Director Richard Brooks, a tough, muscular storyteller who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Elmer Gantry” and directed “The Blackboard Jungle” and “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home.
Brooks, 79, had been ill for a year, a spokesman said, adding that friends and family members were at his side when he died.
He was a director who would only let those essential to his films read his scripts. He also wouldn’t allow spectators on his sets and he didn’t let studio heads see his films until he was satisfied with every detail.
A product of the studio system, Brooks built his reputation with tough, unsentimental stories that revolved around macho leading men. He also wrote three books, and one, “The Producer,” is a penetrating exploration of the Hollywood in which he worked.
His other film credits include: “Key Largo,” “In Cold Blood,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Last Hunt,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Lord Jim,” “The Professionals,” “Deadline U.S.A.,” “Bite the Bullet” and “Fever Pitch.”
“We have lost a fiery treasure,” said Arthur Hiller, president of the Directors Guild of America. “He was an individualistic writer, he was an individualistic director, and he was an individualistic person.”
Brooks had no illusions about the realities of Hollywood. He knew that if one of his movies failed, he would be forced to give up some of his jealously guarded independence.
“In the movie business, they read your record as if you were a horse and they’re reading the Daily Racing Form,” he told The Times in a 1982 interview. “If you’re out of the money, you’re out of the race and they won’t enter you again. They have all kinds of lists, lists upon lists and lists about those lists--all in an effort to predetermine if you’re going to make money.”
Shirley Jones, who played a prostitute opposite Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” said Brooks desperately wanted to win the best director Oscar for that film. “He was so wonderful at direction,” Jones said Wednesday. “My heart was broken when he didn’t get that.”
Del Reisman, president of Writers Guild of America, West, said Brooks was “tough as nails, but he wrote about the condition of the human heart with gentleness and understanding--a remarkable talent.”
Brooks was born May 18, 1912, in Philadelphia and educated at Temple University. But his real education came in the school of hard knocks. He began as a newspaperman in the Depression, but soon found himself “drifting around from one freight train to another, picking up a story here and there and selling it.”
He later became a sportswriter on the Philadelphia Record and worked for newspapers in Atlantic City and New York before switching to radio news writing because newspaper work paid so poorly.
After his stint in radio, he started a playhouse on Long Island, but abandoned that during the run of his most successful production and headed for Hollywood in his car.
“I spent all of this time at Grauman’s Chinese Theater hoping to see one movie star, but I never saw one,” he once said.
Just as he was about to give up on Tinseltown, he found a job writing original short stories that he read on the air for NBC. He had to write five a week for $25 a day. “I wrote like 250 stories in 11 months,” he said. “I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested for plagiarism.”
He put the word out that he was interested in screenwriting, and Universal assigned him to rewriting a screenplay that became “White Savage” with Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu. Asked how much he wanted for the job, Brooks told a studio executive that he wanted $1,000 a week.
When the executive finally called him back, he told Brooks that he wouldn’t pay $1,000 a week. Why? Because the executive only made $250 a week. Brooks accepted $150 a week and was thankful that he only had to write one story.
Brooks’ feisty, independent and outspoken views didn’t make him the most popular man in Hollywood.
“I think I’m at war almost all the time, over one thing or another,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t like me or what I think or how I work and function. But if someone thinks he can just dislike me right away, he’s got to wait. There are a lot of people ahead of him. I don’t enjoy that, but what can I do? I may demand more, but no more than I ask from myself.”
His achievements on screen, however, were beyond question. In October, 1990, the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild--who have often waged bitter wars against one another--joined forces to present Brooks with their first combined Lifetime Achievement Award.
Charles Champlin, then The Times’ arts editor, called the ceremony “one of those uncommon Hollywood evenings toned by genuine affection in lieu of hypocrisy, envy or ceremonial duty” honoring a man who “has still not lost the feisty, crew-cut, tie-less, damn-the-brass militancy of the wartime Marine he once was.” Some years earlier, Brooks had some advice for those who dreamed the Hollywood dream.
“If you’re thinking of getting into the movies, you better like it a whole lot,” he said. “You better love making movies. Because it’s not easy--it’s not easy to make even a bad movie. You better be prepared to eat it, unsalted, because that’s the job of a movie maker. You better like it, because that’s what you’re going to have to do.”
Brooks’ 36 films captured 11 Academy Award nominations, seven Writers Guild Award nominations and five Directors Guild nominations.
In 1961, he married actress Jean Simmons, a star he directed in “Elmer Gantry.” He is survived by a daughter, Kate, and a stepdaughter, Tracy Granger. Funeral services will be private and a memorial service at the Writers Guild of America headquarters is pending.