‘We kinda’ broke his heart’: Ben Stiller on Budd Schulberg and ‘Sammy’

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One of the great Hollywood mysteries of recent vintage, right up there with how Adrien Brody ever won an Oscar and why Universal Pictures thought it should spend $100 million on a hapless comedy like ‘Land of the Lost,’ is whatever happened to Ben Stiller’s decade-long crusade to bring Budd Schulberg’s fabled ‘What Makes Sammy Run’ to the big screen. Published in 1941, it was one of the first great Hollywood novels, a scathing indictment of a sleazy young hustler on the make, which, much to Schulberg’s dismay, was treated as something of a how-to manual by later generations of conniving movie biz strivers.

Stiller spent years working with ‘Permanent Midnight’ writer Jerry Stahl on an update of a Schulberg script, first at Warners -- which had the rights to the book -- and later at DreamWorks (when DW negotiated a first-look deal with Stiller’s production company, it paid Warners $2.6 million just for the rights to ‘Sammy’). At one point, according to producer Billy Gerber, who had acquired the book for Warners in the 1980s, the movie was to be financed by Elie Samaha, which would have given the whole affair a wonderfully dubious synchronicity, since Samaha -- a nightclub owner turned movie producer who was famous for padding the budgets of his movies -- was something of a coarse throwback to the fast-talking Glick himself.


After Schulberg’s death at 95 earlier this month, Stiller and Stahl sat down and wrote an account -- with the two men essentially interviewing themselves -- of what happened, or more accurately, didn’t happen to the project. It is refreshingly self-deprecating, opening with this zinger: ‘I guess you could say that our relationship with Budd Schulberg was typical Hollywood: we met him, we liked each other and in the end, we kind of broke his heart.’

The self-interview, which Stiller’s publicist sent to us, tells of how Stiller first got involved, when he was in movie jail after the failure of ‘Cable Guy,’ which he had directed. He says he went to Stahl to help him with the rewrite because ‘I knew he was a good writer and I was scared out of my mind to try to do it alone.’ They worked on the project together, doing much of the actual writing at a suite at the Chateau Marmont, with occasional stops at Musso & Frank’s. When Schulberg arrived for a story conference at Warners, he raised unholy hell. As Stahl recalls: ‘Whoever had typed up the title page left off ‘based on the novel by Budd Schulberg.’ (I blamed Ben, Ben blamed an assistant.).... [Bud] might have been an Oscar-winning, two-legged incarnation of Hollywood history, but he was pissed, the way any writer would be pissed. And he let us know.’ Eventually all was forgiven, but whenever Stiller would see Schulberg, he would end up telling him, ‘Not yet, Budd, not yet.’

I wish their account was a little more forthcoming, since for all the sharp, inside-baseball anecdotes, they never actually get around to saying why the movie didn’t make it to the finish line. Was it always too expensive? Were studios wary of making a film that offered such a dark view of Hollywood career climbing? Did Stiller have a failure of nerve, spending too much time doing easier-to-get-greenlit studio comedies? The self-interviews are silent on such matters. (I asked to talk to Stiller, but his publicist said he had nothing more to say on the subject.)

Still, the piece is a wonderful read, ending with a great story Schulberg told Stahl, just a week before he died, about getting into the ring with Ernest Hemingway after the Great White Bearded One had taunted the young Schulberg, figuring him for a Hollywood softie. Of course, Schulberg was made of sterner stuff, as you can see from reading this bracing account of a great movie that never quite got made.

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I guess you could say that our relationship with Budd Schulberg was typical Hollywood: we met him, we liked each other, and in the end, we kind of broke his heart. But that didn’t mean we didn’t stay friends. In Hollywood, nobody will hurt you like your friends. It’s a given. Sometimes it’s intentional, Sammy Glick-style, but it’s worse when it isn’t. Which doesn’t make it any easier to write about. We both ended up loving Budd and, given the shot, like many others before us, we couldn’t get the movie of his classic, What Makes Sammy Run? made. Why us? Why did we think we could do what others had not done for 60 years? Why not us, we thought at the time. Of course, here we are 13 years later, and not quite there. Ok, nowhere. And Budd, rest his soul, was a lot more gracious about our failure than his indelible Sammy would have been. As Al Manheim, Sammy’s Boswell put it: “Sammy always made you feel that any confession of failure was on level with admitting that you had a yen for nothing but female dogs and ten year old corpses…”

Recently we sat down to fake interview ourselves about how it all didn’t happen, or maybe just to commiserate -- not as much about not getting the movie made, but about how we had finally lost an unlikely friend.

BEN: In ’96 I got a new agent right before ‘The Cable Guy’ bombed. His first piece of advice was not to do anything for six months. He said I was in “movie jail.” I had time to read. Billy Gerber and Gene Kirkwood, at Warner Brothers, somehow got the idea to give me a shot at greatness. They said why don’t you direct and act in ‘Sammy.’ I read the book and loved it. Sounded like a good idea to me, especially considering my incarceration. The financing for the movie I was waiting to play Jerry Stahl in -- ‘Permanent Midnight’ -- was taking a while to come through (if ever, according to my agent/jailer), so I asked Jerry if he wanted to work on re-writing Budd’s script with me in the meantime. Why did I ask Jerry? I knew he was a good writer and I was scared out of my mind to try to do it alone.

JERRY: Ben Stiller, fresh off ‘Cable Guy,’ Jerry Stahl, fresh off a park bench in MacArthur Park. 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.

It was not like we were the first to tackle “Sammy.” The book has already shown up as a live television drama on Philco Television Playhouse in ‘49. It was revived in 1959 as a two-parter on NBC, with future Dynasty giant John Forsythe as Al Manheim and Larry Blyden as Sammy. Steve Lawrence starred in a Broadway musical version in 1964. (Weirdly, three years before Hair.)

BEN: In the nine months it took to get the financing for ‘Permanent Midnight,’ we re-wrote Schulberg. Our idea was that there be might be a way to contemporize the story, without re-setting it in the present. Keep the flavor of the era, but give it a little more “edge”.... We even started writing in a suite at the Chateau Marmont. I seem to remember a bit of Musso & Frank’s time, as well. Just to get that deep “Old Hollywood” feel. When we were done we had a great (or so we thought) script. We sent it to everyone and came to our first meeting -- thought we didn’t know Budd was going to be there.

JERRY: We met around a tanker-sized mahogany table at Warner Bros. that might have been put there in the thirties. Budd came in: a shock of white hair, pink-cheeks, his blue eyes slightly watery but almost supernaturally piercing. He took us in, stayed quiet for a moment, and then spoke up in his trademark soft, susurrus stutter, and let us have it. With good reason. Whoever had typed up the title page left off “based on the novel by Budd Schulberg.” (I blamed Ben. Ben blamed an assistant.) When Budd brought that up, out of the gate, I kind of loved him for it. He might have been an Oscar-winning, two-legged incarnation of Hollywood History, but he was pissed, the way any writer would be pissed. And he let us know. Once he took us to school for our heinous faux pas, however, he relaxed and voiced only mild objections to our stab at rendering his classic for the screen.

Not surprisingly, Budd had actually adapted “Sammy” for the screen before we ever rolled in. But nobody wanted to make his, either. Which may be one explanation of why he never leapt out of his chair screaming at the fact that he, the grand master, had to sit there and let two little pischers make carnival with his masterpiece. He was a gentleman.

There are good projects that don’t get made all the time. Most aren’t famous for not getting made. And most aren’t written by an author who is Hollywood incarnate history, who literally penned one of the most quoted lines in Hollywood history, “I coulda’ been a contender. I coulda’ been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am….” And which was what we felt like, after a while, for never being able to deliver what we knew would mean so much to Budd.

BEN: But still, we stayed in touch, years after there was any real talk of mounting the movie. Whenever I’d re-connect with Budd, he’d look at me with those alarmingly blue eyes. “Well…?” And I’d just sigh… “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 some makeshift film festival in Culver City. 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.

The last time I saw him was with his family at a little restaurant on the upper west side, a breakfast place. He looked dapper, as always. I could tell he was feeling a bit under the weather, a little rundown. He had a surgery, and was recuperating. We didn’t discuss “Sammy” that last time.

JERRY: The last time I saw him, a week before his death, was in Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. He had collapsed that morning and lost a lot of blood. But his eyes were just as intensely blue -- his cheeks still rosy. He seemed serene -- even as a frenetic parade of nurses, family and occasionally, an actual doctor stepped in to check him. I mentioned that I happened to be working on something about Hemingway, and at the sound of his name, Budd perked up. “He was a b-b-b-b-bully.” Apparently the great man began to push and taunt young Budd from the moment they were introduced. “So, you think you’re a writer, huh?” Eventually, Papa was unlucky enough to suggest a boxing match. He threw a punch at Budd. And Budd -- no stranger to the ring -- threw one back. That was that. “He didn’t like it when you fought back,” Budd said.

Everyone in the room listened with rapt fascination. It was a hell of a story.