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A Tale of Two Termites

Lewis Terman promised anonymity, but several of his kids later went. public. Two made names in Hollywood.

Courtesy Gregg Oppenheimer

I LAUNCHED LUCY: Ball used to call Oppenheimer "The Brains."

By Mitchell Leslie

Jess Oppenheimer (1913-1988): As creator, producer and head writer of I Love Lucy, Oppenheimer probably would have chuckled over one document in his Terman file. After interviewing the boy, Terman's assistant wrote, "I could detect no signs of a sense of humor."

By his own admission, he was an intentionally unpleasant and slightly maladjusted child (acquiring just the skewed perspective a comedy writer needs, he later argued). Although his academic record wasn't stellar, Terman arranged his transfer to Stanford from the University of San Francisco. After three years, Oppenheimer left without a degree. In 1936, he moved to Los Angeles, where he never needed the letter of recommendation Terman had given him. While eavesdropping on two writers grumbling about their rejected scripts, he collected enough tips to write his own. That first script earned him a job on Fred Astaire's radio show.

Oppenheimer wrote for some of the most popular radio programs of the day, including The Jack Benny Show, Baby Snooks and The Edgar Bergen Show. His salary, $500 a week in 1940, put him among the top earners in the Terman group. In 1951, he conceived I Love Lucy as a vehicle for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who affectionately called him "The Brains." Under his direction, the show broke ground by having a Cuban co-star and by working Ball's pregnancy into the plot. It also revolutionized the technology of TV. Because none of the stars or staff wanted to move to New York to do live broadcasts, Oppenheimer opted to record the program with a live audience and distribute it to local stations on film -- an innovation that made syndication possible.

Edward Dmytryk (1908-1999): As a teenager, Dmytryk worked as a messenger boy in Hollywood. By age 31, he was directing B movies. But just as critics started to appreciate his work, anticommunist hysteria shattered his career. In 1947, he received a "hot-pink subpoena" from the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was hunting for communists in the movie industry. During their testimony, Dmytryk and the other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten (film notables including the writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Dalton Trumbo) refused to answer questions or to finger Party members. Cited for contempt of Congress, Dmytryk was fired immediately by RKO Pictures and blacklisted.

He eventually served a 41/2-month jail sentence. Then, determined to reclaim his career, he went before the committee again, admitting to brief membership in the Party and identifying 26 other members -- an act that made him lifelong enemies. Dmytryk defended the decision in his 1978 autobiography: "I was being forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the Communist Party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust."

Safe for Hollywood again, he went on to work with stars like Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart. He directed 23 films, including The Caine Mutiny, The Young Lions, Crossfire, Raintree County and Murder, My Sweet.

Dmytryk's brother was another Termite, but his career never took off. Arthur aspired to become a writer but ended up working as a pool cleaner.

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