He Was More Than A Contender

BY George Kimball ON September 12, 2009
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NEW YORK -- It began with Archie McBride, the heavyweight contender Budd Schulberg managed almost sixty years ago, tolling the final 10-count, and ended with a solo from the great jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis while behind him on the stage, a slide show provided vignettes depicting Budd Schulberg's remarkable 95-year life. Several hundred relatives, friends, and admirers gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York on Saturday to say their final goodbye to the Boxing Hall of Famer, Academy Award-winning screenwriter, and acclaimed novelist who had passed away on August 5.

Budd's son Benn served as the promoter and ring announcer for his father's final main event, while a succession of heavyweights from the worlds of boxing, literature, film, and drama, whose tributes were interspersed with television clips depicting seminal moments in Schulberg's career(s), provided the undercard for the three-hour event.

Just as his first novel WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN had rendered Budd persona non grata in Hollywood circles in 1941, the 1947 publication of THE HARDER THEY FALL guaranteed a frosty reception in certain ringside circles. It was along about this time that Schulberg, having already made the transition from lifelong fight fan to boxing writer, took on his first and only hands-on involvement in the sport he had recently scourged by agreeing to manage McBride, at the time an up-and-coming heavyweight from Trenton, whom at one point Budd got to 19-2 and a position in the heavyweight rankings.

Schulberg had had a ring erected in the barn of his country home in Pennsylvania which he converted into a training camp. What he had not foreseen was that the remote location would occasionally discourage the usual suspects from traveling from the busy gyms in Philadelphia and New York to box with McBride. One such occurrence came at a critical stage in McBride's career -- on the eve of Archie's 1955 fight against Floyd Patterson, and in the absence of other sparring partners, Budd had to put on the gloves himself. The sparring session ended predictably, with the fighter bloodying his manager's nose. A few nights later Patterson would bloody Archie's, knocking him down three times on the way to a seventh-round stoppage.

The TKO to McBride was a rare loss for Budd, who was 2-0 in bouts with Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, but Benn Schulberg provided an account of another. From the time he was old enough to stand, the Schulbergs pere et fils had engaged in family sparring sessions at their Long Island home, with Benn flailing away at his father, who was obliged not only to fight while on his knees, but to simultaneously provide a blow-by-blow narration of the bout in progress. The tradition continued for several years, by which time Benn had not only somewhat improved his boxing technique, but advanced through several weight classes. One morning, Benn related, he cut loose with a left to the body followed by a right that knocked his surprised father, by then well into his 70s, ass over teakettle, producing divergent responses from his parents.

"Gee, Benn, I think you just broke my jaw," said his father.

"That's it. No more fighting!" ordered Betsy Schulberg, whose word was law.

ON THE WATERFRONT, for which Budd received the Academy Award, might not have been in the strictest sense a "boxing movie," but Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy is the ex-pug who "coulda been a contender," and at Budd's insistence, a trio of charter members of the Bum of the Month Club --  Two-Ton Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, and Abe Simon -- were cast as burly longshoremen in the film. One highlight of the program was the telecast of the 1954 Oscar ceremony, when, after director Elia Kazan and Brando had already won their statuettes, Bob Hope and Brando opened the 'Best Screenplay' envelope and summoned Budd from the audience to receive his. (And let history record that he didn't even try to look surprised. He knew what he'd done.)

Pete Hamill recalled having first met Budd at the 1962 Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson fight in Chicago, an occasion far more memorable for the press room cast publicist Harold Conrad had assembled than for the barely two minutes of action in the ring. "You'd look in one direction and there would be Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling," recalled Hamill, then just in his second year as a newspaperman, "and you'd look the other way and there would be Nelson Algren and James Baldwin and Budd Schulberg."

(Liebling, recounting the same scene in the New Yorker, wrote that "the press gatherings before this fight sometimes resembled those highly intellectual pour-parlers on some Mediterranean island; placed before typewriters, the accumulated novelists could have produced a copy of the Paris Review in forty-two minutes.")

Hamill also recalled that on the evening of June 6, 1968, he and his brother Brian had driven across Los Angeles to pick up Budd in their rental car, and driven from there to the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy would be speaking once the returns were in from that day's California primary. Budd, said Hamill, remembered the hotel from his youth as the scene of some memorable Hollywood debauchery. Both Hamill and Schulberg were waiting in the kitchen that night when Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy. Hours later, once the east coast deadlines had passed, everyone reconnoitered, still battered by the shocking assassination. Everyone was grieving, but Schulberg made it his particular point that night to console Hamill, who he knew had lost a close personal friend.

The poet (and Miles Davis biographer) Quincy Troupe, as it turned out, had another memory of Budd and RFK's final days. Two days before the candidate was killed, Budd had brought the candidate by 9807 B Street to visit Watts 13, a byproduct of the Watts Writers Workshop Budd had founded in response to the 1965 Watts riots. The premises consisted of a modest inner-city house, fronted by what Troupe, perhaps the most prominent product of Schulberg's Watts initiative, described as "a really tiny lawn."  The poet Jimmie Sherman, another workshop member, had made the cultivation of the lawn his personal project.

"It was his pride and joy," said Troupe. On the day of the visit Schulberg and Sen. Kennedy stepped out of a large black sedan. Budd, aware of Jimmy Sherman's vested interest was careful to go around by the walkway. RFK decided to short-cut across the lawn.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" thundered Jimmy Sherman. "Get off the goddamn grass!"

The presidential candidate, remembers Troupe, "jumped.

"But he when he came inside he talked with all of us, and more important, he seemed to listen."   Budd recalled that later that day in Kennedy's hotel suite he spoke of initiating a federally-sponsored program based on Schulberg's concept in Watts.

Gene Kilroy, Muhammad Ali's old camp facilitator, noted that although Howard Cosell and others climbed on the bandwagon later, Budd Schulberg had been Ali's first and most prominent defender, railing against the injustice when the champion was stripped of his title and his boxing license for his stance against the Vietnam War.  And Bert Sugar recalled attending a fight at Foxwoods a few years ago, when Budd arrived to discover that there were no remaining seats in the press section. There were, however, a dozen empty seats in an immediately adjacent ringside area.  Upon inquiry, a spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequod tribal nation explained that the seats had been reserved for "The Elders."

"Elder? Show me somebody who's more elder than Budd," replied Sugar, and the 92 year-old Elder got his seat.

There was also a film clip of a Budd's appearance on "Person-to-Person" with Edward R. Murrow. Watching Murrow conduct the entire interview while puffing on his trademark smoke, I found myself thinking that modern-day New York laws probably would have ordered Murrow's cigarette to be airbrushed out of the picture.

My turn to speak immediately followed the Murrow interview. "Does Bloomberg know about this?" I asked.

Budd, who had stayed busy right up to the end, was involved in recent years in a couple of intriguing projects that never quite got off the ground -- Spike Lee's documentary on Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, based on a screenplay Budd had written, and a film version of WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN, which Ben Stiller had optioned more than a dozen years ago. Both Lee and Stiller recalled that, although no one was more aware of the Purgatory in which Hollywood scripts can reside for years, there were regular phone calls asking about the status of the films. And both seemed equally contrite that the projects didn't come to fruition in Budd's lifetime.

When they showed up for their first story conference in Hollywood, Stiller recalled, the retyped script circulating around the table had somehow omitted the title page notation "based on the novel by Budd Schulberg," which didn't exactly get the relationship off to a flying start.

"Ben Stiller, fresh off 'The Cable Guy." Jerry Stahl, fresh off a park bench in MacArthur Park," Stahl, Stiller's writing partner on the SAMMY project," recreated the scene at Budd's memorial. "I in retrospect, I can imagine how thrilled Budd Schulberg, the man who wrote ON THE WATERFRONT, must have been to have a couple of giants adapting the greatest work of his lifetime."

"But still, we stayed in touch, years after there was any real talk of mounting the movie," said Stiller. “Whenever I’d re-connect with Budd, he’d look at me with those alarmingly blue eyes. “Well…?”

"And I’d just sigh and say 'Not yet, Budd, not yet.”'  I had to get over the feeling that every time we saw each other we were both reminding ourselves of the unfinished business between us, and the frustration we both felt. I don’t know if I ever did.

"I gave him an award a couple of years back at a film festival in Culver City," added Stiller. "I dropped it off the podium, of course, and Budd just laughed. At some point he really could have just said, 'Enough of you Stiller, and your pseudo Sammy crusade. You had my baby, and you didn’t get it done!!' It would have been easy, even expected. But he didn’t. Never. He always asked how my dad was, or how the project I was working on was going."

Spike Lee, who expressed similar remorse over having to repeatedly offer similar responses when Budd asked about their project, recalled that it was only after committing himself to the Louis-Schmeling film that he fully realized that he'd be working with a living piece of both boxing and Hollywood history.

"Budd knew Joe Louis. He knew Max Schmeling," said the filmmaker. "That was impressive, but then when I found out he'd personally arrested Leni Riefenstahl, wow!"

(The apprehension of Hitler's favorite filmmaker came in connection with Schulberg's naval service in World War II and its aftermath, when he was charged with compiling the photographic evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trials.)

Steven Berkoff, the British director of the stage version of ON THE WATERFRONT that played to rave reviews in London's West End earlier this year, announced his pride at having "directed the first production of ON THE WATERFRONT performed in English.  When that one sailed right over the heads of pretty much the entire audience, Berkoff (who also played Johnny Friendly in the London production) had to lapse into Hobokenese to explain the joke.

There were messages from Hugh McIlvanney, the Boxing Bard of Scotland, from Andy Griffith (whose first starring role had come when he played Lonesome Rhodes in Budd's A FACE IN THE CROWD), and from Christopher Plummer,  whose film debut had come when he was cast in Budd's WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES. (Plummer recalled his astonishment at Budd's capacity for alcohol, and his own performance by saying "Burl Ives was great, I was terrible.")

Nephew K.C. Schulberg recalled last February's trip with Budd and Betsy from London to Paris -- the morning after opening night for the London WATERFRONT play, which had been followed by an all-night piss-up with Berkoff and the cast. And Budd's niece, Chris O'Sullivan, read a heartfelt message from Budd's younger sister Sonya at the New York memorial.

Dr. Nicholas Beck, who authored a 2001 biography of Schulberg, recalled that in its first incarnation when it was written as a short story for Liberty magazine, WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN had been entitled WHAT MAKES MANNY RUN. It was changed at the suggestion of Budd's father B.P. Schulberg, who feared that Emanuel "Manny" Cohen, the man who had replaced him when he was dumped as head of Paramount Studios, might interpret it as "an act of petty revenge."

So Manny became Sammy, but the name change backfired in the end anyway. By the time SAMMY came out as a book, Budd was working for as an in-house screenwriter for Samuel Goldwyn.  An underling, pointing out that Sammy Glick's initials were also SG, convinced Goldwyn that Sammy had been based on him, and Budd was fired and ordered off the MGM lot before he even knew of the accusation.

Ivan R. Dee, the Chicago publisher who in recent years reissued THE HARDER THEY FALL and published several collections of Schulberg's boxing pieces, said that to appreciate how good a writer he was one had only to compare his work to that of the other, "supposedly respected" boxing writers, whose work he described, I believe, as uniformly vapid. Dee presumably thought he was doing a service to Budd's memory, but it wasn't a very smart thing to say in a room full of boxing writers.

In the late 1960s the Broadway composer Frank Loesser had written the score for a Broadway adaptation (SENOR DISCRETION HIMSELF) of a short story by Budd, but Loesser (GUYS AND DOLLS; HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; THE MOST HAPPY FELLA) died in 1969 before it could be finished, Jo Sullivan and Emily Loesser, the composer's widow and daughter, performed a moving duet of the play's show-stopper, "You Understand Me.'

SENIOR DISCRETION HIMSELF was revived five years ago at the Arena Stage in Washington, under the direction of Charles Randolph Wright, who suggested engaging the Los Angeles-based Chicano ensemble Culture Clash to complete Loesser's unfinished book and libretto. Culture Clash co-founder Richard Montoya came East to confer on he project, and met with Wright and Schulberg at one of those swank restaurants in the Hamptons.  The trio was standing near the front door when one of those celebrity wannabes who flock to the Hamptons each summer pulled up in to the front door in his Mercedes. Assuming that the Mexican-American standing beside the African-American must be a valet parking attendant, he wordlessly tossed his car keys to Montoya and rushed inside.

Wright said that Budd, having watched this exercise in profiling unfold before his eyes, turned to Montoya with what sounded more like an order than a suggestion.

"He looked at Richie and said, "Keep them!"

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