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."

He was the only non-boxer the World Boxing Association named a living legend of boxing.

Budd Wilson Schulberg was born in New York on March 27, 1914. He grew up in Los Angeles, where his father, Benjamin "B.P." Schulberg, was head of production at Paramount studios. His mother was the former Adeline Jaffe, a powerful literary agent.

He grew up on the studio lot, being kissed as a child by Mary Pickford and Clara Bow. He once playfully threw figs at stars such as Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. The enormous set for the silent "Ben-Hur" was his playground.

A childhood stutter left him with a fear of speaking and prompted him to write. But it was a crushing experience putting pen to paper, he recalled in his 1981 autobiography, "Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince." His demanding father called the 8-year-old's first poem "lousy." He forgave his father with time, saying the encounter taught him a valuable lesson in the need for revision.

He was a 1936 summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College and edited the student newspaper. He returned to Hollywood after school and worked as a junior writer, usually a lowly and unrewarding job, yet he was lucky in his assignments.

He worked with Ring Lardner Jr. polishing up "A Star is Born" (1937) and then with F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of "The Great Gatsby," on the college picture "Winter Carnival" (1939).

He was stunned meeting Fitzgerald, whose career had spiraled downward from drink, debt and other personal problems. He had thought Fitzgerald was long dead, but producer Walter Wanger reassured him, "If he is, he must be the first ghost who ever got $1,500 a week."

The two authors were ordered to Dartmouth to gather local flavor for "Winter Carnival." Fitzgerald got drunk, embarrassed the studio and was fired. Mr. Schulberg later finished the project with two other writers.

He used the episode with Fitzgerald for the core of "The Disenchanted" (1950), a bestselling novel credited with helping revive serious study of Fitzgerald's career.

After "Winter Carnival," Mr. Schulberg launched into his celebrated first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?"

The title character, Sammy Glick, a newspaper errand boy, slithers and slices his way to wealth as a film producer. "Going through life with a conscience," Sammy says, "is like driving your car with the brakes on."

B.P. Schulberg, long gone from Paramount after gambling and womanizing helped end his career there, warned his son against publishing the book. He feared his son would be blacklisted for writing about Hollywood backstabbing, casual sex, an ineffectual writers guild and the first-generation Jews who helped build the film community.

Jewish groups, the Communist Party and actor John Wayne decried the novel as, respectively, anti-Semitic, anti-union and anti-American.

The book went through 10 printings in 1941. Mr. Schulberg won praise from Fitzgerald as well as authors Dorothy Parker and John O'Hara, and the New York Times called it that year's best first novel. Sammy Glick is still used as shorthand to describe an amoral power-seeker.

During World War II, Mr. Schulberg served under film director John Ford at the Office of Strategic Services' photography unit. He collected photographic evidence to use against war criminals at the postwar Nuremberg trials.

In the late 1940s, Mr. Schulberg began researching what would become the screenplay for "On the Waterfront." He bought film rights to the New York Sun's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on waterfront crime and studied waterfront lingo by socializing with dockworkers and famed labor priest John Corridan.

Few studios were convinced of its promise. "Who's going to give a damn about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?" 20th Century-Fox executive Darryl Zanuck reportedly told Kazan.

Eventually, Columbia studios gave Kazan a shoestring budget of about $900,000. The film earned $9.5 million in its first year.

Brando played Terry Malloy, a punched-out prizefighter and muscle for the corrupt union controlling the waterfront. Terry falls for the sister of a man he set up, leading him to probe his conscience.

Terry confronts his older brother, Charley, the union's lawyer, about the fixed boxing match that forever changed Terry's life: "So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in a ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money."

He adds: "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am."

Many were convinced the film, about the dangers of conformity, was Mr. Schulberg's apology for his 1951 appearance as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He always denied that, saying he pursued the project long before he testified.

He was in the Communist Party briefly after college but became disillusioned when the Soviets signed a nonaggression pact with the Nazis. He also said the party tried to censor his writing.

His fame with "On the Waterfront" led then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to ask Mr. Schulberg to write the screenplay to "The Enemy Within," Kennedy's book about exposing labor racketeers. That movie never came about, but it influenced Mr. Schulberg's novel "Everything That Moves" (1980), a veiled account of Kennedy's hearings on Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.

Mr. Schulberg was active in literary causes and helped found a writers workshop in the Watts section of Los Angeles after riots there in 1965. He also co-founded in 1971 the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in New York.

Mr. Schulberg adapted many of his novels and stories for the stage, and he continued writing until his death.

In an updated epilogue to "Sammy," he noted how the story's moral punch changed with time. Sammy Glick, he wrote, once seen as "the quintessential anti-hero . . . the free-enterprise system at its meanest," had been transformed into a yuppie hero by a culture obsessed with "do it to him before he to you."

His marriages to Virginia Ray and Victoria Anderson ended in divorce. He was married to actress Geraldine Brooks from 1964 until her death in 1977.

Survivors include his wife, Betsy Ann Langman Schulberg, whom he married in 1978, of Westhampton Beach; a daughter from the first marriage, Virginia; a son, Stephen, from his second marriage; and two children from his fourth marriage, Benjamin and Jessica.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company