Earth Day at 50: Looking Back at Hollywood’s Early Green Scene

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Variety didn’t pay much attention to the first Earth Day in 1970 but by its 20th anniversary, mentions were far more prevalent, reflecting Hollywood’s growing commitment to environmental issues.

Sustainability and other green topics have become an even greater issue for the entertainment industry in subsequent decades, and planning for a number of star-studded 50th anniversary Earth Day celebrations was well underway when the coronavirus pandemic shut down large gatherings in the U.S. and beyond. Festivities have been cancelled or moved online.

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Back in 1970, the green scene was much smaller, gaining momentum following the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 screed against pesticides, “Silent Spring.” Actor Eddie Albert began speaking out against DDT pesticide in 1969, while starring on popular CBS sitcom “Green Acres,” and spoke during a Stanford University rally for the inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

“If we ruin it,” Albert is shown warning the audience about our planet in a CBS News report that evening, “we’re dead.”

Albert’s planned appearance earned one of the first Earth Day mentions in Variety, courtesy of longtime columnist Army Archerd, who noted April 22 was the actor’s birthday.

Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) founded Earth Day as a “teach-in” for students around the country. It followed a number of ecological disasters, including a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara and an oil slick that caught fire on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio that summer.

Earth Day “has attracted a large share of TV coverage,” Variety wrote a week before the first event. Besides an ABC News special and CBS reports beginning April 20, “Today” devoted its entire week of programming to environmental health. It was a different era, when most Americans relied on TV news for information; the three networks rose to the occasion with serious news fare.

Later that month, a Variety scribe outlined the latest topical song peg: ecology. Recent releases by Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton and the Smubbs were cited as prime examples of the trend in the front page story.

An estimated 20 million Americans participated at Earth Day events and by year’s end, the Environmental Protection Agency was established.

The event largely faded from Variety mentions for another two decades, a search of digitized Variety Archives reveals. Leading up to the 20th anniversary celebration in 1990 things picked up: Time Warner put together a two-hour ABC special with a bevy of stars; the Go-Go’s reunited for a benefit concert raising funds for California’s Environmental Protection Initiative; and Katey Sagal and Bobcat Goldthwait hosted a “Save the Planet” special on CBS, Variety reported.

“Though some in the industry were environmentally aware since the original Earth Day in 1970, we really didn’t have a consistent message until 1990, when we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Earth Day,” says actor and longtime environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. “But we were quickly (and appropriately) taken to task for promoting energy conservation and clean transportation while living lives that did not really reflect those principles,” he says.

He credits organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Communications Office and the Environmental Media Assn. for working with the studios to bring sustainable practices onto the sets and into the production offices.

In 1992, Variety ran a special report on entertainment and the environment bearing the headline: The Greening of Hollywood. It noted the emergence of eco consultants and outlined green programming on various networks. Disney co-chairman and chief creative officer Alan Horn, then managing director for Castle Rock Entertainment, was profiled for his work on behalf of Entertainment Media Assn. and NRDC. He is now chair of the board for the NRDC.

There has been intermittent Variety coverage of Earth Day ever since, mostly clustered around big anniversary years. Many 50th anniversary gatherings have been canceled due to COVID-19. But eco-minded Hollywood storytellers hope that this global health crisis will raise awareness even further of our fragile planet.

“The planet appears utterly indifferent to our national borders, our political systems, our military strength or our religious beliefs,” says “Chernobyl” writer and producer Craig Mazin. “Either there is global coordination to battle global threats, or we will die out quite a bit quicker than we would have otherwise done.”

Max Brooks foretold a similar geopolitical response to a deadly virus in “World War Z” and has spoken to audiences at West Point’s Modern War Institute about it.

“We are living on a very small, very fragile little speck,” says Brooks, who last month made a popular PSA about the dangers of the coronavirus with his father, Mel. “We can’t afford to be isolationist anymore. What affects some of us affects all of us.”

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