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'What Makes Sammy Run?' author Budd Schulberg dies at 95

The scathing look at the film industry drew the Hollywood establishment's anger. The writer, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, won an Oscar for 'On the Waterfront.'

August 06, 2009|Dennis McLellan

Budd Schulberg, who exposed the dark side of American ambition in his acclaimed Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?" and won an Academy Award for his screenplay depicting the mob-controlled longshoremen's union in the film classic "On the Waterfront," has died. He was 95.

Schulberg, a onetime Communist Party member who was ostracized in Hollywood after naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., his wife, Betsy, told the Associated Press.

In a writing career that spanned more than six decades and reflected a strong social conscience, Schulberg wrote novels, short stories, screenplays, plays, teleplays and nonfiction books.

Among his other best-known works are:

* The 1947 novel "The Harder They Fall," a prize-fighting expose that became a 1956 movie, co-written by Schulberg, with Humphrey Bogart in his final role.

* "The Disenchanted," a best-selling 1950 novel loosely based on Schulberg's experience collaborating on a film script with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

* The screenplay for "A Face in the Crowd," director Elia Kazan's 1957 movie about a singing Arkansas drifter (Andy Griffith in his first movie role) who turns into a power-hungry tyrant after becoming an overnight national TV sensation.

Schulberg's resume included being a syndicated newspaper columnist, the first boxing editor at Sports Illustrated and a columnist for Fight Game and other boxing magazines.

He was a lifelong boxing aficionado, and his nonfiction books include "Loser and Still Champion: Muhammad Ali" (1972), "Sparring With Hemingway: And Other Legends of the Fight Game" (1995), a collection of his essays; and "Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage" (2006).

Greatest success

But Schulberg's greatest success came with "On the Waterfront." His screenwriting Oscar was one of eight Academy Awards the 1954 film won -- including nods for picture, director (Kazan), supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint) and actor (Marlon Brando).

Schulberg once said, however, that his proudest achievement was as founder and director of the Watts Writers Workshop. Launched in 1965 after the Los Angeles riots of that year, the workshop lasted until 1971 and spawned workshops in other cities.

"I didn't want to just hang back and complain about things," Schulberg later told People magazine. "I thought that we should all do something. I found great poets, great hearts in the ashes of Watts."

The son of B.P. Schulberg, the powerful production chief of Paramount Pictures in the 1920s and early '30s, Budd Schulberg burst onto the literary scene in 1941 at 27 with his first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?"

A vivid portrait of a brash and amoral young hustler from New York's Lower East Side who connives his way from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood producer, the novel is considered one of the best about Hollywood, and the name of Schulberg's back-stabbing anti-hero, Sammy Glick, has become synonymous with ruthless ambition.

'That horrible book'

Viewed as a savage indictment of the movie business, the novel drew the immediate ire of the Hollywood establishment. As Schulberg once put it: "Overnight, I found myself famous -- and hated."

Movie columnist Hedda Hopper, encountering Schulberg in a Hollywood restaurant, huffed, "How dare you?"

A furious Samuel Goldwyn, for whom Schulberg was then working as a screenwriter, fired him because of "that horrible book."

MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer not only denounced the book at a meeting of the Motion Picture Producers Assn. but also suggested that Schulberg be deported. To which B.P. Schulberg laughed and said, "Louie, he's the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood. Where the hell are you going to deport him, Catalina Island?"

John Wayne so despised Schulberg's negative depiction of the film industry in the book -- and, no doubt, Schulberg's left-wing politics -- that he reportedly attacked the author verbally whenever they met.

Wayne's wrath finally turned physical when he and Schulberg ran into each other in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and the actor challenged the writer to a fistfight at midnight. The 6-foot-4 Wayne managed to get the much shorter Schulberg into a headlock before Schulberg's then-wife, actress Geraldine Brooks, separated them.

The encounter with Wayne was but one of many memorable incidents in Schulberg's life -- one that included coming to near-blows with Ernest Hemingway in Key West when Hemingway challenged Schulberg's knowledge of boxing; playfully sparring with Muhammad Ali in what was then Zaire; and accompanying Sen. Robert F. Kennedy into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was assassinated.

Schulberg was born in New York City on March 27, 1914. His film scenario writer-turned-producer father moved the family to Hollywood in 1922 when Schulberg, the eldest of three children, was 8. Schulberg's mother, Adeline, became a leader of Hollywood society and later a literary agent.

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