Despite his numerous careers, the unstoppable Burt Neuborne has managed to find time for one more—Hollywood actor.
He appeared on screen for 10 minutes in Milos Forman’s 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Norman Roy Grutman, a New York lawyer representing televangelist Jerry Falwell in his lawsuit against the publisher of the skin magazine Hustler. The Academy Award-winning Czech-born film director recruited Neuborne after seeing his work as a Court TV commentator on the O.J. Simpson trial. Neuborne accepted, thinking it would highlight the importance of free speech to a mass audience.
The irony in his casting was that Neuborne, as national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, had actually filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court defending Flynt, not Falwell. Falwell contended that he had been the victim of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” because a Hustler parody suggested that he had sex with his mother. Neuborne argued that the Hustler article fell within the bounds of legitimate parody of a public figure protected by the watershed New York Times v. Sullivan case. While a lower court sided with Falwell, the Supreme Court upheld Flynt’s First Amendment rights.
But Neuborne the lawyer’s political leanings did not stop Neuborne the actor from being terrier-like in his defense of Falwell. Indeed, he recalls that the script had a courtroom cross-examination that fell flat and Forman allowed him and actor Woody Harrelson to ad lib their exchanges in a more aggressive fashion.
“I was behaving the way I behave in court, pressing Harrelson the way I’d press a reluctant witness,” Neuborne said.
At one point, Neuborne complained to Forman that the legal arguments his character was making were rather flimsy, giving the philosophical debate within the movie an imbalance. Forman’s tart response was: “You’ve gotten so Hollywood. All you want is more lines for your character.”