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How Sammy still runs

Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel 'What Makes Sammy Run?' took aim at Hollywood ambition run amok. Some things don't change.

June 05, 2005|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

There's a piano in the living room at Budd Schulberg's old home in Hancock Park, just as there was 75 years ago when Schulberg was a boy, living there with his family, right around the corner from the Barrymores and Louis B. Mayer, his father's old business partner. The Schulbergs were Hollywood royalty back then. Budd's father, B.P. Schulberg, was head of Paramount Pictures, which meant that a cavalcade of stars often lighted up their living room, the piano getting quite a workout. As a young Hollywood prince, Schulberg had a front-row seat. Clara Bow, the "It Girl," flirted shamelessly with him; Cary Grant and Gary Cooper cracked jokes; Marlene Dietrich arrived, just off the boat, with her Svengali, Josef von Sternberg.

Schulberg uses a cane to slowly navigate his way around his old house. While his hair is snowy white, his mind remains razor sharp, unclouded by the sentimentality of nostalgia. Being so close to Hollywood gave Schulberg a chance to see the flaws people farther away couldn't notice. Bow, it turns out, was sleeping with everybody in town, including his father. Dietrich, Budd recalls, "looked very mousy," not at all the sleek siren we saw on screen. One night, B.P. gave a party for Maurice Chevalier, who was new in town. Charlie Chaplin, a family friend, was there too. As needy as any comedian, Chaplin couldn't stand having to share the spotlight. "So he went over to the piano," Schulberg recalls, "and whenever Chevalier would sing, Charlie would pound away at the keys, as loud as he could, trying to drown him out."

Out of this world, teeming with people in a hurry to get to the top, came Sammy Glick, the showbiz hustler hero of Schulberg's seminal novel "What Makes Sammy Run?," which remains, six decades later, as timely a portrait of unchecked ambition as it was when first published in 1941. Over the years, Schulberg has also penned classic films, most notably the Oscar-winning "On the Waterfront." He's written about every boxer from Joe Louis to Mike Tyson and, after the 1965 Watts riots, he started the Watts Writers' Workshop. He still writes with vigor, penning a piece on Marlon Brando for Vanity Fair's recent Hollywood issue and reviewing a new Orson Welles book last month in the New York Times Book Review. Schulberg was in town recently for a Museum of Television & Radio screening of the newly discovered 1959 TV production of "What Makes Sammy Run?," cowritten by Schulberg and his late brother Stuart.

But it's Hollywood that runs deepest in his veins. Watching him ramble around this stately old house, a documentary crew led by Albert Maysles close behind, you get the tingly feeling of what it might have been like to hear Civil War stories from one of the last surviving Confederate soldiers. (The house's current resident has owned it since the 1960s.) At 91, Schulberg is one of the few living links to the early days of Hollywood -- who else is still around who can say he wrote a screenplay with F. Scott Fitzgerald, yakked about movies with Sergei Eisenstein and is still owed $100 by Harry Cohn? When Fitzgerald opens "The Last Tycoon" by saying "Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party -- or so I was told," he's using an anecdote Schulberg told him about his own childhood.

Schulberg worked for Sam Goldwyn, who had his wife read his scripts and tell him what stories she liked. He knew Cohn, who had loudspeakers installed in his studio so he could yell at anyone at a moment's notice. (When Schulberg's mother once came to visit, Cohn bellowed: "Here comes the person with all the movie brains in the Schulberg family!") Budd visited the Paramount set of Marx Brothers movies, once laughing so loudly that he ruined a take. His father's first studio, a now-forgotten lot shared with Mayer in downtown L.A., was next to a zoo populated with ostriches and a mangy lion. B.P. and Mayer's brother took a publicity still of themselves posing with the lion. When Mayer went off to start MGM, the beast metamorphosed into the studio's famous logo.

Back then, nobody was nibbling sushi or drinking bottled water. Schulberg would wake up in the morning to the reassuring sounds of his father retching after a long night of carousing -- reassuring because his father had actually made it home. One night when Budd went upstairs to do his math homework, B.P. and Zeppo Marx were at the card table. When he came downstairs the next morning, they were still there, finishing the game, his father writing out a check for $22,000.

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