Ouvrez ia fenetre - Zola
Donnez-moile fromage - Celine
Mon oncle est mort - Balzac
Ou est mon chapeau?
-Chapter headings from "Barefoot Boy With Cheek" by Max Shulman
I'M WORKING ON A project, of which I can't disclose the details until it goes through," Max Shulman said. "The pool of talent in Hollywood is amazing - the actors, the directors - they can't make a living anywhere else and they all move here."
The writers, too. In the '40s Max Shulman was best known as the best-selling author of "Barefoot Boy With Cheek," a comic satire of college life. In the '50s he moved on to Broadway, and then into television with "The Dobie Gillis Show," based on a collection of his short stories. But now, alive and well in Westwood, Calif., Max Shulman has gone to Hollywood.
Having finished the screenplay for "House Calls," a romantic comedy released in April, Shulman was taking it easy at home in a west Los Angeles suburb. "'House Calls' was my dream package," he said almost wistfully. "Walter Matthan, Glenda Jackson, Art Carney . . . .
"For me, trying to do many forms gives the illusion of freshness, and besides, I've always felt the screen was the best way to tell a story. I never thought screen-writing was whoring."
But it was in print that Shulman first made his mark. Shulman was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when somebody showed Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday who was wandering through Minneapolis, some of Shulman's writing for the campus humor magazine.
"He said, 'Would you like to write a novel?'" Shulman recalled. "That was kind of a dreams - it was like somebody asking. 'Would you like a trip to the moon?'"
The result was "Barefoot Boy With Cheek," the adventures of young Asa Hearthrug in a great Midwestern university as he joins the Alpha Cholera fraternity, wanders into and out of the arms of coeds Yetta Samovar of the local Communist Party and Noblesse Oblige of Beta Thigh sorority, and finally gets expelled to resume life on a Minnesota farm. Along the way are scathing portrayals of college newspapers and literary magazines, fraternities, sports, campus elections, etc. as seen through the eves of young Asa. It was an overwhelming success.
"The funny thing was," said Shulman, "that within five years after I graduated probably eight of my classmates published books. It was an accident of time - Harry Reasoner was there, and Thomas Heggen, who wrote 'Mister Roberts.' We all worked together on the Daily (the Minnesota newspaper) and the humor magazine, and I think they all looked at me and said to themselves, 'if that a - can do it, then so can I.'" Shulman laughed.
He did some plays on Broadway, including the stage version of "Barefoot Boy With Cheek" and in 1969 began writing "The Dobie Gillis Show." He looks back on the show as a positive experience, but says, "It's all different now. We did 39 shows a year with four regulars. Now thanks to Norman Lear, you can discuss things like sex, race and religion. You couldn't when Dobie Gillis was on the air."
Finally, the problem of input got to him, as in "everybody wants input." "Nobody tells Norman Lear what to do," and Shulman grimly. He moved on to the movies and hasn't looked back.
"I like public television, which to me means the BBC, I guess. There are some good things - '60 Minutes,' and the things that Lear and Danny Arnold do. But I guess Arnold's out - he couldn't stand the input," he said, and chuckled evilly.
The 59-year-old Shulman paused. Now remarried after the death of his first wife, the father of four children - "two medical students and one lawyer, all of whom support themselves," he said proudly - Shulman reflected on the path middle age had taken him.
"As I got older I just got more interested in the problems of people than the mechanics of joke making," he said, and his favorite recent movies - "Silver Streak," "The Turning Point" and "An Unmarried Woman" - reflect his preoccupation with what he described as "middle-aged romantic comedy."
"I like Mel Brooks, and I like his movies, I mean they make me laugh. But it's been as long since I tried that kind of humor, the one-liners" (the form he used so well in "Barefoot Boy With Cheek").
It has been suggested that "Barefoot Boy" opened the floodgates for novels about aware adolescents that peaked with J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," but Shulman said, "I like to think it goes back to Voltaire's 'Candide.' I think that book did pioneer the comic novel - Thurber, Benchley and Pereiman are all heroes of mine, but they worked primarily with shorter pieces. All my books were kind of shapeless, but they were funny."
"It's very exciting working in any kind of theatrical writing. It's not like a book, where you are everybody. You find you're just the clay," Shulman said.
"I'm really rotten copy - I never did starve in a garret, I started with a best seller. I never did overcome cancer or alcoholism. Everything's been up since I started."
He said he was going to stick with screenwriting, "but I expect I'll be doing a book in another year. I've got some ideas."
Max Shulman hasn't slowed down, except to shift gears. "Hell, I'd be a fool not to," he said.