Budd Schulberg: The Making of On the Waterfront

In 1941 Budd Schulberg shot to fame at the age of 27 with the publication of his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?--the story of Sammy Glick, a Hollywood Gatsby, long on moxie, short on style who used people like a ladder to climb his way to the top. Throughout the 1930s Schulberg worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, an experience that led to The Disenchanted, Schulberg's fictionalized account of collaborating with F.Scott Fitzgerald on a screenplay.

Then, in the early 1950s Budd Schulberg's career was threatened when he was called before a Congressional committee to testify about his brief membership in the Communist Party. After Schulberg testified, he was shunned by the Hollywood left and became a pariah to their admirers. (Victor S. Navasky, Naming Names, New York, Penguin Books ed. 1981) Schulberg, however, was unrepentant and remains so to this day. In 1954, he wrote the screenplay On the Waterfront, a story of corruption and betrayal on the big city docks which some film students believed an allegory of the political struggle that had torn Hollywood apart. Schulberg has always denied this as the testimony of longshoremen in the film was based on his attending all 40 days of the Waterfront Crime Commission hearings.

On the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan, who also had testified before Congress and had been shunned by some former comrades. (Elia Kazan, A Life, New York, Anchor Books ed. 1989) Marlon Brando played the washed up prizefighter, Terry Malloy, who turns against the mob. Karl Malden appeared as the tough Irish priest who befriends the renegade dockworkers. The powerful cast was rounded out by New York actors, Rod Steiger, as the hapless brother, Charley, Eva Marie Saint, as Malloy's parochial school girlfriend, and Lee J. Cobb, who played the sinister mob boss, Johnny Friendly. Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, Budd Schulberg, recalls the filming of On the Waterfront.
 

 


AL: Great films, like great inventions, are often the result of accidents. Your first choice to play Terry Malloy wasn't Marlon Brando.

 

BS:

I never thought of him. It was Sam Spiegel, the producer, who gave Marlon the script. Brando turned it down. I don't think he read it. So we went to Frank Sinatra. He was a Hoboken kid. Kazan thought he could do it. But Spiegel kept wooing Brando even after verbally agreeing with Frankie.

 

AL:

You've written that Spiegel thought he could get more studio money with Brando.

 

BS:

We were having a hard time interesting a major studio. No one wanted to do this picture. We hit a wall. There was fear of the mob. Darryl Zanuck turned us down at Twentieth Century-Fox. He told us no one is going to care about a lot of sweaty longshoremen.

 

AL: After the role went to Brando, Sinatra wasn't very happy.

 
BS: I felt badly. Morally, we had offered the part to him. He had a lot to say. There was screaming. He was being Frankie.

 

AL:

Finally, Harry Cohn agreed to do the picture at Columbia.

 

BS:

Barely. He sort of backed into it. I didn't like him at all. He was almost like a gangster. Originally, Cohn turned down the script. Then, when Spiegel got Brando, Cohn changed his mind if Spiegel promised to keep the budget at $800,000. He was reluctant. But with Brando he did not have much to lose.

 

AL:

The idea for the film came from a newspaper story.

 

BS:

Malcolm Johnson had written a series for the old New York Sun on corruption along the waterfront. Kazan and I had been talking about doing a movie together--but had no definite subject except something with a social theme to be shot entirely in the East. When I told him about this story, Kazan decided to do it. Mike Johnson provided a number of valuable leads.

 

AL: You spent a lot of time around the docks.

 
BS:

I spent two years down there. I sat in on meetings the rebels held and roamed about the waterfront bars. I saw what a shapeup was like. I would report back to Kazan on what I had seen. Kazan made many suggestions in the course of writing.   

 

AL: In the movie, there is this Roman Catholic priest...

 

BS:

Father John Corridan. He was a parish priest at St. Xavier. He gave me lessons on where to go, where not to go. There were rebel bars where Father John's people would take me. They told me: Don't ask. Don't talk. Just listen.

 

AL:

Cardinal Spellman tried to muzzle him.

 

BS:

Father John was furious that the waterfront story was so untold. Even The New York Times ignored it. I took Kazan to meet the priest. That day he was going up in smoke. He was furious that Spellman was giving an award to John McCormack--the "Mr. Big" of the waterfront. Mr. McCormack was a respectable man. He had lots and lots of money. He put Mayor Impellitteri in office. But the people under McCormack were monsters and killers. Anyway, the day I brought Kazan, Father John was yelling, "I'm going to stop Spellman." He was cursing--"that son of a bitch"--and shouting. Kazan could not believe a priest would talk like that. He said, "Now I see why you want to make him the centerpiece of the movie."

 

AL: Karl Malden played the role.

 

BS:

We brought Karl to meet Father John. He sat around and drank with the priest. In the movie, Karl walks like him, talks like him. There is a touch of the influence McCormack wielded. There is one shot of this respectable man watching the Crime Commission hearings where the mob is exposed. He says to his butler, "If Mr. Friendly calls me--I am out."

 

AL: The racketeers weren't entirely Irish-American.

 
BS:

The harbor was divided along ethnic lines. The Irish dominated the West Side. The local there was run by Mickey Bowers and his cousin, Harold,. All of my research was done there. Another very dangerous pier was run by a Greek named Ackalitis. The Anastasia brothers ran Brooklyn and Jersey. Marlon modeled his characterization on Tony Mike De Vincenzo. Brando met him after we moved to Hoboken to shoot. Marlon liked him. Tony Mike was an affecting person. He was a dock boss. He had been under the Italian mob, but he broke with them and joined the Corridan people. He testified at the Crime Commission hearings. I went every day.

 

AL:

A lot has been written about the cab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger....It is probably the most famous Actors Studio session in history.

 

BS:

Marlon did not improvise it. That is a grand myth. During the filming, he would improvise a word here and there, but he didn't change lines. He was good about it. Much later, Brando said he had improvised the cab scene. That's absolute nonsense. The scene was intact before we sent him the script.

 

AL:

Some people have wondered if you were trying to draw a parallel between Johnny Friendly, the gangster, and Stalin.

 

BS:

I never thought of Johnny Friendly as anything like Stalin. They were both bad guys but on a different level. Stalin was killing millions--Johnny Friendly was killing a score.

 

AL: Boris Kaufman's camera work has been overshadowed by the great acting performances of the cast.

 
BS:

Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan's tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.

 


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