Millard Kaufman, R.I.P.


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Millard Kaufman published his first novel, ‘Bowl of Cherries,’ at age 90. In his ninth decade, he had the presence of mind, the diligence and the creativity to write a book, an act that seems to me to be remarkable, verging on the heroic. But he’d been heroic before, lending his name to Dalton Trumbo in the heat of the blacklist. Kaufman was a screenwriter, a one-time movie director, a Marine, co-creator of Mr. Magoo and an author with a second book in the works. He died Saturday, two days after his 92nd birthday.

Bowl of Cherries,’ which was published in 2007 by McSweeney’s, was reviewed by the Washington Post’s Ron Charles: ‘Kaufman’s comic imagination, his ability to mix things scatological and historical, political and philosophical, reminds one of those young’uns Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.’


Kaufman was born in Baltimore in 1917. After graduating from high school, he was a merchant seaman, then a reporter in New York, then took a World War II turn in the Marines -- which included Okinawa and Guadalcanal. And then he landed in Hollywood.

In 1949, he scripted the theatrical short ‘Ragtime Bear,’ which introduced the world to Mr. Magoo. It was just a year later that he fronted for the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo -- the two shared an agent but had never met -- lending his name for the screen credits of ‘Gun Crazy.’ In 1992, Kaufman told Variety, ‘it was rotten that a man couldn’t write under his own name,’ and officially requested that Trumbo’s credit be restored.

Kaufman was twice nominated for Academy Awards for screenwriting: for 1953’s ‘Take the High Ground!’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ in 1955. He was a script doctor, directed one film and didn’t like it. He liked writing. ‘Despite the fact that I find writing difficult, I really like doing it,’ he said in a 2007 video (here, with salty language), ‘in the sense that there’s nothing I know of I’d rather do.’ What he didn’t want to talk about was what he was writing:

Writers, for the most part, it seems, like to talk about their work. But they do it so they can get a positive reaction. So I never talk about what I’m doing. For one thing, it might never be done. For another, there’s time to talk about it after it’s in the can, or whatever.

His then-work-in-progress was ‘Misadventure,’ which Variety reports is coming from McSweeney’s later this year.

-- Carolyn Kellogg