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."
He joined the Marine Corps, fought in the Guadalcanal campaign, did D-Day landings on Guam, then Okinawa. "I considered myself something of a pacifist. But I'm Jewish and I wanted to get at that S.O.B. Hitler. But who the hell knew all the Marines would be sent in the opposite direction?"
He got dengue and malaria, so after the war he stayed on the West Coast and became a screenwriter. "Why the hell not?" he says. "Why not get into the picture business? There's always some kind of crazy thing going on. So I did." He was hired by Dore Schary, the studio boss at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. "He was a very bright, very decent man," Kaufman says. "And he liked Marines, so he gave me a job."
At MGM, Kaufman was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of "Take the High Ground!," a 1953 movie about a tough-as-leather drill sergeant at boot camp, starring Richard Widmark and Karl Malden. He was nominated again for the 1955 "Bad Day at Black Rock," about a town of losers who conspire to kill a Japanese American after Pearl Harbor, a movie that managed to be both subversive and moral, with a cast that included Spencer Tracy as the one-armed man and Lee Marvin as a cowboy punk.
"Most of people who talk with contempt about Hollywood never made it out here. I like the place," he says. Many screenwriters nurse grudges. Not Kaufman. "Acting?" he says. "Now that is a miserable profession. An awful life. Even the best of them, they sit around most of the year, not working, not doing anything. Brando once told me acting is not a job for a grown man. Even the successful ones. Like Bogart. Who was a drinker. Very bright. A wonderful chess player. But most of the year he had nothing to do, so he drank. He was a helluva decent man."
Kaufman is credited with writing only about a dozen screenplays in 40 years, though he guesses he rewrote a hundred more scripts written by others. Along the way, Kaufman co-created the nearsighted, well-heeled fumbler Mr. Quincy Magoo when he wrote the script for animator John Hubley's cartoon short "Ragtime Bear" in 1949. Kaufman didn't have any more credits for Magoo after that first outing, and today dismisses the pop toon with a roll of his eyes and yet another dirty word.
Deep into his 80s, Kaufman was working on a screenplay about the boxer Jack Johnson, "the Galveston Giant," the first black world heavyweight champion, 1908-1915. The project fell through. "I thought, okay, I'm finished. I don't want to do movies anymore. I would rather sit at home on my [rump] and write books."
So off he sat. "I write every day, always did," Kaufman says. "Or put it this way, I sit down to write every day, but a lot of times I just fool around. I do it seven days a week. Weekends and holidays. I used to get up at 6 in the morning and be at the studio by 9. It was absurd." (Now he rises at 10 a.m., does a mile on the treadmill, then writes.)
He doesn't use a computer. "I don't like all the electricity," he says. He has a secretary who is also a carpenter, named Ron Lindblom. "He builds sets in Vegas," Kaufman says. Instead of Wikipedia, Kaufman roots around in his 24-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1911 edition, "which gives it a certain exotic flavor, which I love."
His novel follows the journey of his young protagonist, Judd Breslau, a brainiac finishing up his PhD at Yale at 14, who is tossed out into the world -- a geek Huck Finn -- to travel through porn studios, horse farms, poetry workshops and think tanks to end up imprisoned in Assama, a mythical backwater in Iraq, where he is sentenced to be executed by "ganching" -- tossed from a tower onto a hedgerow of pointy bamboo spikes.
"I intend neither faint praise nor an ironic joke when I write that nonagenarian Millard Kaufman shows signs of promise," wrote the critic Akiva Gottlieb in the Jewish newspaper the Forward. "He might even be on the verge of a Real Contribution." Critic Ron Charles in The Washington Post wrote: "The weird incongruity between highbrow/lowbrow humor is only part of what makes 'Bowl of Cherries' so irresistible. Kaufman's comic imagination, his ability to mix things scatological and historical, political and philosophical, reminds one of those young'uns Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller."
Kaufman says, "I had no idea that at the age of 88 I would start writing a book about a 14-year-old. I just started and let it carry me. It writes itself. My God, I finally know what that means. I didn't know it until I wrote this novel. You write a sentence and another sentence comes along. There is an excitation about it. You write a movie, you know where it comes from. It's an idea already on paper. Or your boss tells you what to write. Writing a novel was quite different."
Before meeting for lunch, Kaufman sat at his dining room table in an open, airy house filled with sunlight. There's a big crucifix hanging on the wall. "Religious art," he explains. Outside, the gardeners are going at it with the leaf blowers around his swimming pool. He has kept the mood purposefully merry and bright, though he keeps mentioning friends, allies, combatants, actors, directors . . .
He stops and says, "It occurs to me that everybody my age is dead. They're all gone. Every morning now, after 10 seconds with the front page of the newspaper, I go to the obits. Who the hell do I know who died this time? The last one was Abby Mann," who wrote "Judgment at Nuremberg." "Who wasn't my age, either, he was 10 years younger." Before that, Melville Shavelson, who wrote "Houseboat," starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. "He got up in the middle of the night to pee, then he was dead as hell. He was the last of them."
Kaufman says the idea of not writing disturbs him. Because it would mean he was not well. The more he talks about his book, the more he finds reasons why one sentence followed the next, why, for instance, his protagonist is a kid, awaiting execution, in a country far away.
"It's a peculiar feeling," he says. "It reminds me of the war. The first death. In my outfit, we were coming into Guam and what I didn't know until we got there was the Japanese let you land and get up on the beach and that's where they hit you. We were spread out and my sergeant came to me and said, so and so is dead. It was such a shock. We were playing soldiers and suddenly you realized you weren't playing. It happened within five minutes of our landing.
"In a way the deaths of my older colleagues are like that, but it is not so unexpected. But it still comes as a shock. You're on the beach, and then you're not."