Advertisement

AN APPRECIATION : Richard Brooks: A Storyteller’s Legacy

FORMER TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Richard Brooks, who died on Wednesday at the age of 79, had the true storyteller’s gift and it enriched not only his professional life but the lives of all his friends who listened to the anecdotes drawn (and shaped) from his own quite remarkable life.

There was the Churchill business. When he was making “Something of Value,” he learned that one of the best books about Kenya had been written in the early 1900s by Winston Churchill, a journalist not yet a politician. When he finished the film in London, it occurred to Brooks that Churchill, now a prime minister in retirement, might do an introduction. Churchill agreed. (Telling the story, Brooks could catch the great man’s voice nicely.)

After the film, with Churchill’s brief introduction in place, was sneak-previewed for MGM executives, there was a council of war at the studio the next morning. “Twenty minutes too long,” said one voice of wisdom.

“And the fat Englishman at the beginning has got to go,” said another executive.

Advertisement

“Winston Churchill?” Brooks asked, disbelieving.

“Whoever,” the executive said.

(The fat Englishman was snipped out, but the clip turned up in the MGM archives years later and was reattached when the film was shown on the Z Channel in Los Angeles.)

Brooks had another favorite story about the “Something of Value” location in Nairobi in 1956. Brooks asked for a hotel suite exactly comparable to his own for Sidney Poitier, who was co-starring with Rock Hudson. The hotel manager delicately offered a guest cottage on the property. Brooks said it was unacceptable and hinted the company would go elsewhere. The manager asked what Poitier was being paid. As I remember, Brooks said it was something like $38,000 for six weeks work. The manager came back and said a suite for Poitier had been found.

Advertisement

“I asked him how the change had come about,” Brooks said. “The manager explained that the hotel’s owners said that anyone who earned that kind of money couldn’t possibly be black.” The answer pleased Brooks’ sardonic view of officialdom in almost any guise.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which Brooks directed and in which Elizabeth Taylor starred, was originally going to be shot in black-and-white. Brooks protested furiously to MGM executives but got nowhere. Mike Todd visited the set one day and Brooks complained to him: “I’m being asked to photograph the most beautiful woman in the world in black-and-white.” Todd went off to make his own complaints. Soon thereafter an MGM man came to Brooks and said, “What’s the idea of shooting the most beautiful woman in the world in black-and-white? The film has to be in color.” “What a good idea,” Brooks said.

The word most often used about him was feisty. He guarded his scripts like atomic secrets and only showed his actors their own pages. He regarded neckties as abominations and felt only slightly less strongly about long sleeves and matching coats and trousers. To the end of his days his haircuts would have pleased a Marine drill sergeant (Brooks had been a Marine in World War II).

He had grown up poor but proud in Philadelphia, his immigrant parents factory workers who took English classes at night and used the Philadelphia Bulletin as their favorite text. They shaped Brooks’ life better than they knew, giving him not so much a love of words as a reverence for words, and the stories and ideas that could be made from them.

Advertisement

When he first came to Hollywood, Brooks wrote five radio playlets a week for a year, at $25 each, a feat of invention that, as he once admitted, included doing three different disguised versions of “Hamlet.”

He liked to recall his frustrations when he was writing at MGM but eager to direct. Louis B. Mayer kept stalling him, saying that his scripts were too good to be entrusted to a first-time director. Eventually, Cary Grant read a Brooks script called “Crisis,” about a brain surgeon kidnaped to operate on a South American dictator. Grant said he would do it but only if Brooks directed, in itself a great kindness to a young writer.

Then, as Brooks was remembering when he was jointly honored by the Writers and Directors guilds two years ago, a camera dolly ran over his foot, crushing it. He wanted to keep on working but Grant insisted he go for treatment. “I said, ‘Cary, the minute I walk off the set, the studio will have another director down here taking over the picture.’ ” Grant said there was an easy solution to that. “I’ll go with you,” he said, and he did. They came back and finished the film, and Brooks’ career as a director was launched.

Brooks was a marvelous movie storyteller. “The Professionals,” for example, is a classic Western as engrossing to watch as it was in 1966, and “Elmer Gantry” continues to feel as fresh as the latest news stories about troubled evangelists.

Advertisement

But more than that, Brooks’ films were always about something: preserving the truths as well as the plots of the literary adaptations, the Tennessee Williams plays, or having a subtext of his own vision. One of his quietest, finest creations, it always seemed to me, was “The Happy Ending,” a prophetic look, nearly a quarter-century ago, at the changing, rising consciousness of women and their determination to have an end to subservience. (The title was both true and ironic.)

In his work, as I’ve written before, there was often a respectful observation of ordinary men in extraordinary situations, finding courage and rough wisdom in the face of betrayal, danger and the unkind fates. He was, perhaps, a heroic realist, a hard-eyed optimist. Like many of the town’s founding moguls, he loved to gamble, and it translated to his work as his eagerness to take creative risks, as “Blackboard Jungle” was a risk in its day. So, commercially, was his insistence on doing “In Cold Blood” in black and white.

Like other directors of his age and generation, Brooks never thought of retirement and, until his health began recently to fail, never abandoned the idea that there was yet another story to be told. He’d been tinkering with a script, but was not sure but that it ought to be a novel first. That would have taken him back to his career beginnings; it was his novel “The Brick Foxhole” that caught Hollywood’s eye and became the film “Crossfire.”

I stopped by to see Richard one morning last week. There were two very kind nurses in residence, using the collective we as nurses and grade school teachers do. We had just had a nice bath and were sitting in an easy chair before we got back into bed. (The language didn’t bother him.)

Advertisement

He was gravely ill and he knew it, but after the years of feistiness and battle, he was calm and at peace. The storyteller, it became clear to me, was moving in memory through some of the old times, other places; seeing, as he said, some of the faces of the old gang, now dispersed into history.

“I mean to live a while longer,” Richard Brooks said. But it was only a little while, and he went into history, unique and irreplaceable.


Advertisement