Still Kicking

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

LOS ANGELES There are curious curlicues in the many lives of Millard Kaufman. For example, he once ingested cobra venom -- experimentally-- and awoke to find himself playing golf in the nude.

That is how he met his wife. She's now a psychoanalyst.

Another time, someone lobbed a mortar into his foxhole, when he was a Marine fighting in the Pacific. He was lightly wounded by . . . flying dirt. He partied with a young Elizabeth Taylor and remembers she owned a nice television set. He had not one, but two, screenplays nominated for an Oscar. He co-invented Mr. Magoo. And he swears, a lot.

Then, at the age of 90, Kaufman published his first novel. Talk about a good third act. His manic, comic, firehose of a book, "Bowl of Cherries," was released last year by none other than the buzzy, trend-spotting publishing house of McSweeney's, founded by the precocious lad Dave Eggers.

So it's about a screenwriter from the age of dinosaurs remembering the good old days? Not at all. It's about the premature midlife crisis of a boy genius, set in Iraq. And the critics really like it -- because it is dirty, funny and kind of wild. Now Kaufman tells us that he is just finishing his second novel at the age of 91. This one's about greed.

Naturally we have questions, and the first is: How does Millard Kaufman do it, by which we mean, continue to remain . . . not only breathing, but vital? Perhaps you are thinking: vegetables. Each Tuesday, Kaufman joins some old friends at a Brentwood grill for lunch. Kaufman orders the pastrami. "Fries?" asks the waiter. "Sure," answers Kaufman, like why not? "And a Coke."

His pals are no better. Arthur Hiller, he's 84, he directed "Love Story" and was head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hiller is devouring a burger. Christopher Knopf, the kid at this table (he's only 80), is a veteran TV scribe and former president of the Writers Guild -- he's working on a tuna salad sandwich the size of a baby's head. This table of Hollywood ancients is surrounded by men half their age, who make do with bowls of radicchio, nibbling like nervous gerbils.

Speaking of health regimens: "I smoked three packs a day," Kaufman mentions.

When you were in the Marines?

Until 10 years ago. Kaufman quit smoking when he was 80, right before his cardiac surgeon went in and replaced some major arteries. "Cold turkey," he says. He shrugs. "It's the damndest thing," Kaufman says. "I still have most of my marbles."

One of the advantages of a long life is a résumé with epic sweep. Kaufman was born in Baltimore during the First World War. Near Druid Hill Park. After high school, he was a merchant seaman for two years, then an English major at Johns Hopkins (where he had his lab-rat encounter with the cobra venom) and then a copy boy at the Daily News in New York.

"I loved every damn thing about it," he says of newspapering. "I was nosy. I liked to get into people's business. I remember the big deal was getting to the telephone fast. The first thing you looked for was a telephone so you could call the news in to the desk. The guy who found the phone first would stick chewing gum in the coin slot so the other guys couldn't use it."

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