Talking Paper Interview Series: Walter Bernstein

Walter Bernstein is a New York City-based screenwriter whose burgeoning career scripting films and television programs were interrupted in 1950, when he was blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party. At age 96, he lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but was raised Jewish in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. There he grew up watching films at the local Century and Albany movie theaters, where his first cinema-going memory was the 1928 silent picture The Noose, starring Richard Barthelmess. After attending college at Dartmouth, where he joined the Young Communist League, Bernstein was drafted into the U.S. Army, and worked as a correspondent for its official magazine, Yank. In the midst of World War II, he infiltrated Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to interview Marshal Josip Tito. He also posted stories from Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Cairo while covering the Middle East. Once, while awaiting a flight to Sicily at an Algiers airport, he and a crowd of American soldiers watched a live performance by Al Jolson—whose 1927 film The Jazz Singer ushered in the cinematic sound era.

But it was You Were Never Lovelier, a musical comedy with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, that became Bernstein’s favorite film during his deployment. He screened it several times while reporting from Italy and Egypt and later regarded it as “a kind of talisman for me, a small defiance of death.” Peacetime brought him back to New York City and a job at The New Yorker, where he had published fiction before the war and reportage during it.

He also collected his war stories into the 1945 book Keep Your Head Down. Its release garnered positive notice, and in the summer of 1947 Bernstein signed a ten-week screenwriting contract with Columbia Pictures, going to work for writer/director/producer Robert Rossen. Both men were open Communists, and Bernstein later recalled that Rossen wanted him to “help him make his political ideas palatable to the studio executives.” In November of that same year, the House Un-American Activities Committee called ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers to testify and expose fellow Communists. “The Hollywood Ten” refused, and they were cited for contempt. In response, The Motion Picture Association of America issued the “Waldorf Statement” condemning them, with the heads of every major Hollywood studio (including Columbia’s Harry Cohn) vowing not to employ Communists. Even successful screenwriters like Ring Lardner and Dalton Trumbo were now “blacklisted.”

Bernstein moved back to New York City where he wrote for the theater for director Elia Kazan, penned political speeches for 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, and wrote television show scripts for directors Martin Ritt and Sidney Lumet. In the Summer of 1950, Bernstein’s name appeared in the “Red Channels” booklet, which led to his own blacklisting from films for eight years and from television for eleven. Bernstein continued to write for television, but submitted his scripts under aliases, such as “Paul Bauman.”

While Bernstein never named names to the HUAC, colleagues Kazan and Rossen did, and he never spoke to either again. But it was Lumet who saved Bernstein from professional oblivion, when he recruited him to write the screenplay for the 1959 film That Kind of Woman, starring Sophia Loren. Bernstein could now work under his own name and later adapted a Eugene Burdick novel into the script for Lumet’s 1964 film Fail-Safe chronicling an American tactical mistake that threatens to cause nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Bernstein later rewrote that screenplay for a 2000 live television performance broadcast in black and white on CBS. He was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay for Ritt's 1976 film The Front starring Woody Allen and based on Bernstein’s experiences trying to work while on the Blacklist.

Over the past 15 years, Bernstein has taught screenwriting, first at Columbia University and then at New York University in the Tisch School’s Department of Dramatic Writing. He has also penned teleplays for several television films, including the 1997 HBO film Miss Evers’ Boys about the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. The year before, Bernstein published a memoir of his time on the Blacklist, Inside Out.

Despite his teaching work and continuing to develop screenplays of his own, Bernstein’s picture was affixed prominently above a February, 2013, New York Post article about elderly (and supposedly out-of-touch) Oscar voters published on the eve of the Academy Awards. The author of the Post article noted that Bernstein “at 93, is one of the oldest—and most active—members of the New York voting bloc. Bernstein still teaches at NYU and writes, still sees all the movies each year and thinks Life of Pi was ‘marvelously done.’” The article ran the day after I interviewed Bernstein for a profile that aired on The Jewish Channel, in which he shared memories of his New York Jewish upbringing, his life on the Blacklist, and his teaching work at NYU.

I followed up with more questions for my film site, Camera In The Sun (CITS), discussing his 1990s teleplays for HBO and scripts in development, including one about Richard Nixon’s 1950 Red-baiting U.S. Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas and a biographical film about lawyer William Kunstler. Now in 2016, a year where Bryan Cranston was Oscar-nominated for portraying America's most famous blacklisted screenwriter in Trumbo, Nomadic Press has reprinted my 2013 CITS interview with Bernstein here below.   

On his Upbringing

I grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was born around the same time when my grandparents made the move from the pushcart to the store and from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn, along with a few other people. It was a lower middle class upbringing, basically. My father was a schoolteacher and the area was gradually becoming Jewish doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people. My grandparents on one side were in the clothing business, which became the uniform business. They made uniforms for policemen and firemen—and then during the war, for the Army. On the other side, my grandfather I think had originally been a tailor, but then ended up just hanging around the shul all day helping people, basically. It was a very Jewish, but not religious, upbringing area. I mean, I lived on Eastern Parkway for a while early on. There was a synagogue across Eastern Parkway then, which for some reason was called “Murphy’s Shul.” I never could find out where it got that name, but everybody referred to it as Murphy’s Shul. We weren’t religious. I think [my family] went to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, and that was probably it. I don’t think even on Rosh Hashanah they went. It was kind of a standard hypocritical Jewish upbringing, basically.

I was bar mitzvahed. Studied for a year. I remember the rabbi. There was a big fight because the rabbi would come to give me instruction on Saturday. But Saturday was the day I went to the movies, so it was always a big fight.

We hated the Orthodox. Hated them. I mean they were everything we were trying not to be, basically. And I think I went to Hebrew school very briefly, but couldn’t stand it. Hated it. Hated these old men with beards who smelled and were trying to give us education we didn’t know anything about or care about particularly. I mean, there was never any denial about being Jews. But we were a different kind of Jew. We were assimilated Jews and that’s what we wanted to be, basically.

On Communist Philosophy in his Childhood Jewish Community

It was certainly in the air. I mean, I had an aunt who was I think a charter member of the American Communist Party and she was regarded as the “black sheep” of the family, basically. I mean, I think her siblings cared about her, but she was something to be avoided. She went to Russia for a few years, I remember, to work over there in the ’20s. My father was liberal, basically. But the whole thing of communism was in the air. I grew up during the Depression. What drew me to the Left in general were the conditions. First the Depression, and the feeling that I had—I was a kid, of course, but going to college—that the system was out of whack. There was something wrong there that was fundamental, that couldn’t be patched up particularly. And then, of course, there was anti-fascism. There was the rise of Hitler, and there was the Spanish War. Those were formative things for me particularly.

On The Jazz Singer‘s Debut in 1927

"You’d go on Saturday, and there’d be a double feature, a serial, a comedy short, a cartoon, and a newsreel. All of that for a dime."

I remember hearing about it. You know, it was a big thing. Because sound was just coming in and I went to the movies a lot. But all of a sudden they were talking. They were making noise up there. So I remember other movies because my grandmother and my mother would go if there was a movie with a Jewish theme. I remember there was one called Symphony of Six Million. It was, I’m sure, a terrible movie. But there was a sentimental Jewish theme, I think. And there was a famous play that was running forever called Abie’s Irish Rose.

I didn’t know from screenwriters. All I knew was, “Is it an action movie?” I loved all the World War I movies that were out then. The Big Parade. Wings. And the Westerns. Tom Mix. Anything with action. Anything with guns or sports. There would be football movies, college football movies, boxing movies. You know, anybody kissing was just a waste of time. I mean, “Get rid of that.” You’d go on Saturday, and there’d be a double feature, a serial, a comedy short, a cartoon, and a newsreel. All of that for a dime.

On his Father's Opinion of him Becoming a Screenwriter

Well, films were a little bit disreputable, basically. And I didn’t start in films. I started writing prose and short stories and then pieces for The New Yorker. So that was all very acceptable. You know, he was proud of me. He’d carry around any kind of clippings about me. Stuff like that. Never said it to me, but I knew he did to other people. I think he was a frustrated writer himself, possibly. It was interesting. When he graduated from college he was offered a job, or had the opportunity of a job, working for [movie pioneer William Fox]. But it was so speculative in those days, and so chancy with something like that, he turned it down. I think he was always sorry he did. And you could get a job in the public school system then without any further education. And that was secure.

On the Journey to his Posting in Tehran and his Assignment from Yank

We took a boat from Philadelphia, through the Panama Canal to Australia, and then on through the Indian Ocean up to the Persian Gulf. It was 42 days on a Dutch freighter. We were carrying arms of some kind, and it was a Navy gun crew. And then there was a couple of guys from an oil company going to Saudi Arabia, I think it was. And there were three or four Mexicans who were going to open a Mexican embassy in Moscow. They taught me how to play bridge, which I’ve never played since. And it was . . . to say “tedious” is the least of it. You know, you were sitting there looking at the ocean, and the food wasn’t great, and the liquor ran out early. But I did learn to box. I traded lessons to a very nice kid on the Navy gun crew who wanted to take exams in the Navy to move up in rank. He had just started to be a professional boxer, so he gave me boxing lessons in return. That passed the time. In Tehran, I entered the local boxing tournament, and fortunately I was called to go to Jerusalem. It intervened before I could fight. I would have gotten killed, really. I didn’t know anything.

"I had these orders that said I could go anywhere necessary to my mission, so I just took off."

I was originally sent over by Yank to go to the Soviet Union to be the correspondent there. But God forbid the Army should do anything directly, like send me right to the Soviet Union. So they sent me to Tehran, in what was then Persia. I was to report to the military attaché there, and he was supposed to get me into the Soviet Union. And I had the good luck to be given very ambiguous orders. They cut orders that said, “You are to go to Tehran and such other places that are necessary for your mission.” It didn’t mention the Soviet Union. So I got to Tehran and reported in, and they just laughed at me. They said, “You can’t go to the Soviet Union. Nobody goes to the Soviet Union. They haven’t approved you. Just stay here.” And I had these orders that said I could go anywhere necessary to my mission, so I just took off. I stayed there about six weeks, as I remember. And there was a yearly anniversary of Yank, and on the NBC radio the correspondents were reporting from all over the world, wherever they were, on a program. I got a telegram saying "go to Jerusalem and make this broadcast." So I flew to Jerusalem and from there I just followed the war. And everywhere I went, I just showed my orders if they asked for it, which they rarely did. As long as I sent stories back to Yank and didn’t disgrace them in some way, I spent the next two years following the war in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and then Yugoslavia.

When we marched into Tito’s headquarters up in the mountains in Bosnia or Croatia, it was at the same time as they were having what they called “the youth congress.” They had young people from the different partisan detachments all over Yugoslavia coming there to have a three to four-day congress of some kind. I attended it as a spectator a couple of the days. And what I was struck by was they were Serbs, they were Croats, they were Muslims, they were Bosnians—all these different things, and they were all at that moment dedicated to some kind of multicultural, multi-ethnic Yugoslav nation. It was very heartening, very moving to see that. Some of them had been coming for months, really, having to go through German lines to get there. And they all had stories of battles and wounds. I don’t think at that moment it was about communism, particularly. I think it was nationalism, really, and a kind of generalized anti-fascism, basically. They had their homegrown fascist elements there, and in Hungary, in Romania. The Yugoslav Croats had a particularly virulent brand called the Ustashi, and there was a notorious concentration camp that they ran. So there were enough fascists to go around. But I really don’t remember anybody [at the youth congress] talking any kind of communist ideology. Just that this was gonna be the country after the war. And it was always shocking to me when what happened happened after Tito died. He held it together initially, just my guess, because they were together during the war. And it took a while, I think, for that feeling to die out, and feelings of nationalism and religion to arise. I never went back there, so I have no idea what the internal battles were, the internal dissents. Tito also held it together by force of personality and because of the way everybody felt about him. He was a big hero.

The Allies were giving [the Yugoslav Partisans] arms, but they were very nervous about the fact that Tito was a Communist. They didn’t want to give him any publicity, particularly. So they were holding off anybody getting in there and controlling whatever correspondents they would allow in, really, until after the second front had started with the Normandy invasion. All the attention then would be on that, and they could kind of keep Tito in the background. That was why when I got in, and Yank started publishing the stuff I had written there, they got very angry at me. I thought I was gonna be court-martialed, basically. And I might have been, if it hadn’t been for a New York Times reporter who wrote a story about me that The Times ran. And so they weren’t going to do anything to me after that. But they were supplying Tito with weapons, because he was fighting the Germans. But politically, they wanted to control him as much as they could.

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Keep Your Head Down came together first as a three-part series in The New Yorker. That was where it was originally published, and then I just incorporated it as a book of war essays. It got some attention, but I don’t think any big deal. By that time the war was over, so it was a matter of curiosity. There were no repercussions [from the Army] or anything like that. The Yugoslavs liked it a lot. They gave me a medal and named a street in Belgrade after me, I’m told—although I doubt whether it still exists. So I was a very minor hero to them because I had broken this story, and they wanted as much publicity as possible.

On Being a Jew Reporting from British Mandate Palestine during WWII

First of all, I loved the country. I fell in love with Jerusalem immediately. And also, it was a time when I was there when Jews were trying to get into there and the British were trying to keep them out. And I was very much in favor of seeing that as some kind of haven for them particularly. I spent a fair amount of time in Palestine. There, back and forth from other places. For a while I stayed at the YMCA in Jerusalem. I stayed at the house of a woman of Berlin, a refugee woman, in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv at that time was like Miami Beach. It looked like Miami Beach. It had the esplanade and the beach. But Jerusalem was just an extraordinary city then, and hadn’t been built up of course, or anything like that. I loved going there. Even at that time, I was kind of upset about what I felt was anti-Arab, or even racist, sentiments that you would feel particularly. I visited a kibbutz, I remember, at one point. And I went there because I had been told it was mostly Americans who had immigrated and were living there. And I spent two or three very uncomfortable days. Nobody would talk to me. I mean, they assigned somebody to be a kind of a guide. But otherwise, they were contemptuous of the fact that I was an American and not come over to live there, and they didn’t like me. I didn’t like them particularly.

[Growing up,] I didn’t have any contact with Hebrew. You know, I‘d say the Fier Kashas on Passover or something. But I’ve always found Hebrew kind of a harsh language. So I never had any. I didn’t speak Yiddish really. I could understand it a lot more. But there’s a lot of English spoken [in Israel] and I don’t remember needing a translator. I had a friend [Gershon Agronsky] there who was the publisher of what was then The Palestine Post, now The Jerusalem Post. He was an American who had come there in the ’30s, married to a Sabra, an Israeli woman, and I stayed with them every once in a while. And she was fluent in Arabic and English and Hebrew. Came in handy there.

"We knew something terrible was going on there, and the Jews who could were fleeing it when they could. But the extent of it? No, I certainly didn’t know."

[With regard to the Holocaust,] we knew something was going on. As a matter of fact, I wrote a story that was published in—I think it was Harper’s Bazaar at that time, which printed fiction. This is while I was still in college. It was a story about a refugee kid who had come over and what he had suffered. I didn’t know the extent of it at that particular point. We knew something terrible was going on there, and the Jews who could were fleeing it when they could. But the extent of it? No, I certainly didn’t know. Later on, when there were Army correspondents from Yank who were in Germany, by then they began to know what had happened. I wish I had known more. I wish I had known it earlier. I don’t know what I could’ve, would’ve done about it. But you knew Hitler was bad. You knew bad things were happening. But to know the extent of it, to see the extent of it—it was hard to take in, really, that such a thing was happening.

I got to Anzio. That was as far north as I got. Italy was tough. It was hard. It might have been the “underbelly” [of Europe], but “soft” it was not. It was partly mountainous, and the German resistance was very fierce. And it was slow. If it’s one thing about the war, it really was “hurry up and wait,” so much of it. You hang around. And the examples of actual fighting, in terms of time, are relatively few. They’re deadly, but they don’t last that long. So that’s why they kind of leapfrogged over to Anzio to get a little more territory that way. But there were no enormous, big battles like there were in World War I—you know, big engagements—at least, none that I saw or participated in. But it was hard. And it got much harder actually as it got further north into the mountains. It was war.

On his Post-War Theatrical Writing Experience

When I got out of the Army, I got a job with a theatrical producer I knew who wanted me to rewrite a play that he had that needed work. He paid me $15-a-week for that. I remember for $8-a-week, I got a room in a brownstone on 52nd Street, and I lived and ate on a dollar-a-day, which you could then. So I rewrote the play, and it went on . . . and flopped. I think it ran for three or four performances. It was later sold to the movies, but I don’t think it was ever done. It was about a bunch of kids. That’s all I remember. And the original writer, he was quite talented. He had a flare. He knew these kids and could write about them, and I really provided structure for it. But it was fun going to rehearsals. I was in the Army for part of that time, but I remember being up for the opening night here in New York.

On Whether his Army Service Added to the Insult of Being Targeted for the Blacklist

". . . if you believe in something, you pick up the tab for what happens afterward."

No, not particularly. I wasn’t blacklisted by accident. I had been a Lefty for a while, and everything that I ever saw published about my activities was true. So I think—trying to be high-minded about it—if you believe in something, you pick up the tab for what happens afterward. What was surprising was that up 'til then, a lot of us had the feeling that you could be “rich and holy” at the same time. I was accepted. I was writing for The New Yorker. I was being published. And I hadn’t committed any crimes. “Why are they doing this to me?” There was that part of it. And then to suddenly realize that, yes, they are doing this to you—and they’re doing this to you because you believed and acted on this and this—and that’s the result. So you understand that, I think, after a while. And whatever feelings of self-pity you might have go away pretty quickly.

We all found a copy of Red Channels. You would have been ashamed if you weren’t in Red Channels, really. There were about eight things about me. They were all true. They weren’t making up anything. And there it was. Lenny Bernstein comes right ahead of me. I knew him. My wife at the time was close friends of his family, so I knew him that way. It didn’t really affect him. He still had his television show, the conducting, and the composing. I don’t think he was affected by it.

On Working with Elia Kazan

I was close to him. As a matter of fact, I was writing a play for him at the time that he testified. I thought he was great. I liked him enormously. I thought he was a wonderful guy. As a matter of fact, shortly before he testified, he had wanted to meet somebody I knew who had been an officer in the National Maritime Union and was a Communist. Kazan wanted to meet him and I arranged a meeting, and we met at some bar on the waterfront and spent a lovely afternoon just talking and bullshitting. And I remember when we left, I remember Gadge [Kazan] saying to me, “Those are the people I belong with. These are my kind of people.” And then a month later, whatever it was, he testified. So it was shocking, and I didn’t talk to him after that. But I cared about him. I felt he cared about me. And so I think what he did was bad. I never thought he really believed in it. I think he did it out of . . . he always carried some kind of chip on his shoulder. He was always feeling aggrieved in some way, really, and felt he was this ugly-looking Greek. And he was the most seductive man I’d ever met, really, in his whole manner. But there was a part of him, I think, that didn’t believe it. And he was getting even with something in some way when he testified.

On his Relationship with Robert Rossen

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He was a funny guy. He was a very successful screenwriter who had just started a career as a director as well. He’d been in Hollywood for 1213 years, I think. Very combative, really. Always wanted to box and wanted to bounce around. I learned a lot from him. I just had a ten-week contract working. And as a matter of fact, I came out, he wanted me to adapt a Chekhov story. But that didn’t come to anything. When I got there, he moved me over and I kind of sat at his feet while he was writing All the King’s Men. But he had . . . I don’t know whether you would call it an ego problem. He would ask me questions, like saying should he seduce his secretary. That kind of business. And he had a very nice family. And he was a very militant Communist at that time. But at the same time, I know they were after him because he didn’t pay his dues. That kind of thing.

When the Hollywood Ten were chosen—“chosen”—when they were the ones to testify, he was angry that he had not been chosen. That was the first team, and he had not been picked for it. He was that kind of guy. And then, I think the first time he testified he took the fifth, or he was an unfriendly witness. He went to Mexico. But he belonged in Hollywood. I wrote this: I always felt that his existence was so tied to that Hollywood set-up, and what it was, and what he needed, that that’s the choice he made. He came back and named names, and worked again.

On Whether Jewish Screenwriters Felt Pressure to Change their “Ethnic” Names

". . . I’ve always been happy to be a Jew."

No, I don’t think so. I mean, there were a bunch of Jewish actors who had changed their names, because they felt you better have a “goyisher” name if you wanna get ahead. As far as the writers were concerned, I didn’t know any. I’d forgotten that Bob Rossen had changed his name. I don’t know any of the others who did. I didn’t feel there was any kind of impediment. I mean, the studio heads didn’t care. I wrote in my book this incident: I was in Rossen’s office and we were moving some furniture around, and [Columbia boss] Harry Cohn came to the doorway. Very crusty bald-headed guy. He came in and had the idea where the desk should go. And he looked at me, looked at Rossen, and said, “Is this one of your Commie writers from New York?” And Rossen said, “Yes.” And he said, “Pfft, fine.” It didn’t matter to him. The only thing that mattered to him was would I be able to produce, basically. So I didn’t sense any anti-Semitism particularly there.

[Jewish identity] wasn’t anything we, or in my circle at any rate, talked about. I mean, most of my friends I would think were Jewish and happy to be Jews. I mean, I’ve always been happy to be a Jew. I didn’t know that many who had kids who were bar mitzvahed. I don’t know, my guess would be a lot of their children were bar mitzvahed, probably. Although, they themselves were secular.

On Making Ends Meet While Blacklisted in the 1950s

"I worked for most of the time I was blacklisted. I didn’t make much money, but I was able to work. And I made some very good, profound relationships with other blacklisted people."

Well, I was lucky. And the writers were a lot luckier than the actors or the directors. Because to work, they had to show their face, and we didn’t. And I was lucky because I was able to make relationships with a producer and a director who went along with me writing under different names. So I worked for most of the time I was blacklisted. I didn’t make much money, but I was able to work. And I made some very good, profound relationships with other blacklisted people. And this may sound odd, but in some respects it was a not unhappy time because of that.  Because of the feeling of solidarity, the feeling of community we had. We helped each other. We helped each other trying to find work. Among the writers, we helped each other with scripts. And I miss that. I worked with two other blacklisted writers for a good deal of the time: Abe Polonsky and Arnold Manoff. And we worked together as a kind of a team and we became very close friends, and worked. We did a show called You Are There, another show called Danger, and I survived. You know, I had friends who didn’t survive. Actors mostly.

Marty Ritt had been working in television, and the theater as well, when he got blacklisted. Marty was a gambler, and a very successful gambler. He made money betting on the horses. He made money playing cards. And there was a period there at the beginning when we were first blacklisted when I lived with him, slept on his couch in the living room. His wife made a little bit of money selling ads in the yellow pages. Marty supported the rest of us gambling. He would go to the track every day, and he was a very tough and successful gambler. But he got cleared, initially, through David Susskind, who gave him a movie to direct called Edge of the City. And that got him started, and it was near the end of the blacklist in 1957, I believe it was. Then he had to go out to 20th Century Fox and have a meeting with Spyros Skouras who was the head. And whatever lies he told him worked.

The first television I remember was when I came back from Hollywood in ’47 when the neighbors had a little set with a screen about this big [very small]. And I remember watching a Brooklyn Dodgers game on it. But it was so limited and so crude, you know, compared to today of course.

It was all live TV through the ’50s. You have to see through the context that this was a whole new thing, television. I mean, nobody knew what they were doing. It was all up for grabs, and you were making it up as you went along. So there was a kind of an air of excitement about it. And also, doing a live show, you never knew what was gonna happen. You know, if somebody had to open a door in a scene, and the doorknob came off in his hand, then he had to improvise. The thing didn’t stop. And on a show like You Are There, or Danger—which was a half-hour show that Yul Brynner had started directing, and then he gave way to Sidney Lumet, who gave way to John Frankenheimer—you were all learning your craft, basically. And you couldn’t do special effects, or anything like that, so you had to deal with character mainly. But it was an exciting time then in that sense, because you felt you were part of something new that was being created. It wasn’t the theater, and it wasn’t movies. It was this bastard form, really.

On Working on Films with Sidney Lumet

"Sidney, I’d found, was fairly easy to work with as a writer. You’d give him the script, the first draft or whatever it was, he’d give you his notes back, and that was it pretty much."

We met when he was Yul Brynner’s assistant on Danger. My friend Martin Ritt was the producer, and Marty brought me onto the show. And almost right away, Yul left to do The King and I. Sidney became the director, so I was writing for Sidney. That’s how we first met, and we very quickly became friends. We worked through Danger, and then when Sidney moved to You Are There I worked on that. So by that time, we were close personal friends. And then afterward, Sidney was responsible for my getting the first work after the Blacklist. And it was all through him. I was still not working. He got a job doing a film for Sophia Loren and they needed a writer for it. Sidney suggested me to the producer, who was her husband, and they hired me. That Kind of Woman. Yes, not a very good movie, but it was a great time. That was the first job I had in 10 years — first open job that is, under my own name.

Fail-Safe was the same thing. Well, in that case I knew the producer, or the producer knew me. And I think he hired me separately from Sidney. That is, it was not a pair particularly. And a producer just came to me, as a matter of fact, in Yankee Stadium watching a Giants football game, and said he bought the rights to this book and would I be interested in writing it. And I said, “Of course.” And he said Sidney was gonna direct it. And Sidney, I’d found, was fairly easy to work with as a writer. You’d give him the script, the first draft or whatever it was, he’d give you his notes back, and that was it pretty much. I mean, he didn’t want to be a writer himself — at least, at that time. He did later on. So those were the two open things. We had another project together, never came to anything, which was to do a movie based on a Scott Fitzgerald story called Rich Boy, which I had done in television. I’d written an adaptation of it with Grace Kelly, as a matter off fact. She was in it. And this was to be for Jennifer Jones. And we met with David Selznick several times, and nothing came of it. I wrote a script, but everybody went their separate ways. And that was about it. Sidney and I didn’t work together again. We stayed friends.

[On adapting Fail-Safe] I reorganized stuff, wrote a lot of dialogue. As I remember, the dialogue in the book was very wooden, and it wasn’t that important. The basic story remained the same. But I wrote a lot of the President’s stuff. That was mine. I mean, very few actors could do what [Henry Fonda as the President] did, to be confined in that space. He was great working in a small space, and within. He was a very unusual actor that way. It was also a very good movie for Sidney after all the years of doing television. You know, he felt very much at home in that kind of [genre]. It wasn’t like he had to do a Western.r

Well, George Clooney apparently loved the original Fail-Safe since he saw it as a kid. For some reason, it meant something to him. And when he became well-known and had some power, he thought of the idea of doing it as a live television show, and then thought of me to re-do the script for television. The rights for the book it was based on were free, but the rights for the screenplay I had written for the studio, they owned that. So there were things in one that I could still use, and other things I couldn’t use. They weren’t fundamental things. But I remember there was one scene that was invented, that I put in the screenplay, in which they bring the wife of one of the pilots to talk to him and say, “Come back, come back. It’s not a real thing.” And I couldn’t use that, because that was part of the script which the studio owned. So I kept the same scene, except I made it the pilot’s son instead of his wife. So there were certain changes like that I had to make. But apart from that, it was the same script, really, that they did as this crazy live television show with 18 cameras, and I don’t know how many commercials. Too many. [Watching it,] there were kind of funny feelings. Because Clooney had gotten together a wonderful bunch of actors who had agreed to work for no money—do it for scale, I think—and politically believed in the movie and what it was saying. So the atmosphere was great. Stephen Frears directed the actors, although he didn’t do the technical stuff with the 18 cameras. It was just a very nice feeling. For me, it was kind of a validation that something I had written 40 years ago still worked. We watched it in Hollywood in some theater they had specially taken to show it, and then they had one of those dinners afterward.

"I think that the threat of nuclear annihilation is nowhere near the same as what it was then. The emphasis is on the climate changing, really."

[On his own fear of nuclear war] I remember, to my shame, when the bomb was dropped my feeling great. It just seemed to me another bigger bomb, and it was gonna end the war in Japan. I mean, the war in Europe had ended already, but this was gonna be the end of the end. And so I felt good about it when it first happened. It wasn’t til afterward, with the implications of what it was and the second bomb was dropped, you realized then it became an issue, really. And the Cold War heated up. It was a very scary time there in ’60s.

I think that the threat of nuclear annihilation is nowhere near the same as what it was then. The emphasis is on the climate changing, really. At least in what I’ve seen or heard from kids I teach, [nuclear war] isn’t on their radar much. Fail-Safe still works as melodrama. It works as “Are they gonna get there, or not gonna get there?” It still works. I thinks it affects an audience. I remember being at a college where they showed it, and kids were effected by it. Whether they thought about it for more than 10 minutes afterward, I have no idea. But as a movie, it works.

On his Involvement with The Train, Directed by John Frankenheimer

Well, I started out writing it with Arthur Penn who was supposed to direct it. And we went over to Paris together and we were gonna start shooting there. I was writing the script and we’d worked out the outline of what it was supposed to be—what it was gonna be. And then Burt Lancaster decided he didn’t like Arthur. I think he felt Arthur had had a couple of non-commercial movies, his previous couple of movies, and he was worried he was gonna get some kind of art house movie with Arthur. This was long before Bonnie and Clyde. So he fired him, essentially. And I’ll never forget, Lancaster called me to tell me about it late at night. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “I’m letting Arthur go. And Frankenheimer is coming over to take his place. And he’s a bit of a whore, but he’ll do what I want him to do.” He was right out there, really. And I quit then. So I never was around when Frankenheimer came over.

I think I would have [drawn on my own Army service for the script] more if it had been about Americans. You know, it was about French and Germans, basically. So you were writing about people you didn’t know anything about—how they talked, how they felt, and the rest of it. So I felt detached in that sense from it. It wasn’t a personal thing particularly. And I wasn’t in France during the war. I was in other places, but not there. So I didn’t feel any—I couldn’t write what I could write if it were Americans—how they spoke, how they felt. You know, that kind of stuff.

On His Interest in The Molly Maguires

Since I’d first read about The Molly Maguires in college, I’d always been interested in them. And there had been very, very little written about them. And then when I became a screenwriter, Martin Ritt and I were always thinking of subject matter for things we could do as films. So I reached back and thought about The Molly Maguires. I thought it would make a very good movie. There are a million stories in the late 19th century in America that would make great movies. So I suggested it to Marty. And he didn’t know anything about The Molly Maguires, so I gave him what scant information we had. And he had some clout at the time, so we went to Paramount and got the financing to do a script.

So Marty and I flew to Spain to track down Sean Connery, who was doing a movie there, and the movie got put together. I wrote the script I wanted and that Marty wanted. The studio really didn’t interfere with that at all. The only thing they really interfered with was they said it had to have a love interest, which we had not thought of having initially. They absolutely insisted on that. And secondly, we had a very good score written by a theater composer named Charlie Strouse who did Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. And it was a very good score, but the studio didn’t like it. They thought it wouldn’t appeal to women. So they got Henry Mancini to write a score instead, which was very good.

But anyway, it was a movie that meant a lot to Marty and me, and it was not successful. It was very down-beat, I guess, for most people at that time. You know, the hero got hanged, and the villain got rewarded. I don’t know whether it was a picture that could have been done later. It came at a particular time. And the studios were allowing a little more creative outlet. Young guys were coming up and doing movies, and it kind of got in there, and cost very little by today’s standards. I think $10 million, or something like that. But it was a lot then.

We took over a town called Eckley, Pennsylvania. We covered up the streets, took down the television aerials, and really made it into a town of that time. And when we shot interiors in Hollywood, we imported coal. I don’t know if they’d do that today. They’d do it all digitally. But then, the coal mine that we shot in had a lot of coal that we had shipped from Pennsylvania. [Locals] were in the movie as extras. We had a lot of them, dressed them up and put them around as miners and other things. Hollywood, certainly then and I’m sure now, they research everything and they make everything authentic. And they’re very, very good that way.

An interesting story is, I have a friend, a writer who’s an ex-IRA guy. He was in jail in Ireland, where all the IRA prisoners were. He told me they showed them movies every once in a while, and they showed them The Molly Maguires. And he said he and the other guys kept thinking, “Why are they showing this movie to us? What do they think we’re seeing here?” They loved it.

On Collaborating with Martin Ritt on The Front

Well, Marty Ritt had also been blacklisted. And when we were both cleared, we’d always wanted to do a movie about our experiences, about the Blacklist. And what we had in mind was a dramatic show, basically. About somebody who’s blacklisted because he was a Communist, probably, and why he was blacklisted and what he did to survive. A straightforward dramatic piece. Couldn’t get anybody interested in it. And Marty had some clout, but nobody wanted to do it. We took it around to various studios, various producers. They were all very sympathetic, but they didn’t want to do it. And then I hit upon the idea of “Well, let’s go at it sideways. Let’s do it about a ‘front’.” That is somebody that a writer used to be the purported writer of the script, because the real writer’s been blacklisted. Which is how we survived. So, do it as a comedy.

Marty was very resistant to that idea at the beginning. He felt in some way doing it as a comedy would trivialize it, basically. And I had to point out to him that there were some pretty good writers—there was Molière, there was [George Bernard] Shaw—who wrote fairly serious comedies. So he reluctantly agreed and said, “Let’s see what we could do.” And we took it to somebody who’d been our agent, but was now the head of Columbia Studios. A man named David Begelman who later ended up in jail. But we liked him. We liked that kind of raffish crooked part of him that he had. And we took the idea to him and he liked it and said, “OK.” He gave us a derisory amount of money to write a screenplay, which I did, and brought it back to him. And he said, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll do it if you can get a star.” And by “star” he meant Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Paul Newman. And we said, “That’s not who we want.” He said, “Well, unless you get a star, I can’t do it.” So we didn’t know what to do, actually.

We couldn’t think of anybody that would satisfy him and us at the same time until one day—I remember Marty and I were playing tennis. And he stopped and he said, “What about that kid?” And I said, “What kid?” And he said, “That funny kid.” I said, “What funny kid? Who ya talking about?” And he couldn’t remember the name. He said, “That funny actor.” I said, “Mel Brooks?” He said, “No.” I said, “Woody Allen?” He said, “Yeah, Woody Allen.” I said, “Great. But would he do it?” And so we didn’t know, but we sent Woody the script, and he said, “Yes.” And that made it possible, really. And we were able to do it.

Woody was great. You know, he came on the set and he said, “Fellas, this is your show. I’m here to act. I’ll do what you want me to do.” I think he made a couple of suggestions on lines. He didn’t write anything. I remember, I’d had some idea on the script of giving the character a mother—a Jewish mother—and he nixed that. He said, “I’ve done too much of that. I don’t wanna do that again.” And he was right. He was absolutely right. And he was great. As a matter of fact, at the end there’s a scene with the committee that ends the movie, essentially. And we shot it, and we looked at it in the dailies, and I kind of felt it could be funnier. It wasn’t really funny enough. I was wrong, but I felt it then. And Woody said, “Well, why don’t we shoot it again, and let me improvise.” And we said, “Great.” So we set it up again, and we did the scene, and he improvised that, and he was hilarious. He was so funny. He did a whole kind of monologue about stealing Girl Scout cookies, I remember. He was just great. Everybody was falling down laughing . . . and it ruined the scene. The scene just stopped, and it was Woody doing this thing. We couldn’t use it. I would love to get hold of it. It’s probably burnt up now. But that was the only other thing. He was great.

He was shooting Annie Hall. And I would come on the set every once in a while just to visit. You know, to kibbutz. And actually he put me in two scenes. One of which he cut out. There was a scene between me and Diane Keaton walking up the aisle of a movie theater, just improvising talking, which he shot but didn’t use. And then at the very end of the movie, there’s a shot across the street. It’s the last shot of the picture, I believe. And there are two couples standing underneath the marquee, or on the corner. And there’s Woody and Diane Keaton, and Sigourney Weaver and me. There’s no lines or anything. It’s shot from across the street. But I still get a check when it’s shown, from SAG, for $7.50.

On the Films of Young American Auteur Directors of the 1970s

"For us, it was trying to get people into the theaters. You didn’t see beyond that, basically."

I thought they were great. I loved the movies they were doing. I was a bit jealous, I’m sure, looking back on it. Because I was, like Marty, part of that studio system. That’s what we’d come into, and we didn’t see beyond that. I mean, we didn’t see doing independent movies, particularly. I mean, The Front did the business that Woody’s movies did. It did well in the cities, and not well outside the cities. And I’m sure it’s made its money back by now, because it gets shown a lot. But it was not a hit, particularly. And the reviews were mixed, because there was a certain amount of red-baiting that went on in the reviews—of Marty and me as still Communist dupes, or whatever. But it meant a lot to us, doing the film. And the movies that were coming up then, I don’t think I was particularly hip. Because I remember Arthur Penn asking me to read Bonnie and Clyde when he got the script, just as a friend. I read it and I said, “What do you wanna do this for? It’s just a gangster movie. They’re just running around shooting each other. You don’t wanna do that.” Well, fortunately he didn’t take my advice on it. But the pictures that came out then, theCoppola movies, The Godfather and The Conversation—and Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. They’re great.

For us, it was trying to get people into the theaters. You didn’t see beyond that, basically. I didn’t. And most of us didn’t. Though I remember a friend of mine, who was also a close friend of George Lucas, calling me and saying he had just been with him. And George was talking about what you can do now. “You can put six screens into one theater, and have six different things. And people could come, and if one movie wasn’t going on, they could go to another movie.” I grew up trying to get my uncles to take me to Loews Paramount or Loews Capital, or one of the big theaters. But it’s a different concept now. It just is different than it was.

On his Attraction to Stories with a Societal Message

I tried as much as I could to do social subjects. That was the side of the street I worked. That was what interested me. That’s what I wanted to put on the screen and write about. And in somebody like Marty Ritt, we thought alike on wanting to do that kind of thing.

I’d done some work for HBO, and the head of drama there was an Englishman named Colin Callender. And he was very interested in doing good stuff, and social stuff. They had this story [stage play Miss Evers' Boys by David Feldshuh], and they called me up and said, “Do you wanna do it?” Of course I did, and that was it. It was an assignment from HBO. [Miss Evers' Boys] struck the chord that felt that government has to be very carefully watched in what it does. And this is the way we treated minorities, certainly then. They were not considered altogether human, and you could experiment on them.

[Working for HBO] was very liberating, really. You felt much freer than you did if you were working for a network. They didn’t have to please advertisers because they were a subscription service. And so Colin, and I’m sure the other executives, felt freer to explore subjects the networks wouldn’t touch. I remember doing another one about some racial incident in England in World War II, The Affair. So it was great working for them. They respected the writer, and their suggestions were often very good. And I liked working for Colin very much.

On Teaching Screenwriting

"What’s interesting to me is how few of [the scripts] are personal, really. You know, they’ll write adventure scripts, they’ll write romantic comedies. But very few [personal scripts], and that’s disappointing. For one thing, it brings emotion, really. And it brings, it’s a funny word to use, but necessity."

I had tried teaching a little bit when I was blacklisted. I was trying to make some money. And I didn’t think I was a very good teacher. There was some small acting school here in New York that wanted to have a branch of writing. They would get more people in. They asked me if I would teach a six-week course once a week of screenwriting, and principles of screenwriting, and they would pay me—which was the big element of it. Not much, but they would pay me at a time when I needed it. So I said, “Fine," and they got about 20 people and it was about three hours. And I talked for three hours, and I thought I was brilliant. I thought the class loved it, and they were anxious. And I remember riding in the subway back home afterward feeling very good.

All of a sudden, this cold chill came over me. Because I realized I’d said everything I knew in those three hours, and I had five more weeks ahead of me. What was I gonna do? And it just went downhill from there. I didn’t know what to do. I was a bad teacher. I didn’t know how to get them going. It was too big of a class to be a seminar. And that was my teaching experience before [Columbia], when Lewis Cole called me in and asked would I teach a class. I said, “Well, I don’t want to give a lecture class, or anything like that. I would teach a seminar. I would teach them writing scripts. I would teach a script conference, basically.” He said, “Fine", and that’s what it was. There were a mix of undergraduate and graduate students then at Columbia, as I remember it. Once I had started at Columbia with that kind of class, I felt more assured in that it was something I could do, and it became that. In NYU I teach something called “The Thesis Class in Screenwriting”. And it’s their last year, and the thesis is to write a script in the year—a full-length script. So we start at the beginning and go through. And that I find congenial. It affords me scope to yell at them and deal with their material. You know, we start with an outline and go through.

What’s interesting to me is how few of [the scripts] are personal, really. You know, they’ll write adventure scripts, they’ll write romantic comedies. But very few [personal scripts], and that’s disappointing. For one thing, it brings emotion, really. And it brings, it’s a funny word to use, but necessity. You feel the need to say that, and that comes through in the intensity of the work a lot of the time. And in something like The Front, which was a very personal thing for me, the main character was not me, really. I was actually one of the subsidiary characters. There were three writers in it. I’m one of the writers. At the same time, the subject matter was what was personal to me. And also, the necessity of getting it out, really, of making that statement gave it an impetus I think that, if it’s not personal, it wouldn’t have. But again, it’s a little anecdote I suppose—when I was first teaching, this was at Columbia, the students I had in the class in a previous production class had to make little five-minute films on an autobiographical subject, on a personal subject. I knew they had done this and I said, “Let’s look at them.” And so we screened them.

There were about seven or eight of them. And they were all very interesting visually. Not all, but many of them. I mean, things were happening up on the screen. They knew what this technique was. In all of them, though, they themselves figured either as victim or observer. Never as protagonist, really. They never felt themselves in charge of their own life, basically. And some of them were funny, and some of them were moving. But they weren’t part of it, really. So I think it’s interesting for them to do personal things.

I taught at CUNY, at City College, one year. A friend I knew who taught there asked me to do it. And they paid a lot more than Columbia or NYU did. And I looked forward to it because I thought I would get a different kind of student going to CUNY, than I would at Columbia. And I did. I had about 10 students, very interesting, mixed races, a lot of them working class. And I looked forward to what they were doing. And what they were doing was crap. They wanted to write Hollywood movies, really. I got so angry. Because I would hear their life stories, and they were interesting, a lot of them. I mean there was one Black guy, I’ll never forget him. Came from a Philadelphia family, about six kids. And the father had learned how to game the system for his kids. And all of them ended up coming from [an] impoverished [home], and they ended up in fancy prep schools in Lawrenceville and Groton, in Exeter and Andover. I said, “How’d he do that? That’s a great story there, somewhere in there.” He said, “No.” Anyway, it’s hard to get them to write personally. They don’t want to. But you’re ahead of the game immediately.

On Screenplays in the Works

I wrote a script, which I liked a lot and HBO passed on. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to put it together again. John Cusack and Annette Bening were interested in doing it. And it’s a question of who would do this kind of movie that HBO used to do almost routinely, really. That kind of subject. But I don’t know who would do it now. Nixon had been a congressman, and he was running for the senate, and his opponent was a woman named Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was the wife of the actor Melvyn Douglas. And she was a liberal Democratic congresswoman. She had been an actress and an opera singer before, but she was a politician by then. And it was the first “Tricky Dick” campaign. He smeared her as a Red, called her “the Pink Lady,” and won the election and started his big career. She was a rather formidable woman, quite beautiful then, and it was just a smear campaign. It was 1950. It was kind of the beginning of that tactic on a large scale.

I’m working on a film, collaborating with a very good writer called Jeremy Pikser who wrote Bulworth. It’s a movie about a Left-wing lawyer, now dead, named Bill Kunstler. He was rather extraordinary, really. Kind of a larger than life guy. But he was in the middle of so many things — in Mississippi and the Freedom Riders, and the Chicago Seven, and Attica, and Wounded Knee. He was brilliant, and mercurial, and charismatic, and interesting. Afterward, he represented John Gotti. He represented Larry Davis who shot six cops. But his feeling by that time was that if the government was after you, he would represent you, basically. I liked [William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe]. I thought it was a good documentary, actually, and interesting. Not hagiographic, particularly. I’m always interested in what family members come up with because sometimes it’s indicative of what they really feel about their parents. Sometimes it’s not. I think it varies.

Actually, a film I wrote 11 years ago for an independent producer has just been resurrected with a director who thinks he’s got the money for it. And maybe it’ll get done, which will be very nice. It’s an adaptation of a John Updike novel called Gertrude and Claudius. It’s a prequel to Hamlet. And I wrote a script based on the book for an independent company and nothing happened. And now some director has gotten interested in it and thinks he can raise the money to do it. And so maybe that will get done.

On Being a Working Screenwriter at Age 93

"You look back and you can see, if you want to, all the disappointments, all the mistakes, all the things you did wrong, all the paths not taken. Or you can look at it, and say, 'Well, you know, I did things that were not too shabby. And it was more or less an honorable career.'"

An agent said to me, “One of the reasons you have problems is that the executives get embarrassed giving notes to their grandfather.” And I don’t have a career, really. I’m just too old. I’m 93. And I think possibly if I wrote a script on spec and it was good, something would happen. But as far as getting the kinds of assignments that I used to get and being considered for work, I don’t think so.

You’re more experienced, obviously. You think you don’t make as many mistakes, or you see more clearly how things should be done, perhaps. I don’t know what advantages there are to being old, except you’re still hanging around. You know, it’s part of life, and you try to keep living is what you do. And all the various components of what your life has been, you keep them going.

You look back and you can see, if you want to, all the disappointments, all the mistakes, all the things you did wrong, all the paths not taken. Or you can look at it, and say, “Well, you know, I did things that were not too shabby. And it was more or less an honorable career.” And the thing that meant I think the most to me that a critic has ever said about me, really, was a British critic actually who referred to me as “that useful screenwriter.” And to be useful is important to me. To feel that what you’ve done has been of some use—whether artistically, or socially, or politically, or whatever—hasn’t been a waste.