're mutual friends of Hunter S. Thompson." And there "with Brinkley and Penn was [Jude] Law, whose mere physical proximity has caused bronze nudes to melt into smoldering puddles of molten lava."

But Mr. Brinkley, thank goodness, appears to have survived that evening in solid form.

Item the first: Brinkley has lately inked a development deal to become the featured star of a new, independently produced reality show set in New Orleans. Its creators haven't yet settled on a name for the program, but Brinkley will play the role of "director" at the "Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization"--described in the show's promotional materials as a division of "Tulane University." We're laughing already.

Item the second: Even as he pursues this unprecedented opportunity, Brinkley apparently remains contractually free--and eager--to continue accepting a full range of walk-on roles with established productions back in Los Angeles. As recently as February 27, for example, Brinkley did a show-stealing turn on page two of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, a revered if low-rated Sunday morning institution in Movieland. The gag for Brinkley's episode involved the Times asking his character, a "distinguished professor of history," to review a new oral-history biography of a certain celebrity whom the professor considers a personal friend. And the professor, desperate to further ingratiate himself with his marquee-named pal, decides to accept the assignment, notwithstanding his conflict of interest, which he nowhere acknowledges in the review he winds up turning in.

The result? A direct hit to the funny bone! C'mon: Who else but Douglas Brinkley could pull off side-splitters like these:

"Several things become clear when reading Richard T. Kelly's Sean Penn: His Life and Times. . . . Unflinching in his artistic integrity, Penn over the last two decades has forged fast friendships with such gifted actors as Jack Nicholson [etc., etc.]. . . . Penn championed the underdog even at an early age, growing up in the fashionable communities of Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks, and Malibu. . . . A staunch advocate of prison reform, Penn would have become a civil rights lawyer if he hadn't been an actor. . . . And one thing is for certain. Whether he is acting, directing, writing, or dissenting, he will do it his way, with the least amount of negotiation possible." And so forth.

Here, as always, Brinkley's depiction of craven, semi-dishonest, pseudo-scholarly toadyism is so riotously funny and compelling that one almost forgets it's only comedy--that he isn't really a "distinguished professor of history" at all.

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