Budd Schulberg: His 'What Makes Sammy Run?' was the true Hollywood fable
Many of the Budd Schulberg obituaries in the so-called liberal media -- like this one from the New York Times -- spent a vast amount of time talking about Schulberg's falling out with the Communist Party and his subsequent 1951 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he informed on 17 people he said had been members of the party. It was a big deal, especially for lefties of a certain age.
Whenever I'd bring up Schulberg's name to Abe Polonsky, who wrote the film noir classic "Body and Soul" and had been blacklisted for 15 years for his refusal to name the names of his fellow party members, Abe -- then well into his 80s -- would take an imaginary swing, as if imagining himself in the ring, landing a left hook on Schulberg's jaw. "Whenever I saw that guy, I'd cross the street as fast as possible," he said once. "Once a rat, always a rat."
Now that Schulberg belongs to the ages, having died Wednesday at age 95, it will be up to historians to judge the validity of his actions. As for me, I'd hardly say they were done out of expediency. A lifelong ardent liberal, Schulberg simply saw the Communist Party as yet another ossified institution dominated by rigid true believers who brooked no dissent from the party line -- in fact, something of a dead ringer for today's Republican Party, where anyone who dares to offer even the faintest support for raising taxes (even for a good cause, like educating our next generation of kids or providing better veterans' benefits) is quickly shunned or run out of town on a rail.
Any illusions Schulberg might have had about the Communist Party's openness to a free exchange of ideas were quickly dashed after he began writing his masterpiece, the 1941 novel "What Makes Sammy Run?," which to this day is easily the most pointed dissection of the ruthless energy that propelled generations of hustlers to Hollywood fame and fortune. After Liberty magazine published a short story that was a dress rehearsal for the book, party apparatchiks told Schulberg that the story was too individualist and "insufficiently progressive." (Hollywood communists were never known for their sense of humor.) After the novel was published, and not realizing the party had already frowned on Schulberg's work, a young reviewer for the People's World gave it a glowing review. Appalled, the party forced the reviewer to recant and write a revised, far less enthusiastic review in the Daily Worker.
It was bad enough that everyone in the movie business loathed the book, seeing it as a betrayal by one its own, since Schulberg was the son of Paramount studio chief B.P. Schulberg. (When Louis B. Mayer angrily demanded that Schulberg be deported, his father replied: "Louie, he's the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood. Where are you going to deport him, Catalina Island?") But the hostility from the Communist Party was a big eye-opener for Schulberg, who realized that being forced to toe the party line was wildly unhealthy for a serious artist, whether the blind loyalty was demanded by the left or the right.
Even though he wrote other solid novels and a couple of groundbreaking films, notably "On the Waterfront," Schulberg's first novel was his true claim to fame. There have been thousands of Hollywood novels written since, but "What Makes Sammy Run?" packs a timeless wallop that few other industry memoirs or novels can deliver. It's hard to count the amount of times I've been at lunch at an industry watering hole, meeting an especially brash young agent or manager or filmmaker, when I hear myself saying softly to myself, "Oh, my God, Sammy Glick is still alive!"
I spent a couple of days with Schulberg in 2005, writing a profile of him for this paper. It was actually a rare opportunity to meet two legends at the same time, since Albert Maysles, the great documentary filmmaker, spent the day with us, filming Schulberg's visits to several old watering holes -- and our subsequent conversations -- for a film that is, sadly, still unfinished. Schulberg took us to the house in Hancock Park that he grew up in, which looked much as it did half a century ago. It gave Schulberg an opportunity to reminisce about all the legends he saw as a boy at family parties -- Clara Bow, who flirted shamelessly with him; Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, who cracked jokes; Charlie Chaplin, who played the piano; and Marlene Dietrich, who arrived on the arm of her Svengali, the filmmaker Josef von Sternberg. Budd, never one to print the legend, said Dietrich looked "very mousy."
As Schulberg spun his stories, it was easy to see how the outlandish characters he'd met had ended up serving as fodder for his portrait of Glick. Everyone in Budd's Hollywood was bigger than life, with bigger-than-life ambitions and excesses. He knew Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn, who had loudspeakers installed in his studio so he could yell at anyone at a moment's notice. He knew Ben Hecht, the feisty screenwriter who quit writing "Nothing Sacred" in the middle of filming -- before he'd finished the ending -- forcing producer David O. Selznick to bring in the young Schulberg and Ring Lardner Jr. to fashion a finale during a frantic all-night writing session. As Schulberg told me: "When we arrived, David's secretary gave us a bowl of Benzedrine and said, 'You'd better take these before you go in.' " When Schulberg would wake up in the morning, he'd usually find his father still playing poker, often with one of the Marx Brothers, sometimes nonchalantly writing a $22,000 check to cover his losses.
As I wrote in my story in 2005, there are still Glicks everywhere in Hollywood. Sammy has stayed, embedded deep in the DNA of show business, as enduring a literary archetype as Lolita or Holden Caulfield. It's hard to imagine a Hollywood story, from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's "Sweet Smell of Success" to Michael Tolkin's "The Player" to the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" to David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" that doesn't owe a debt to Schulberg's scrappy, always conniving hustler.
Schulberg wasn't entirely overjoyed that the character he'd written as such a ruthless snake, slithering his way to the top, betraying anyone who got in his path, had become an object of affection -- in fact, almost a role model. Glicks today are largely viewed with begrudging admiration for their chutzpah and single-minded ambition. But Schulberg took solace in the sense that he had created a character that had endured, even if some of Sammy's rough edges had been buffed away over time.
For years, people tried to turn the book into a film, always without success, perhaps because the studio chiefs remained ambivalent about the portrayal of a stone-cold Hollywood hustler, suspecting it would always appear -- on screen at least -- as an unsympathetic part. Even Ben Stiller, who had Schulberg's blessings and the clout to get the film made, never really came close to getting it off the ground.
But the character has taken on a life of its own, now inhabiting a warm place in the Hollywood heart. Bill Gerber, now a successful producer, acquired the book for Warners when he was an executive there in the 1980s, Although he grew up in an industry family, Gerber says that when a friend gave him the book, he acknowledged never having read it. "But I knew the story," he told me. "My mother's been calling me Sammy Glick for years."
Photo of Schulberg before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 from the Associated Press