Budd Schulberg, 95; Academy Award-Winning Screenwriter of 'On the Waterfront'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who wrote about corrosive ambition and power in "On the Waterfront" and "A Face in the Crowd" and in best-selling books such as "What Makes Sammy Run?," died Aug. 5 at his home in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. He was 95. No cause of death was given.

Mr. Schulberg was the son of a legendary Hollywood producer whose fortunes rose and fell dramatically. As a result, he once said he was intrigued by "how suddenly [people] go up, and how quickly they go down."

He used his insider knowledge of Hollywood politics to write his first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" in 1941. A grotesque account of vice being rewarded, the book was widely praised (though not in Hollywood) and made him a star author at 27.

Vivid, crackling dialogue was his hallmark in about 10 other books and a handful of riveting films. He wrote the memorable speech that included the line "I coulda been a contender," spoken by actor Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront" (1954).

Besides Mr. Schulberg's Oscar for best story and screenplay, the film won for best picture, best director (Elia Kazan), best actor (Brando) and best supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint).

Mr. Schulberg's next project, "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), skewered the television industry and became a lasting favorite of critics and moviemakers. The film, again directed by Kazan, featured Andy Griffith in what many regard as his best role. Griffith played "Lonesome" Rhodes, a cracker-barrel prophet who self-destructs after he lands a national television show.

"Face" was an underrated gem, a perceptive look at the future of television and politics.

"It never got the credit it deserved for its commentary on media that in some ways was as visionary as 'Network' about what lay ahead for broadcasting," Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote in 2000. "Network," released in 1976, was writer Paddy Chayefsky's acid view of television news.

The influence of "A Face in the Crowd" stretched even further into the present. Spike Lee dedicated "Bamboozled," his 2000 film that satirized television, to Mr. Schulberg.

Mr. Schulberg's fascination with ambition found a consistent theme in boxing in his films, books and short stories. He considered the fight game the rawest depiction of human struggle, a bruising metaphor for life.

Legendary boxer Gene Tunney rated Mr. Schulberg's 1947 novel "The Harder They Fall" among the best fictional accounts of boxing. A film version followed in 1956, with Humphrey Bogart as a sports reporter turned boxing promoter who sells out his good name for big money.

He was also a popular boxing authority, his work having appeared in the first issue of Sports Illustrated magazine. He supported heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's right to defend his title after being stripped of it when Ali would not fight in the Vietnam War. In 1972, he wrote a well-received biography of Ali, "Loser and Still Champion."

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