Blacklisted Writer and Director Abraham Polonsky wrote the original screenplay for the film. When Irwin Winkler decided to re-write the script by changing De Niro's character from a Communist to a more generic Liberal, Polonsky had his name removed from the film's credits. "I wanted it to be about Communists, because that's the way it really happened. They didn't need another story about a man who was falsely accused", he said in an interview in the New York Times.
In Irwin Winkler's re-write of Abraham Polonsky's script, David Merrill was changed from a Communist Party member to a relatively apolitical Liberal. Winkler based his conception of Merrill on blacklisted Director John Berry, who played a nightclub owner in the Winkler-produced 'Round Midnight (1986). Ironically, Berry had been, like the original character written by Polonsky, a Communist at the time of the Hollywood Red Scare.
David Merrill (Robert De Niro) walks in front of a poster from the play "A Tramway Named Desire", a reference to its Director Elia Kazan, a famous informer who denounced his friend, Director John Berry (the inspiration for De Niro's character).
This movie, which was rated PG-13, had nine instances of the "f" word or its derivatives in its dialogue, and as such, it is often presented as an exception to the "conventional wisdom" that claims that any movie that uses the "f" word more than once or twice automatically gets an R-rating from the MPAA.
This Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese collaboration is one of few where Scorsese does not direct the film, nor even performs duties as a producer, with Scorsese appearing only in a small acting role as a film director.
Abraham Polonsky, a victim of the blacklist, was so offended that Irwin Winkler changed the main character from a Communist Party member to a Liberal, that he not only had his name taken off of the movie, he also refused an Executive Producer credit that would have earned him a substantial fee. Polonsky was very vocal in the press about his anger with Winkler, and his disapproval over the resulting movie.
According to the article "McCarthyism Made Simple" by Jonathan Rosenbaum published in "The Chicago Reader", this picture was "the first Hollywood feature devoted in its entirety to the film industry blacklist." The earlier Martin Ritt-directed film The Front (1976) dealt with television.
Many movie posters for the film featured a long text preamble that read: "In the 1950s, a war was being fought in the U.S. A committee of Congress sought to control the creative community through fear and censorship. Anyone who disagreed with them became...GUILTY BY SUSPICION. All it took was a whisper."
The picture's closing epilogue states: "Thousands of lives were shattered, and hundreds of careers destroyed by what came to be known as the Hollywood Blacklist. People like David and Ruth Merrill faced terms in prison, suffered the loss of friends and possessions, and were denied the right to earn a living. They were forced to live this way for almost twenty years. It was not until 1970, that these men and women were vindicated for standing up, at the greatest personal cost, for their beliefs."
The Wikipedia website states: "Before the film was released, a fight broke out over the film's script clean-up, which happened between Director Irwin Winkler and former blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky: through others, Polonsky learned Winkler changed the political convictions of the De Niro character. He resented the change-over. In the re-write, David Merrill was changed from a Communist Party member to a relatively apolitical Liberal. Winkler based his conception of Merrill on blacklisted Director John Berry, who would come back to Hollywood film, though it took time to get off the blacklist. Polonsky was so offended that Director Irwin Winkler changed the main character, that he not only had his name taken off of the picture, he also refused an Executive Producer credit that would have earned him a substantial fee."
The film's opening prologue states: "In 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began an investigation into Communism in Hollywood. Ten men who refused to 'cooperate' with the committee were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. Thereafter, no one called to testify, either in public or in secret, could work, unless he satisfied the committee by naming names of others thought to be Communist."