A profile of screenwriter Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), from the June 2004 issue of The Walrus
THE fax machine whirrs as Budd Schulberg talks. The office in his coach house could pass for an archive or a shrine. Any wallspace not taken up by shelves of books is given over to posters from On The Waterfront and other movies he wrote back in the fifties, and to photographs of famous friends, most of them now gone. He’s practically buried under stacks of manuscripts and research files, but there’s no dust on Schulberg. He’s venting his frustration with a current project that’s taking too long to come together, a screen adaptation of his classic novel What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941 when Schulberg was just twenty-seven years old. Now, two months short of his ninetieth birthday, he doesn’t need to be reminded of the ultimate deadline.
“I just had a meeting in Manhattan with Ben Stiller,” he says, his words halting, then firing quickly, the function of a lifelong stutter. “He’s been trying to get Sammy produced for a few years now. I just hope the window doesn’t close on it.”
Thirty-four years ago Schulberg left the noise and hustle of the city and retreated here to Quiogue, a small town on the Atlantic side of Long Island. His home, more quaint than ostentatious, sits at the end of a private road that winds through a forest. An Arctic chill has fallen over the Eastern seaboard, making town and home even quieter than usual on this January day.
It’s also deep winter in the writer’s life. Once-thick waves of black hair have gone unruly and snow-white. He’s smaller now too, down a weight class, a distillation of his former self. Leaning on his cane, he shuffles over to the counter, where a fax has spilled into the tray.
The fax is a letter from Nicholas Kazan, whose father, the director Elia Kazan, brought Schulberg’s Waterfront screen-play to life. The movie won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including best picture. Elia Kazan won the Oscar for best director and Schulberg for best original screenplay. Their friendship endured until Kazan died last September at ninety-four.
Schulberg has invited Elia’s son Nicholas to attend an upcoming fiftieth-anniversary tribute to Waterfront in Hoboken, where it was filmed. But as Schulberg reads Nicholas’s faxed reply, his brow furrows. Elia’s son, it seems, is refusing to come, but he isn’t just begging off; he suggests he can’t distance himself far enough from his father’s legacy, the one Elia etched into the history books when he testified in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (huac). Kazan, like many who testified, carried the stigma all his life and clearly passed it on to his children. Nicholas has written that he has had to struggle to maintain “his sanity, not always successfully,” and that it would be too painful for him to attend.
“I don’t understand that,” Schulberg says. “It was his father who put him through school. . . . His work afforded him a nice lifestyle.”
But Schulberg isn’t really baffled by Nicholas Kazan’s anger – he knows Nicholas, a screenwriter, never forgave his father and has even contributed to a memorial to victims of the Hollywood blacklist who were banned from working in the movies. Nor is it the first time he’s seen this kind of response. For, like Elia Kazan, Schulberg has also borne the stigma of being a willing participant in the Committee hearings.
Unlike Elia Kazan, however, who professed to be conflicted about his decision to name names, Schulberg has never expressed a shred of doubt that testifying before huac was the right thing to do. Kazan later claimed he was criticized more viciously than the other co-operative witnesses, Schulberg included, because “less was expected of them.”
I ask Schulberg about Elia Kazan’s claim, wondering how many indelible memories the question provokes. May 23, 1951: room 226, the Old House Office Building. Will you state your full name, please? My name is Budd Wilson Schulberg. July 1, 1971: the Lion’s Head Tavern, a famous writers’ hang-out in Manhattan, the day the Times ran an obit for the blacklisted director Herbert Biberman, noting that Schulberg had named him. Hey, Budd, I thought you’d be sitting shiva for Biberman. Any number of rooms over the last fifty-thre years, when Schulberg walked in and someone else walked out, or Schulberg reached out to shake a hand and the other guy turned away.