Budd Schulberg: The screenwriter who made Marlon Brando a star

He spent a weekend with F Scott Fitzgerald, saw Nazi Germany and wrote On The Waterfront

One evening in New York, I was introduced to Budd Schulberg. He was over 90 years old then and sitting on the fringes of a large crowd but his face was warm and mischievous and full of interest in the world. Shaking his hand was a thrilling moment and I half expected to feel an electrical current because he had moved through the most storied corridors of the American twentieth century.

Even the bare bones of Schulberg's life story are a marvel: born in 1914 and growing up as a child prince of Hollywood after his father, BP Schulberg, became head of production at Paramount before a stark fall and a bleak final few years. As a young screenwriter, he misspent an alcohol soaked and tragi-comic weekend with an ailing F Scott Fitzgerald as the pair visited Hanover to plot a doomed comedic script based on a Dartmouth college caper. This was in 1939; the writer and editor Malcolm Cowley would describe it as Fitzgerald's "biggest, saddest and most desperate spree."

Some of the Hollywood yarns that Schulberg shared would make their way into Fitzgerald's last novel, The Last Tycoon, and Schulberg later fictionalised his remembrance of that period in his novel, The Disenchanted. World War Two brought him to Europe during the latter stages of the war after he joined the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, loosely known as "John Ford's documentary crew."

Schulberg was among the first servicemen to liberate the concentration camps. He gathered evidence ahead of the Nuremberg trials, a task which included tracking down Leni Riefenstahl, the celebrated Nazi film maker, to her chalet in Austria. He recalled the meeting and arrest and their long, stony drive through bewildered, ruined Germany in a long Saturday Evening Post article called Nazi Pin-Up Girl (1946).


He was fired by Louis B Mayer after the publication of What Makes Sammy Run? his satirical novel based partly on his father's experiences of Hollywood's underlying viciousness. An ardent civil rights advocate, Schulberg was a Robert Kennedy supporter and among the crowd in June 1968 which wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel seconds after he fired five shots into Kennedy at close range. But mostly Schulberg sat writing and central to his accomplished list of works is the screenplay for one of the best films of the twentieth century, On the Waterfront.

The person who brokered my brief meeting with Budd Schulberg that evening was George Kimball, the boxing writer and former Irish Times columnist. During a run of late, perfect columns he filed for these pages in the final years of his life, Kimball told the story of the origins behind the most famous lines in On the Waterfront. Even if you haven't seen the film, you have heard the words, the simple, punchy, immortal lament.

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

In the film, they are, of course, spoken by Marlon Brando, sitting in the rear of a taxi cab with Rod Steiger, who plays his older brother Charley. Brando, caught in the noir-ish, crystal clear black and white cinematography, would never look more soulful or anguished. His delivery is like an epitaph for the unaccountable millions who have fallen on the wrong side of the American dream.

The story behind many great films read like fated happy accidents and On the Waterfront is no different

The inspiration for the line came from a casual conversation Schulberg had with a former boxer named Roger Donoghue who had quit boxing at the age of 21 after one of his opponents tragically died after a bout. Donoghue had been employed to teach Brando a few basic boxing moves - although the on-screen fighting is limited to street and bar brawls. On the set one day, Schulberg was quizzing Donoghue about boxing, and as Kimball reported "asked Roger if he could have been a champion had he pursued his pro career".

“Well,” Donoghue replied after giving the matter some thought. “I could have been a contender.”

Schulberg’s ear twitched.

In the American Film Institute's list of greatest ever screen lines, Rhett Butler's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" is listed at number one. Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone - "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" - comes in at number two. And Brando is also at number three with the lines drafted in at the eleventh hour by Schulberg.

The story behind many great films read like fated happy accidents and On the Waterfront is no different. The script was developed by Schulberg for the director Elia Kazan as a story of brotherly loyalty and political betrayal set on the turbulent and corruptible world of the longshoremen who worked the teeming docks. At first all major studios flatly rejected it: as Daryl Zanuck put it when considering the script: "Who gives a s**t about longshoremen?"

It was a reasonable question until Sam Spiegel, the producer, persuaded Brando to play the role of Terry Malloy, a 30-year-old dock worker who threw both his future and a fight at the behest of his brother. In the middle 1950s, Brando was walking fire.

It was shot over 35 days in Hoboken on a B movie budget. Much of it takes place on the flat, connecting tenement roofs where Malloy tends to his beloved pigeons. "You know, it's so f***n cold out here, there's no way you can overact," Brando said at one stage. Initial expectations for the film were muted: Harry Cohn, the Columbia executive, left without saying a word to anyone involved after viewing the rough cut. The first screening took place at the Astor theatre at eleven in the morning: the audience line stretched around the block until the door opened. Brando attended the screening with Karl Malden, who plays the lantern-jawed voice of tough morality, Fr Pete Barry. Asked what he thought after the screening, Brando merely muttered "In and out. In and out."

The general verdict was more generous. On the Waterfront was a blazing success, sweeping the 1955 Oscars with Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando (the first and last awards ceremony which he would attend), Best Supporting Actor for Malden (whose co-stars Lee J Cobb and Steiger were both nominated for the same award), Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint (who was making her feature film debut), Best Screenplay for Schulberg, Best Cinematography for Boris Kaufman (every still looks like a classic photograph) chief among its eight awards.

The film transported Brando into the place of intense inescapable fame and adulation he had always dreaded. Donoghue earned his trust and worked as Brando’s minder for several years before settling into a life as a beer sales representative for Rheingold in New York.

“But he was less successful at keeping “Buddy” - as he would invariably refer to the actor- out of trouble than he had been in turning him into a credible middleweight,” Kimball wrote of Donoghue in that Irish Times column (The True Tale of the Original Contender).

"Years later, when Brando was filming the original Godfather, Roger would cash in an old marker, scoring a plug for his company; in the memorable scene in which James Caan, as Sonny Corleone, beats the piss out of his brother-in-law Carlo, a Rheingold beer truck is prominently parked in the camera shot."

The echoes created by On The Waterfront rumbled through cinema and popular culture for decades and it became a stellar reference point for everyone from Henry Winkler in Happy Days to the songwriter Lloyd Cole. The key taxi cab lines were elevated to another level after Robert De Niro, playing Jake La Motta, embodied a washed up La Motta embodying Brando in the despair-filled closing scene of 'Raging Bull'.

“They sent me a hundred bucks and said they’d like to use a few lines,” lamented Schulberg in an interview years later. “But the way they used it was really the climax of the whole movie.”

In 1999, Martin Scorsese and De Niro presented an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan at that year's ceremony. It was one of those moments when the generally schmaltzy ceremony was pitched into the overtly political. Protestors picketed the ceremony in the late afternoon sunshine, waving signs that branded Kazan a traitor.

The controversy dated to half a century earlier. Kazan and Schulberg had both been members of Communist parties in the 1930s. Both were called to testify to appear before House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, when anti-communist paranoia was feverish and gave ‘friendly’ testimony by naming other party members. The story of On the Waterfront was partly conceived as a retaliation to the fall-out from those appearances: a pro-worker, pro-union film which revolves around a scene where Malloy is called to give evidence against the corrupt bosses and does the unthinkable for the greater good: he turns snitch.

Schulberg always argued that he only named those names already cited and was too independent of spirit to much care of what the Hollywood establishment thought of him. But Kazan, in particular, was ostracised for his testimony, recognised as a towering creative force but also frozen out by Hollywood's inner circle. The final film he directed was, curiously, the adaptation of The Last Tycoon in 1976. As he stood to receive his honorary award at the end of the century, the reception inside the auditorium was mixed; some grandees like Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep joined in the standing ovation. Others - Nick Nolte, Ed Harris - remained seated and stony faced. Kazan didn't directly address the controversy, still regal and acknowledging that he was glad to hear the applause. "I think now that I can just slip away," he concluded. He died in 2003 at the age of 94.

The word that comes to mind is overused in Hollywood but here it is: genius. Here and there, with a word, more often a gesture, Marlon gave the performance of his life

Budd Schulberg’s last major filmed script was Across The Everglades, which was released in 1958. He continued to write novels and journalism throughout his life. He also stayed in touch with Brando decades after those cold few weeks they spent together in Hoboken, talking on the phone late at night, which was often the only way to reach the actor as he retreated further and further from the outside world.

“At times it seemed to me that some madman was writing Marlon’s story and he was over doing it,” Schulberg wrote in a sombre, lovely essay on Brando which appeared in Vanity Fair in 2005. It was one of his last big pieces: four years later, Schulberg died, at the age of 95. But his recollection of their time on the set and of watching Brando at work remained cloudless and precious.

“Again and again he added little details that were exquisite. When he walks Eva Marie Saint through the park overlooking the Hudson River in his first, indirect, tentative love scene with her, she accidentally drops her long white glove, and instead of handing it back to her with conventional politeness, Marlon unexpectedly puts it on his own hand and starts to pull it up his arm - a lovely symbol for his slow awakening to the challenge of purity that is beginning to stir his conscience.

“That wasn’t my stage direction or Kazan’s suggestion. It was pure Brando - what Kazan had meant when he touted Marlon over Garfield as having that indefinable something. The word that comes to mind is overused in Hollywood but here it is: genius. Here and there, with a word, more often a gesture, Marlon gave the performance of his life as the fringe hoodlum who has to face his dark side and come over to the light - a performance Kazan hailed as the greatest he had ever seen. Terry was a well-written, multi-layered character that I knew from the inside, but Marlon took him to that far horizon every writer prays for but never expects to reach.”