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Fade Out: Waldo Salt

March 22, 1987|PAUL JARRICO

The following was one of several tributes delivered at the memorial on March 14 for screenwriter Waldo Salt ("Midnight Cowboy," "Coming Home"), who died March 7. Paul Jarrico is a veteran screenwriter and producer who produced "Salt of the Earth."

In accepting the Laurel Award last year for a lifetime of achievement as a screenwriter, Waldo Salt said, "This could not have come at a more appropriate time. I'm months behind on a deadline. I've reduced the producers to being polite. I lie awake in the middle of the night wondering why I ever thought I could write in the first place."

Well, if he was only months behind on a deadline, and the producers were still being polite, he was obviously at an early stage of the assignment.

I have known some slow writers in my time. I remember trying to interest a producer in a novel that my beloved friend John Collier was writing. "How far along is he?" I was asked. "The end is in sight," I promised. When I reported this to John, his reply was simple. "Which end?"

Come to think of it, the assignment Waldo was on a year ago, when he made that speech, was "Stilwell." Now Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell had lived a long, full life, much of it in China, and Waldo had zeroed in, so to speak, on his connection with the Sun Yat-Sen revolution, the rise of Chiang Kai-shek, the incredible corruption of the Soong family, the Long March, the war against Japan, the civil war and Mao's triumph.

A subject like that takes a lot of reading. Mulling. Fidgeting. Waldo had some ingenious ways to fidget. Some of us shuffle pencils, paper. Waldo shuffled houses. Or helped young film makers at Sundance. About Stilwell, I did tell him he might be trying to cover too much. "But Stilwell was in on it ! All of it!" he said, as excited as Archimedes. "I've found the connections!"

If they'd given him another year or two he'd have given them the best damn script they ever saw. But no. They lost patience.

There are similar stories about other assignments. Did everyone ever learn more about Ernest Hemingway?

The wonder of it is that he accomplished so much. And in an industry so intrinsically frustrating. The fate of your work, if you're a screenwriter, is almost always in the hands of others. And rare is the time when these others share your vision. But it does happen. And that's the lure. That and the money, of course; though it wasn't money motivating Waldo when he lost himself in a subject. It was an exhilarating curiosity, the sheer pleasure of learning. It was the challenge of expanding the envelope of the movie medium--that fantastic synthesis of the visual arts and the performing arts.

Yes, we know, it's also a business. And he faced, all his working life, that most ancient of conundrums: how to buck the system and still make a buck.

As it happened, Waldo and I appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the same day, April 13, 1951. We both told the committee our politics were none of its business, and we both took the Fifth. Like Reagan's Heroes.

We left Washington on a train to New York, where we were both due to speak at a rally. I was telling Waldo about the company I was forming with Adrian Scott and Herbert Biberman. We were going to make truly independent films, with real content. Waldo was telling me about the musical he was going to write about the workers who tunnel under rivers, "Sandhog." We were both pretty excited.

And he suddenly stopped short, startled by a thought. "My God!" he exclaimed. "What if they don't blacklist us!"

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