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The Oscars

'Midnight Cowboy' and the very dark horse its makers rode in on

With its down-and-nearly-out crew, quirky casting and X rating, no one expected mainstream Hollywood's seal of approval.

February 27, 2005|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

That was the end of things going smoothly. Schlesinger and Hellman auditioned a number of writers, including Gore Vidal, who told them the book was rubbish, saying, "I did it all in 'The City and the Pillar' years ago -- why don't you make that instead?" They eventually hired Jack Gelber, an off-Broadway playwright who dropped out after doing a lackluster first draft, telling Hellman that "the movie will never work if Ratso Rizzo has to limp."

Looking for a replacement, Hellman was willing to cast a wide net, which is how he met Salt, a screenwriter who'd been in eclipse for years. He'd graduated from Stanford at age 18 and been the youngest writer on the Metro lot in the late 1930s. But he'd also been a proud member of the Communist Party. Salt was writing "The Crimson Pirate" for Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht when he was called to testify in 1951 before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

After he was named as a Communist, Hecht promptly fired him. Blacklisted for the next decade, his marriage fell apart, he drank heavily and struggled to make ends meet, writing for TV under the pseudonym of M.L. Davenport. In the mid-1960s he finally landed a job under his real name, hired by none other than Hecht, the man Salt's daughter, actress Jennifer Salt, describes as "his nemesis and his savior." In 1968, Salt's agent, George Litto, who'd been loaning him money to keep him afloat, insisted that Hellman read 30 pages of a new script Salt was writing. Hellman was astounded -- it had all of the staccato rhythms and soulful spirit he wanted for "Midnight Cowboy."

Hellman still vividly recalls the man who showed up the next day in his office, a man who only a year before had been so depressed about his career prospects that he'd threatened to jump out of his apartment window. "Waldo was beaten up -- his nose had no bridge left, as if it had been punched a bunch of times. He looked more like a longshoreman than a Hollywood screenwriter." Quick-witted and articulate, Salt had already written a detailed memo about his adaptation plans. Hellman sent Salt's memo to Schlesinger, who replied by telegram: "Hire him and start work at once."

For Salt, who went on to write "Serpico" and win an Oscar for writing "Coming Home" before his death in 1987, "Midnight Cowboy" was a shot at redemption. "He'd been taking all these crappy jobs for films he took no pride in when along comes this movie that's the real deal," recalls Jennifer Salt, who ended up playing a key part in "Cowboy's" flashback scenes and moved in with Voight during filming. "He was just full of excitement and energy, working with people that had faith in him."

Soon-to-be-stars in alignment

Hellman already had one actor in mind to star in the film. When Gelber began work on the script, he'd sent Hellman to see an off-Broadway British farce called "Eh?" that starred Dustin Hoffman, then an unknown, as a Liverpudlian foreman of a boiler room. "I remember going to see 'Hard Day's Night' about a dozen times to get the accent right," Hoffman recalls. "I got a big write-up from Walter Kerr in the New York Times, who compared me to Buster Keaton, which was great, although I had to go and see a Keaton film to figure out what he was talking about."

By the time "Midnight Cowboy" was ready to go into production, "The Graduate" had arrived. But like many off-Broadway actors of his era, Hoffman felt ambivalent about celebrity. "The truth was, I saw 'The Graduate' as a setback, because I was determined not to be a star," he explains. For him, Ratso Rizzo was the very sort of grimy character role that might dispel the idea emanating from some "Graduate" reviews that Hoffman, as he puts it, was simply "some nebbish [Mike] Nichols had found who was like Benjamin Braddock."

Hoffman desperately wanted to work with Schlesinger. The question was whether Schlesinger wanted to work with him. Having seen Hoffman only as a rich preppy in "The Graduate," the director needed some convincing. Hoffman had spent a lot of time with his scruffy acting pals Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, drinking coffee at 2 a.m. at a seedy 42nd Street automat frequented by Ratso-like bums ("We didn't call them homeless people then"). When Schlesinger met him there one night, he found Hoffman in character, with a three-day beard, disheveled clothes and a Bowery accent. After a few minutes Schlesinger told him, "Why Dustin, you do fit right in."

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