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Hollywood's 'conscience' gets stars to think politically

Norman Fleishman hardly looks as though he'd carry much weight in Hollywood. Working out of his modest Santa Monica home, he doesn't affect that manicured , blow-dried, out-of-season-tan look, and his income is a less-than-fashionable five figures.

Mr. Fleishman's name may not be a household word, and it may never appear in screen credits, but his influence can be felt in any household with a television and in many movie theaters as well.

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When celebrities stump for their favorite causes, or a TV movie or series episode deals with the nuclear-freeze movement, or when you hear a line in ''Mork and Mindy'' about solar energy, or Alan Alda breaks a male stereotype by crying in a ''M*A*S*H'' episode, there's a chance the Fleishman influence has been at work.

Entertainment-industry insiders call him the ''conscience of Hollywood.'' The contrast between Fleishman's life style and the often flamboyant excesses of Hollywood might sound like reason enough for such a title. But he has earned this label because his business is to make Hollywood's creative community think - and he's very successful at his business.

''Thousands and thousands of dollars are spent lobbying legislators,'' says Fleishman, ''but nothing is spent to educate people who create entertainment. And that box reaches 30 to 40 million people - I see so much power in television. My object is to bring resources to entertainers and educate them.'' Fleishman organizes seminars on social issues at the homes of celebrities. These meetings have attracted such authorities as Carl Sagan and the late Margaret Mead, who discussed, without a fee, social issues with the creative community.

His aim is to present issues responsibly to entertainers who will think about the issues and perhaps translate them into entertainment that will educate the public.

Identifying Norman Fleishman's influence on a television program is like trying to isolate the taste of flour in a cake - it's definitely there, but it's hard to distinguish.

''Nothing I do has a recipe you can break down,'' says Larry Gelbart, one of the writers of the movie comedy ''Tootsie.'' But he says he has ''no doubt'' that the sensitivity to sexism incorporated in that movie came from discussions at Fleishman's seminars. Further, says Gelbart, who also wrote episodes for ''M*A*S*H,'' plenty of that series' approaches to sensitive issues can be traced to discussions with Fleishman.

Fleishman's influence may be evident as much in the things you don't see as in those you do. For example, one writer for a popular series explains that a character is going to be murdered in an upcoming episode. Originally, the script called for a handgun as the weapon. After debate, it was scrapped and another weapon was picked. The writer cited this as an example of the subtle influence Fleishman's work can have. The tiny script change was the outgrowth of a discussion at a Fleishman seminar on gun control.

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Kathy St. Johns, vice-president of creative affairs for Columbia Pictures Television, recounts one discussion at a Fleishman meeting in which he pointed out how television characters always get home from a long day of work and pick up an alcoholic drink: ''But why can't they sit down and pick up a book? It's a little change, and maybe someone makes it (in their script), but that little change makes as much of a difference to Norman as a big change,'' Ms. St. Johns explains.

Fleishman first realized the influence television can have in 1973, when he was consulting Norman Lear on an episode of ''All in the Family'' dealing with vasectomies.

As administrator for Planned Parenthood in Houston, Fleishman was running what he says was the nation's first vasectomy clinic, trying to eliminate the stigma surrounding that birth-control measure. ''The show just told about a sensitive subject in a very warm and funny way'' Fleishman says, that went beyond clinical concepts. The idea was not to popularize vasectomies, he says, but simply to raise the issue in an entertaining and accurate manner that would help viewers see it objectively.

From that point, Fleishman says, he saw how almost any issue could be presented to Hollywood talent, who could translate it to the screen for the public to evaluate.

Fleishman has quietly and successfully plugged into Hollywood, while others from the far left to the New Right engage in debates and noisily try to accomplish change through such public means as boycotts and protests. Fleishman's is a low-key, backdoor approach; he has chosen to ''educate'' rather than ''intimidate'' the industry.

''I just want to get issues discussed, not persuade people,'' Fleishman says. ''I want each side to see the other side, and not be afraid of the other person's point of view.'' He can get respected authorities to speak free of charge on just about any social issue - from birth control and recycling to sexism and the nuclear freeze.

He insists that his approach reflects no political leaning and steadfastly says he has only experts and industry representatives at his meetings. ''Activists ruin my meetings . . . they try to tell you what to do,'' says Fleishman, who, ironically, is characterized by his friends as an activist. ''I don't need a lot of screaming, just someone to give the facts and let them (the participants) decide for themselves. My speakers are good, and they move people to go away and think.''

But his pet issues - the nuclear freeze movement, sexism, on-screen violence, abortion, and birth control - are certainly the sort of issues traditionally dear to liberals' hearts.

The entertainment industry has long been accused of a liberal bias, most recently by conservative church groups. Says Rev. Don Wildmon, who heads one of these groups, the Coalition for Better Television, ''I'm not familiar with Mr. Fleishman, but it (Fleishman's work) doesn't surprise me. You just call up Hollywood and liberals answer.''

Linda Lichter, a sociologist from George Washington University, co-authored a study that found a strong liberal vein running through Hollywood's elite. She says that often those involved in Hollywood, such as Fleishman, don't see discussing a social issue as a political act. Yet in the survey she conducted, two out of three respondents said they believed television should be used as a tool for social reform.

From her own observations, Dr. Lichter says she's not surprised that much of liberal Hollywood is open to the issues Fleishman discusses. ''Hollywood is very liberal, but not radical,'' she observes, citing series episodes blatantly critical of Proposition 13 (in ''Lou Grant'' and ''Knott's Landing'') and supportive of affirmative action (an episode of ''Paper Chase''). Yet, she adds, there are conservative elements running through TV episodes as well: ''The law is always upheld, and there is strong patriotism when there is a foreign enemy involved.''

''I don't think he (Fleishman) seems political, he's just encouraging debate, '' says Diana Gould, executive story consultant for ''Knott's Landing.'' ''But then, fundamentalist Christians are not going to be having these kinds of debates'' over such things as sexism and birth control.

Still, those interviewed by the Monitor say that while political influence is always being peddled in Hollywood, Fleishman's work is the only organized and widely respected effort of its kind credited with achieving anything political - liberal or conservative.

While Fleishman's influence is recognized within the entertainment industry, he keeps such a low profile that few outside the industry are aware of him.

That's fine with writer-producer Gelbart, who says: ''They may not realize how one good evening with a speaker can influence a person who then goes out and produces something 30 to 40 million people view. I don't want him to get so famous they knock him over.''

Fleishman doesn't solicit money from those who attend his seminars. This is highly unusual in Hollywood, where political gold diggers chase checkbooks, hunt big names, and search for familiar faces to lead protest marches. Instead, Fleishman says he is funded by ''moderate to liberal'' foundation grants. He hopes to increase his budget to $60,000 this year.

''It's very clever of him to have these evenings (meetings) and not ask for money - everyone is bombarded with requests, and unless it's a cause near and dear to your heart you can't give time and energy,'' says actress Blythe Danner. ''Norman puts no pressure to give, he just wants our creative input,'' says Ms. Danner, who has hosted some of Fleishman's meetings in her and finds him a valuable resource on her pet issue - recycling.

''The good thing about Norman is I can't remember him ever trying to raise money,'' Gelbart says. ''Very often I'm approached by some cause. I think there are richer people than me, so why don't they want my mind? Norman just wants my active creativity.'' Gelbart says that ideas from many of Fleishman's meetings have gone into his work.

After attending a speech by Harold Willens, architect of the nuclear-freeze initiative in California, one Hollywood writer ''had the urge to go out and march,'' recounts Fleishman. ''I said, 'Stewart, just sit in your study and write it.' ''

Courting cerebral sensibilities, Fleishman, who boasts a card catalogue of a thousand private Hollywood phone numbers, says his success at penetrating Hollywood's inner circle has been to develop trust. He seems to have succeeded, because when someone from the creative community needs information on an issue, they come to him.

''He sparks my interest the way he does these meetings, and I feel a sense of responsibility. And I'm not normally involved in 'groups' or 'causes.' I don't have the time,'' says Kathy St. Johns. She is working on her own with Fleishman on a project called ''Street Corner,'' which will promote First Amendment rights and will be affiliated with the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francicso.

''The most effective thing he's done for me is that he's almost the voice of my conscience,'' writer Diana Gould says. He reminds me there are things I want to write about.''

''He's constantly in touch with the issues and constantly communicating, trying to keep them (Hollywood talent) interested in the issues,'' says Gelbart. ''And this reinforces our responsibility, so we don't forget.''

Some observers feel there is subtle censorship from the business end of Hollywood. But Fleishman says he fights this belief. ''I've had people say 'We'll never get this through,' and I say 'Don't censor yourself.'

''Still, his writer friends are less optimistic than he. One, who asked not to be identified, says controversial story lines are not easy to push, unless you have a star's backing to ensure financial and ratings success.

But Fleishman says once again that he can be satisfied with only a single line in a script if the line deals with a social issue that will enlighten viewers.

''My object is to create a climate of awareness. Poetry will change the world , not someone screaming 'Hey, get rid of those bombs!' Maybe it's a small amount that I'm doing, but the arena in which I'm doing my little bit is so powerful. . . .''

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