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Budd Schulberg, ‘On The Waterfront’ Screenwriter, Dies at 95

August 6, 2009

 

 

In Remembrance of Budd Schulberg

“We note the passing of our colleague Budd Schulberg, a longtime member of the Writers Guild of America, East Council.

Budd will especially be remembered for four great contributions to American literature: the acerbic Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?,” his boxing world novel “The Harder They Fall,” the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “On the Waterfront” and his script for “A Face in the Crowd,” a remarkably prescient look at media, the cult of personality and their impact on American society and politics.

In candor, Budd also will be remembered for his role as a friendly witness before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee during the era of the Hollywood blacklist. As Victor Navasky wrote in an afterword to his book, “Naming Names,” a comprehensive and perceptive chronicle of those times, “The fear conspired to divide and sometimes destroy decent people of good will who for years had been colleagues and compatriots. The wounds won’t heal. The issues are passed on from generation to generation.”

In the decades following that awful period, Budd endeavored to be a stalwart member of this union and to share his creative gifts with others, made manifest by his work with the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Harlem and the Douglass House Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles. 

Our condolences to his family and friends."

 

                                            - Michael Winship, President, Writers Guild of America , East

 


 

Budd Schulberg, ‘On The Waterfront’ Screenwriter, Dies at 95

By Tim Weiner
The New York Times

Budd Schulberg, wrote the award-winning screenplay for “On The Waterfront” and created a classic American archetype of naked ambition, Sammy Glick, in his novel “What Makes Sammy Run?,” died on Wednesday. He was 95 and lived in the Brookside section of Westhampton Beach , N.Y.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Betsy.

Mr. Schulberg also wrote journalism, short stories, novels and biographies. He collaborated with F. Scott Fitzgerald, arrested the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and named names before a Communist-hunting Congressional committee. But he was best known for writing some of the most famous lines in the history of the movies.

Some were delivered by Marlon Brando playing the longshoreman Terry Malloy in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront.” Malloy had lost a shot at a prizefighting title by taking a fall for easy money.

“I coulda been a contender,” Malloy tells his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger). “I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

It was Adam’s fall in New York argot. Mr. Schulberg won the 1954 Oscar for best story and screenplay.

Mr. Schulberg wrote about the power of Hollywood moguls, mob bosses and political ideologues to run roughshod over ordinary people — longshoremen, boxers, even writers. It was the System against the little guy, a fixed fight in a world where “the love of a lousy buck” and a “cushy job” were “more important than the love of man,” in the words of Father Barry, the crusading priest in “On the Waterfront” played by Karl Malden, who died on July 1.

“It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power,” Mr. Schulberg said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006, videotaped for posthumous showing on its Web site. “The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.”

The son of a movie mogul, Mr. Schulberg was twice ostracized by Hollywood and twice fought back with his typewriter. The first time came in 1941, with his first novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?,” a depiction of back-lot back stabbing. The story’s antihero, Sammy Glick, a product of the Lower East Side, is a young man on the make who will lie, cheat and steal to achieve success, rising from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood boss on the strength of his cutthroat ambition. “The spirit of Horatio Alger gone mad,” Mr. Schulberg said.

The book cut so close to the bone that Mr. Schulberg was warned that he would never work in the film industry again.

The second time Mr. Schulberg faced professional ruin was when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 during its relentless investigation of the Communist Party’s influence on the movie industry.

Mr. Schulberg had gone to the Soviet Union in 1934 and joined the Communist Party of the United States after he returned to Hollywood . “It didn’t take a genius to tell you that something was vitally wrong with the country,” he said in the 2006 interview, recalling his decision to join the party.

“The unemployment was all around us,” he said. “The bread lines and the apple sellers. I couldn’t help comparing that with my own family’s status, with my father; at one point he was making $11,000 a week. And I felt a shameful contrast between the haves and the have-nots very early.”

His romance with Communism ended six years later, when he quit the party after feeling pressure to bend his writing to fit its doctrines.

Mr. Schulberg had been identified as a party member in testimony before the House committee. Called to testify, he publicly named eight other Hollywood figures as members, including the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and the director Herbert Biberman.

They were two among the Hollywood 10 — witnesses who said the First Amendment gave them the right to think as they pleased and keep their silence before the committee. All were blacklisted and convicted of contempt of Congress. Losing their livelihoods, Lardner served a year in prison and Biberman six months.

In the turmoil of the Red Scare, Mr. Schulberg’s testimony was seen as a betrayal by many, an act of principle by others. The liberal consensus in Hollywood was that Lardner had acquitted himself more gracefully before the committee when asked if he had been a Communist: “I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.”

In the 2006 interview, Mr. Schulberg said that in hindsight he believed that the attacks against real and imagined Communists in the United States were a greater threat to the country than the Communist Party itself. But he said he had named names because the party represented a real threat to freedom of speech.

“They say that you testified against your friends, but once they supported the party against me, even though I did have some personal attachments, they were really no longer my friends,” he said. “And I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech, they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the party.”

After his testimony Mr. Schulberg came back with the story and screenplay for “On the Waterfront.” The idea grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles written for The New York Sun about the power of mob bosses on the New York docks. Mr. Schulberg did months of independent research. He befriended a crusading priest, the Rev. John M. Corridan, who fought for the dockworkers’ cause and became a model for Father Barry.

The script, which won one of eight Oscars awarded to the film, bears echoes of Mr. Schulberg’s own political struggle: the film’s director, Elia Kazan, had also chosen to name names.

At one point Father Barry encourages the dockworkers to testify against the mob. In America , he says, there are “ways of fighting back.”

“Getting the facts to the public,” the priest continues. “Testifying for what is right against what is wrong. What’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Can’t you see that?”

Budd Wilson Schulberg was born on March 27, 1914, in New York . He grew up in Hollywood in the 1920s, surrounded by silent-movie stars. His father, B. P. Schulberg, rose to be chief of production at Paramount Studios; his mother, the former Adeline Jaffe, was a prominent literary agent. Budd attended Dartmouth and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1936.

He spent World War II making information and propaganda films for the War Department and the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, working with the Hollywood director John Ford. In Germany at the war’s end, he helped put together filmed evidence against the Nazis for the Nuremberg trials. To help in the editing, he tracked down Leni Riefenstahl, who had made powerful propaganda films for Hitler. Dressed in his military uniform and with a warrant in his pocket, he drove to her Bavarian chalet and returned with her to Nuremberg in an open-air military vehicle.

Mr. Schulberg published a gritty second novel, “The Harder They Fall,” in 1947. One of the first realistic examinations of professional boxing, based partly on the career of Primo Carnera, a heavyweight champion managed by a gangster, the book stood for many years as a model for other novels, plays and films about the amoral world of the ring. His 1950 novel, “The Disenchanted,” grew out of his attempt 12 years earlier to collaborate on a screenplay with F. Scott Fitzgerald, then in a long alcoholic tailspin. Mr. Schulberg, who was 24 at the time, had turned in a mediocre first draft for a film to be set at Dartmouth , called “Winter Carnival.” The producer, Walter Wanger, told him a second writer would be assigned to help him knock out the script.

“I wasn’t too happy about it,” Mr. Schulberg remembered. “I said, ‘Who’s the writer?’ He said, ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald.’

“I thought it was just a joke, like saying ‘Leo Tolstoy,’ ” Mr. Schulberg recalled. “And I said, ‘Scott Fitzgerald — isn’t he dead?’ And he said, ‘No, he’s not dead, he’s right in the next room reading your script.’ ”

The effort ended after Fitzgerald went on a bender in New Hampshire with Mr. Schulberg, who turned the disastrous experience into “The Disenchanted.” (The novel was later transformed into a play, which had its Broadway debut in 1958 and brought Jason Robards a best-actor Tony Award.) After their joint success with “On the Waterfront,” Mr. Schulberg wrote and Mr. Kazan directed “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), one of the first films to weigh the political clout of television. Based on a Schulberg short story, the film depicts the transformation of a country singer, played by Andy Griffith, from power-drunk star into populist demagogue.

Mr. Schulberg wrote ceaselessly, writing for television, publishing journalism and releasing books. He remained convinced that writing could help create a measure of social justice. In 1965 he founded the Douglass House Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles with the goal of encouraging black teenagers to write. He also founded the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in New York in 1971.

Mr. Schulberg’s 1936 marriage to Virginia Ray ended in divorce in 1942. His 1943 marriage to Victoria Anderson ended in divorce in 1964. His third wife, the actress Geraldine Brooks, died in 1977. In 1979 he married the actress and writer Betsy Ann Langman.

He is survived by a daughter, Victoria Kingsland, from his first marriage; a son, Stephen, from his second marriage; a son and daughter, Benjamin and Jessica, from his fourth marriage; and two grandchildren. Another son from his second marriage, David, died in 2005.

Mr. Schulberg never stopped working. Last year he was in Scotland , at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for a new adaptation of his stage version of “On the Waterfront”; he and Stan Silverman had first adapted it for the stage in 1995, when it had its Broadway debut, to weak reviews.

In 2001 Mr. Schulberg began collaborating with the director Spike Lee on a screenplay about the heavyweight title fights between Joe Louis, the black American champion, and Max Schmeling, the German boxer, each man serving as a reluctant symbol for two nations soon to go to war.

For Mr. Schulberg, the story, as yet unproduced, yielded vividly dramatic possibilities but also an opportunity to consider social issues involving race, sports and national identity. It was his kind of story.

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who used their ability as a novelist or as a dramatist to say the things he felt needed to be said about the society” while being “as entertaining as possible,” he said in the 2006 interview.

“Because if you don’t” entertain, he said, “nobody’s listening.”