Interview: Budd Schulberg

Budd Schulberg wrote one of Marlon Brando’s most famous lines, hunted Nazis and was caught up in the anti-Communist witchhunt.

By John Nathan, February 12, 2009
Budd Schulberg as a young writer. He refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a studio mogul

Budd Schulberg as a young writer. He refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a studio mogul

Well before Budd Schulberg received his Oscar at the age of 40 for writing On the Waterfront, he had already lived a pretty full life. In fact, his first 18 years were enough to produce a 500-page autobiography, called Moving Pictures, Memories of a Hollywood Prince.

The book told of life as the privileged son of B P Schulberg, a member of Hollywood royalty. Budd Schulberg’s dad was not just a big film producer but was also instrumental in persuading the silent era’s “big five” stars — Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith — to break with their studios and set up United Artists.

“The rest of my life will take 5,000 pages,” says the 94-year-old Budd Schulberg in a voice so gruff after a recent bout of pneumonia it sounds like his vocal chords are grinding coffee beans.

The screenwriter, novelist, boxing writer and one-time Nazi-hunter has travelled from his comfortable home in the New York resort of the Hamptons for the West End premiere of On the Waterfront. This is Steven Berkoff’s stage version of the classic 1954 movie about a lone dock labourer standing up to corrupt union bosses. The film cemented the megastar status of Marlon Brando, for whom Schulberg wrote one of Hollywood’s greatest lines — “I coulda’ been a contender.”

The stage play stars Berkoff (who also directs) as the ironically-named mobster Johnny Friendly and Simon Merrells as ex-boxer Terry Molloy, the role for which Brando won his first Oscar.

“It’s been many years since I saw it all the way through,” says Schulberg of the movie. “Sometimes I’ve been asked to talk about the movie, and I might see the beginning and maybe go back for the last 30 minutes or so.”

When he sees the film now, is there anything about it he would change?

“I really don’t think so. I think we got it right.” “We” means Schulberg and Elia Kazan, the director who went down in Hollywood infamy as one of those who identified alleged Communists in the film industry to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Schulberg was another who named names.

Molloy’s heroic decision to blow the whistle on Friendly in On the Waterfront is often seen as Schulberg’s and Kazan’s answer to critics who attacked them for testifying before HUAC. But Schulberg maintains his script was influenced only by real-life hearings about corruption at the New Jersey docks. Does he resent people still asking about it? “I try to correct them, rather than resent them,” he says.

Even though he would not change anything about the movie, he still wanted to change the story for the stage version. He wanted to kill his hero. “I always had that idea that in real life anybody who stands up to fight the mob would not survive,” he says. Berkoff stood firmly against the idea and won the argument.

But it says a lot about Schulberg that, although raised in the closeted fantasy factory of Hollywood, he never wanted to be a film mogul. He just wanted to be a writer. “When everyone was trying to get in [to Hollywood] I was trying to get out. Everybody figured that I would be the logical successor to the studio.”

Instead, he wrote What Makes Sammy Run, the critical 1941 novel about the studios that resulted in his being sacked as a scriptwriter. He then got as far away from Hollywood as he could, taking the opportunity to indulge his other passion — boxing. Not in the ring, but writing about it. He even set up a boxing gym.

It was his father’s passion too. Young Schulberg was taken to fights every week and the Schulbergs regularly invited fighters round to their home. The gritty company of boxers was a welcome antidote to the glitzy world of actresses, said Schulberg in his memoir, even though by the time he wrote it actresses (including Geraldine Brooks) numbered two of his four wives.

Of his fighter friends, Jewish boxers were particularly favoured. They were pretty much the extent of Schulberg’s connection to Judaism. His mother, Ad, went to synagogue occasionally, but his father was more interested in Paramount Studios than the Jewish roots of his Russian parents. And when during one of the regular B’nai B’rith Sunday community gatherings, the rebellious 12-year-old Schulberg put up his hand and asked Rabbi Magnin (“the” Hollywood Rabbi) “how did the Jews in the desert go to the toilet?”, that was it. “I was excommunicated you might say,” he recalls. “At school I’d to say: ‘I used to be Jewish, but they kicked me out.’”

That attitude changed years later when he was watching newsreel of Nazis rounding up Jews. “What really made me Jewish again was Adolf Hitler,” he says.

Schulberg went on to work for a unit set up by director John Ford which was responsible for tracking down film evidence to be used at the Nuremberg Trials. And it was while stationed in Berlin that he decided to arrest the Nazi’s favourite filmmaker Leni Reifensthal. “I thought it was logical. She was the main propagandist,” he says. Dressed in his navy uniform, Schulberg drove to Riefenstahl’s home in Bavaria.

“She didn’t know I came from Hollywood. I was just a naval officer to her. She said she was so misunderstood because when she went to Hollywood everybody loved her. I remembered that the producer Hal Roach was very right-wing and he did give a reception for her. But I and a lot of others each rang 10 people to call a boycott. So only a handful turned up. It was a fiasco.

“But I didn’t tell her what I knew. And then I said: ‘Leni Riefenstahl, I have to take you to Nuremberg.’ And she really screamed: ‘He’s arresting me, he’s arresting me!’, and got hysterical. “And I explained to her that she would be held in Nuremberg for as long as the trial went on. And that’s what we did.”

It is becoming clear why Schulberg’s life could fill several autobiographies. His memories of Brando and boxing could alone fill several chapters. He has written so authoritatively on boxing he was made a member of America’s Boxing Hall of Fame. He teamed Brando up with a real fighter called Roger Donahue, who not only was the man Schulberg heard say “I coulda been a contender”, but reckoned, after he got Brando in the ring, that he could turn the actor into a pro.

“I said: ‘Roger, let me put him in the movie first. Then you can have him.’”

He adds: “Marlon was an amazing kind of genius. Whatever he did he could pick up so fast. If it was playing the bongos, he would be like a professional. He had this knack.”

And startlingly, Terry Malloy may rise again. “I would like to bring Waterfront up to date,” says Schulberg. “I still stay in touch with people working on the waterfront. The mob still run it, especially in New Jersey.”

Even now?

“Even now.”

On the Waterfront is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1. Tel: 0845 481 1870

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014