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MU’s Surprising Connection to “Oppenheimer”

The actor who played Evans in Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award nominated film “Oppenheimer” shares his experiences on-set

What do Millersville University and the Oscar-nominated “Oppenheimer” have in common? Dr. Ward V. Evans, a former Millersville student, was involved in the security clearance hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer and portrayed as such in the blockbuster 2023 film.  

A Lancaster County native born in Rawlinsville, Evans started his academic career in the year 1900 at Millersville University, then called the Millersville State Normal School. After completing several courses, he then earned a B.A. from Franklin & Marshall College and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Evans went on to become a faculty member at Northwestern University, teaching chemistry from 1916-1945, and then taught at Loyola University Chicago from 1947-1951.  

Ward V. Evans

What Evans is most known for is his relation to Oppenheimer, the man who directed the Manhattan Project during World War II and is regarded as “the father of the atomic bomb.” During the 1950s, a security hearing was held by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to investigate Oppenheimer’s background and associations as someone who held a Q clearance and, therefore, could access restricted data.  

While serving as chair of the chemistry department of Northwestern University, Evans was one of just three people to serve on the panel, which was responsible for the final decision regarding his clearance. Serving alongside Gordon Gray, president of the University of North Carolina, and Thomas A. Morgan, a retired industrialist, the panel was tasked with listening to and reading testimonies about Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the U. S. 

A photo of Evans’ report card from his time at Millersville.

One of the primary issues brought up in Oppenheimer’s hearing was his past affiliation with the Communist Party, though he was never a member, and left-wing political affiliations. Oppenheimer was accused of being an agent of the Soviet Union and purposefully hindering the U.S. government’s development of the bomb. His security clearance hearing lasted about four weeks, with Oppenheimer testifying for a total of 27 hours.  

After the lengthy process, a decision was reached: two out of three of the panelists decided that Oppenheimer’s clearance should be revoked. The lone dissenter was Evans, who found that Oppenheimer’s affiliations didn’t directly indicate disloyalty and felt quite strongly about this stance. He was quoted as saying that the failure to clear Oppenheimer would become “a black mark on the escutcheon of our country.” 

Evans added that Oppenheimer, “did his job in a thorough and painstaking manner. There is not the slightest vestige of information before this board that would indicate that Dr. Oppenheimer is not a loyal citizen of this country.” 

After suffering a stroke at his home in Fishing Creek, Evans passed away in Lancaster in 1957. He was brought to life in “Oppenheimer” by actor John Gowans, who has starred in numerous film and TV projects over the years, including “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Dallas,” “Charmed,” “Big Love,” and many more.  

Actor John Gowans

In a phone interview with Gowans, he shared his experience of playing Evans on the big screen. The Los Angeles-based actor, who has 40 years of experience, explains that when he auditioned for the role, he wasn’t even sure what the film was about.  

“There was so much secrecy around the film,” he says. “It wasn’t even called ‘Oppenheimer’ at that time. It was called ‘Gadget,’” a reference, he explains, to the nickname of the first atomic bomb. Even the script and merchandise given to the cast and crew as gifts carried the name.  

Gowans’ portion of the project was filmed near the very end of production over just seven days. They shot for 12 to 14 hours at a time in an old city office building in Alhambra, Ca. Was Gowan’s persuaded to see Evans’ point of view during the hearing? “Just watching Cillian (Murphy) act, you had to the side with the guy,” says Gowans with a laugh. “I was glad I had the opportunity to be the one to say, ‘Ok.’” 

Evans in the blockbuster film, “Oppenheimer” (far right)

During filming, actors were asked to stay in the small office room, so Gowans was a first-hand witness to the A-lister actors’ performances. “Rarely did anyone need more than two or three takes, which is very unusual,” he shares. “They were very prepared and professional. The scenes I was part of were also very intense. And the actor, Jason Clarke, who played special counsel Roger Robb, was so intense. I definitely felt that tension.”  

Gowans worked under the supervision of acclaimed director Christopher Nolan and can be seen throughout the film in the background of the hearing, sometimes with a notepad in hand. In between takes, Nolan looked over his shoulder and saw some of Gowans’ doodles and said, “I see you’re paying attention.” Shortly after, Gowans’ pad was replaced by a new one with notes Evans’ might have penned himself during the hearing.  

The critical success of the film came as a happy surprise to Gowans. “In any film that you’re in, there are so many fingers in the pie. That any film gets made is almost a miracle,” he shares. “I’ve never been in a film that was up for an Academy Award. It’s exciting just to be a part of it.” 

In addition to the creation of the atomic bomb, Nolan’s latest film takes an in-depth and intense look at this security clearance hearing. If you’re watching (or rewatching) “Oppenheimer” this Oscars season, keep an eye out for this significant Marauder.  

Sources 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “J. Robert Oppenheimer security hearing”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Jul. 2023, www.britannica.com/event/J-Robert-Oppenheimer-security-hearing.  

“DR. WARD EVANS, CHEMIST, IS DEAD; Loyola of Chicago Professor Who Ruled for Oppenheimer in Security Case Was 74.” New York Times, 3 Aug. 1957, p. 11.  

“John Gowans.” IMDb. www.imdb.com/name/nm0332944/. 

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