Budd Schulberg

Budd Schulberg

 

New York Times

August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg, ‘On the Waterfront’ Writer, Dies at 95

By TIM WEINER

Budd Schulberg, who 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?”

Seymour 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; two
grandchildren; and his sister Sonia O’Sullivan. 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.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 11, 2009

An obituary on Thursday about the screenwriter Budd Schulberg omitted a survivor, his sister,
Sonia O’Sullivan. The obituary also misstated part of his given name. It was Seymour Wilson
Schulberg; Budd was derived from a family nickname.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company