There’s Something About ‘Sammy.’
What have you done? Samuel Goldwyn, his face flushed with rage, had just ordered the young screenwriter into his office. What have you done? For a brief, naive moment, Budd Schulberg shrugged it off. Sure, most of the folks in Hollywood couldn’t stand the gruff producer: Goldwyn was outrageous, tantrums were de rigueur. But Schulberg liked him just fine. At least Goldwyn seemed happy with his work. In fact, he’d sent Schulberg to Ensenada the month before to take a load off and tinker with the sequel to “Stagecoach.”
But on this afternoon, Goldwyn was hot--much hotter than Schulberg had ever seen him before. What have you done?
Schulberg’s equilibrium was upset by a creeping sense of terror. What in the world provoked the old man?
“I’m talking about that horrible book you wrote!” Goldwyn shouted. The book. That scathing Hollywood diatribe about the fictional Samuel Glickstein, a Jewish ragamuffin from New York who Americanizes his name and claws his way up to studio mogul. That savage saga that Schulberg wrote on the side while under contract to Goldwyn--no longer a studio head but still a producing force to be reckoned with. That just-published novel titled--uh oh--"What Makes Sammy Run?”
Schulberg thought fast. Goldwyn couldn’t have read the book--that’s what underlings are paid to do--so someone must have told him, wrongly, that “Sammy” was based solely on Samuel Goldwyn, the former Samuel Goldfish. Schulberg launched a weak defense: “Sammy” was a mere composite, “Sammy” was a work of fiction, “Sammy” wasn’t Samuel. Goldwyn, his face now purple with anger, was unimpressed. The screenwriter was quickly unemployed.
Schulberg, 27 and fired, skulked off the Warner Hollywood lot that afternoon in 1941 and headed to Chasen’s for a scotch and soda. Though he downed a few drinks, he still could see through the alcohol haze. Patrons showed him the backs of their heads.
The Goldfishes who’d reinvented themselves as the Goldwyns still reigned over the studios. The transformation of Samuel Glickstein to Sammy Glick--from overeager copy boy to none-too-bright newspaper columnist, plagiarizing screenwriter, conniving producer and inevitably, thanks to a well-plotted marriage to the boss’s daughter, studio head--wasn’t taken metaphorically. A short time after the Goldwyn episode, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper bumped into Schulberg at Lucy’s, the Paramount hangout, and stormed out with a “Humph!” Lifelong friends stopped talking to him. Then--as now--there’s no sound more deafening than silence in Hollywood.
B.P. Schulberg, Budd’s producer-father, had urged his son not to publish “Sammy.” He admired the book, thought it was good stuff, professional, solidly written. But he worried that it would hurt his own career--and Budd’s. This particular book, the elder Schulberg insisted, would be too scandalous. Bury that manuscript in a desk drawer, Buddy. Take a shot at another first novel.
“It might have been good practical advice,” the 84-year-old son muses today, as he finds himself still struggling to turn “What Makes Sammy Run?”, arguably the best novel ever written about the film industry, into a feature film.
From “Sunset Boulevard” to “Wag the Dog,” Hollywood has held a cracked mirror up to itself with critical and financial success. Other books that skewered the studio system--F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon,” Michael Tolkin’s “The Player"--have been made into films by the likes of Elia Kazan and Robert Altman. Even Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” possibly the most disturbing of the lot, made it to the screen, directed by John “Midnight Cowboy” Schlesinger.
So what’s the hold-up on this one? It can’t be a taste issue. This is the industry that can make art of splattered brain matter, sinking ships and severed horse heads, the same industry that gets sentimental over ‘70s porn. And yet Hollywood has still found little Sammy Glick from the Lower East Side too vile to stomach.
Fifty-seven years after its publication, “Sammy” may finally emerge from turnaround.
“I get up in the morning and look out at those palm trees and the other big houses and I say to myself, Sammy, how did it all happen?”
--"What Makes Sammy Run?”
For the first time in four decades, Budd Schulberg’s got a bestseller. Its name is “What Makes Sammy Run?”, a title that suddenly re-materialized last month for one week on The Los Angeles Times’ bestseller list. How does this happen to a book written before Pearl Harbor? By the same strange mechanisms that jettison a sorter from the William Morris mail room into the studio’s stratosphere: Sammy’s got buzz.
The source of that buzz is “Sammy’s” new champion: a 32-year-old director, writer and actor named Ben Stiller who’s not too unlike Budd Schulberg at the time he wrote “Sammy"--young, ironic and Jewish, parents in the business, the product of a New York-Hollywood education. Stiller’s completed a third draft of the “What Makes Sammy Run?” screenplay. He’s been hammering it out for two years (“Sammy” has been in and out of development at Warner Bros. since 1987). Stiller, co-star of the summer hit “There’s Something About Mary,” has his own buzz right now, and in Hollywood, where any success is a lubricant, Stiller’s is giving “Sammy” the extra nudge. “I want to see this film made while Budd’s still around,” Stiller says. “As a filmmaker, you hear stories about guys who stuck with something, and for Budd, it has been 50 years.”
Schulberg has at least one thing to show for those 50 years: Though he never became a mogul, he radiates a mogul’s aura. It’s not this year’s model; there is no studied casual baseball cap or omnipresent bottled water. Nor is Schulberg steeped in the coarse mannerisms of a Samuel Goldwyn. But, lounging on the brick patio of his Quogue, Long Island, home, dressed in powder blue Hush Puppies and his trademark Mexican Guayavera shirt, sipping a Dos Equis beer and swatting mosquitoes, Schulberg exudes the studio system. (He’d hate hearing that, since it’s a system that broke down his father and shut Budd out for decades, but we’ll get to that later.) It’s his physical presence--the barrel chest and at once piercing, at once searching pale blue eyes, the bright white hair and nose as wide as a fist, the hand grip to the listener’s shoulder to punctuate an important point--that gives off a confidence his father must have possessed. You can put him in a lobster bib at a Westhampton seafood bar and he still looks like he might have once run MGM.
Like the moguls, he exudes a vitality unusual for his age. Maybe it’s the morning swims with his golden retriever. Maybe it’s keeping up with his two teenagers, or engaging in lively debates on the phone with his younger sister Sonya, who lives in Westchester County, or socializing with writer-friends in the Hamptons--the Kurt Vonneguts and Betty Friedans. “Budd,” says Betsy, wife No. 4, “has more energy than all of us.”
He’s warm, a bit flirtatious, somewhat of a social animal. All this despite a bad stammer that has hounded him since he was 4. He’s wary of tape recorders; the pauses--part of his careful speech--might seem like a loss for words. Usually he lets his elegant prose (“Sammy,” “The Disenchanted,” “The Harder They Fall,” and the screenplays to “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd”) speak for itself. Undiminished is the Schulberg charm that swept him into four marriages: two when he was young that produced three children; a third, beloved union with actress and photographer Geraldine Brooks, who died of cancer and is buried on the grounds of the understated clapboard home he now shares with Betsy and their teens, Benn and Jessie. (He remains close to his older children, Victoria, who lives on a farm in Idaho; David, a sculptor in San Diego; and Steven, who recently moved to Westhampton.)
Schulberg was born at 120th Street in Harlem, but he grew up in a sprawling Hancock Park house presided over by his father, B.P. and his mother, Ad, one of Hollywood’s first agents. As a child, Budd spent Sundays with the Louis B. Mayers, was pecked on the cheek by Mary Pickford, romped over the chariots and around the racetrack on the “Ben-Hur” set--the silent version. Truly a native son.
The young Budd witnessed his father’s affairs with starlets and subsequent downward career spiral amid a sea of sharks. “I saw all these Sammys circling around my father,” he says. “In that sense, I started thinking about this when I was a kid. It was impossible not to.” What Budd saw happening to his father and what he overheard at cocktail parties only spawned more ideas of Sammy: “It was very common for writers to say, ‘Jeez, I can’t believe what happened. The little son of a bitch, I told him this idea, and I swear to God the next day he went in there and sold it.’ ”
In 1941, books about Hollywood didn’t sell. “Locust,” written by Schulberg’s pal Nathanael West, came out the year before Sammy and didn’t even make back its $500 advance. But Random House was hot on “Sammy.” Bennett Cerf, the founder and president of that company, championed the novel, told Budd it was great. Think of it, Budd Schulberg, a 27-year-old upstart! Dorothy Parker and John O’Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald told him it was great. Despite his father’s warning, Budd just had to take the chance.
Charges of anti-Semitism plagued “Sammy’s” publication, though Schulberg felt it was “a whole Jewish world that Sammy is exploiting. The people he displaces are Jewish.” But Sammy’s story, composite or not, was the story of the moguls who built Hollywood--Warner, Cohn, Mayer--indifferent, or at times belligerent, to the Judaism they were raised in; shrewd though largely uneducated; ruthless in their ambition; obsessive, angry, profane and hugely successful, yet somehow still dissatisfied. “I don’t think Sammy enjoys life as much as he seems to,” Schulberg says. “He’s a prisoner of his own compulsions.”
And he has yet to be the focus of a major motion picture.
Schulberg has his own theory about why “Sammy” remained forbidden fruit: “I think it took a second or third generation to be forgiven.”
“One hopeful thing about Hollywood is that they are getting away from the Sammy Glicks because it is more and more realized that the story is the most important part of the movie . . . the Glicks are bound to fade.”
--Budd Schulberg in an interview with the New York Times Book Review, 1941
“I don’t know what I was drinking that day.”
--Budd Schulberg, 1998
Schulberg wrote “Sammy” in an age when novelists didn’t envision blockbuster screen rights sold before the ink on the galley is dry. He was just striving to be taken as a “serious” novelist. He never considered “Sammy” as a film--Margaret Mitchell didn’t write “Gone With the Wind” thinking “Wouldn’t this be a great movie?"--until he started to “get nibbles” on adapting it nearly 10 years after its publication. Independent producer types came calling. Sammy was up.
We think we can get Mickey Rooney for Sammy!
But Schulberg didn’t hear from them again. Sammy was down.
A decade after Goldwyn called him on the carpet, Schulberg remained at a great distance from the studio machine. He had spent the years after “Sammy” in the Navy, in charge of photographic evidence for the Nuremberg trials. He then settled in a Pennsylvania farmhouse to write novels during his Hollywood exile. By 1949, his father, B.P., who brought in half a million a year during the Depression as Paramount’s production head, was still in Hollywood. Only now, he took full-page “Job Wanted” ads in the trades. Why the hell would Budd Schulberg want to come back--if he could come back--to face Hollywood? He hated the place.
That fear and disgust hindered a “Sammy” adaptation deal that MGM pursued in 1950. It was around the time that Schulberg ticked off many of his colleagues--some of them permanently--when he voluntarily testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Hollywood’s ties to the Communist Party. He’d renounced communism in the late ‘30s; the party had given “Sammy” a hard time, calling it not representative of the progressive forces in Hollywood. “I felt I had no choice, I couldn’t take the fifth, I had written and spoken about it,” Schulberg says. Though he’s always been quick to say he didn’t reveal any names that hadn’t been revealed before, he was branded a traitor, a coward. Of those who continue to hold a grudge, he says, “For some, it was a position that became frozen in that moment, that became their reason for living, to avenge that, and nothing happened after that to change it. I think it closed their minds to anything else, including the evils of Stalinism, which equaled those of Hitler.”
Ring Lardner Jr., the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Woman of the Year,” knew Schulberg well, had proofread a copy of “Sammy” for him (“Budd’s a bad speller”), had even reworked the ending of “A Star is Born” with Schulberg when both young men were script doctors for David O. Selznick. “I felt Budd did it because he was afraid of getting blacklisted, which he shouldn’t have been,” Lardner, the last surviving member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten who did not cooperate with the committee, recalls of Schulberg’s testifying. “By that time he had a couple of books, he didn’t need Hollywood.” Lardner couldn’t write under his own name for 15 years; he and Schulberg have run into each other since the hearings but were never close again.
Nonetheless, Schulberg’s anti-communist stance might have softened the staunchly conservative studio heads, because Louis B. Mayer’s former empire suddenly launched an offensive to adapt “Sammy.” It surprised Schulberg. He didn’t trust MGM, how they’d do it, how true they’d be to the book. MGM, anxious to release a “Hollywood” film, instead produced “The Bad and the Beautiful” in 1951. It won four Oscars. “I always felt it was kind of a rip-off,” Schulberg says. “An effective film, but I felt [MGM] definitely got together and said, ‘Well, screw him if he doesn’t want to do it, we’ll do our own Sammy.’ ”
In 1953, after spending a year on the Jersey docks, Schulberg delivered the script for “On the Waterfront.” The studios weren’t exactly aching to do the project. Before “Waterfront” sold to independent producer Sam Spiegel, it was rejected by Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, Columbia (twice) and Fox, where production chief Darryl Zanuck informed Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, “I’m afraid, boys, all you’ve got here is a lot of sweaty longshoremen.” The film ranked No. 8 on the American Film Institute’s recent list of the 100 greatest movies; Schulberg’s “Waterfront” screenwriting Oscar now stands a tarnished dull gold on his mantelpiece.
Television took a gamble on “Sammy” in 1959. Schulberg and his brother Stuart adapted the book into a two-part “NBC Sunday Showcase,” sponsored by Crest and interrupted by an ongoing fluoride toothpaste test of 600 Minnesota boys and girls. From television, it segued, quite bizarrely, to Broadway in a 1964 musical that starred Steve Lawrence and ran 540 performances. Schulberg stayed busy: writing the prophetic screenplay for “A Face in the Crowd” (Spike Lee ran into Schulberg at the fights one night and told him it was his favorite movie), living in Mexico, starting a writer’s workshop, penning an autobiography, “Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince.”
Sammy was down.
In 1987 Schulberg sat in the office of Bill Gerber, then-vice president of theatrical production at Warner Bros., discussing a remake of “A Face in the Crowd.” Gerber stopped Schulberg on his way out the door. “By the way, Budd, who owns Sammy?”
“Well, I do, I guess,” Schulberg responded.
“I’d like to think about that,” he told him. “Maybe it’s time to do it.”
“I’ve known Glicks before,” she said."My first producer out here was a Glick. And so was the agent I just got rid of . . .”
“God rest their souls,” I said.
--"What Makes Sammy Run?”
No sooner had Warner Bros. bought the option than Schulberg completed a screenplay. He was hopeful, with good reason. Sammy was up. At a production meeting in 1990, Sidney Lumet, the director of “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” was interested. We think we can get Tom Cruise for Sammy! But then Lumet was sidetracked by another film. Gene Kirkwood, the producer of “Rocky” and set to produce “Sammy,” thought Lumet should have jumped in and had the film made. Kirkwood was ticked. Sammy was down.
Then Sammy was up. Michael Caton-Jones sent for Schulberg to visit the set of “Doc Hollywood” in 1991. Caton-Jones was interested. We think we can get Michael J. Fox for Sammy! A few months later, Schulberg picked up Variety, saw that Caton-Jones was on another project, and called his agent to find out what was going on. “I usually get an embarrassing answer,” Schulberg admits, “because it’s such a silly question.” Sammy was down.
Then Sammy was up. Ben Stiller had read the novel and loved it, wanted to write it, direct it, maybe star in it. In 1996, he called Schulberg, who was staying in town at the Westwood Marquis. They met. Schulberg liked him, found him smart and appealing. A tease in Liz Smith’s column followed. We think we can get Jim Carrey for Sammy! Then “The Cable Guy,” which Stiller directed, laid an egg and he had to stick to acting for a while. Sammy was down.
Then Sammy was up. With his collaborator, former television writer Jerry Stahl (Stiller is playing Stahl in this month’s “Permanent Midnight”), Stiller wrote a draft of “Sammy” as a period film with flashbacks and narration. “I had to go off and do a draft totally on my own, come back and bring it to Budd,” Stiller says. “It was the only way.” Schulberg read it: “I liked its energy and humor; it had a rather original approach to the material.” He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t disappointed that his own script had been scrapped, but “being versatile helps me an awful lot, instead of just sitting here suffering and saying, ‘Jesus, I’m not doing ‘Sammy,’ I’m going to kill myself.’ I’m so used to it, to the town, even if I’m not there. In some ways, part of me never left it.” On his second draft, Warner gave Stiller positive notes and a working budget. But they cooled, didn’t move fast enough for Schulberg and Stiller. Schulberg, “a little less patient in my waiting than I was before,” wrote Warner Bros. a personal letter asking for the option back, and the studio complied. Sammy was down.
Budd Schulberg, an octogenarian Academy Award-winning screenwriter, began pitching the same first novel that skewered the company town to the company town. “It’s kind of obvious, but it’s hard for these people to actually say, ‘We’re going to commit 20 million dollars to a movie about how screwed up our industry is,’ ” Stiller says. Kirkwood, itchy to get Sammy off the ground, said last spring that he was considering going “to the guy who owns Nate-N-Al’s--anybody!” to finance it.
Then Sammy was up. Bill Gerber, now an independent producer on the Warner lot, heard this summer that Schulberg and Stiller were talking to Paramount about backing and, like running into an ex-wife with a new boyfriend and deciding she looked too happy, asked for Sammy back. Since Gerber wasn’t working within the confines of the studio, Schulberg thought they’d have a better chance and said OK. “We haven’t closed it with him, but are at the nuts and bolts phase of going over a new budget,” Schulberg says. “We’re very close to a done deal.” Though Gerber’s working out financing (Stiller’s being hot right now will “definitely help” secure it, he says), Stiller and Schulberg aren’t going on to a fourth draft until the T’s are crossed on said deal. So the Sammy project remains, however tentatively, in turnaround.
And who knows if it’s a place he’ll stay. Will the book ever be made into a movie, or does a residual reverence for the Mayers and the Goldwyns persist, a spirit of sanctimony that reigns each year not only at the Academy Awards, but at the countless opportunities the film business has created to bestow ever more honors upon itself? The public might perceive Hollywood as a place where shrewdness eternally wins out against intelligence and talent, but Sammy’s studio mogul descendants, awash in million-dollar bonuses and stock options and Gulfstreams, might take umbrage at the savaging of their merit system. Meteoric ascents the likes of Sammy’s still happen. David Geffen and Michael Ovitz started out as mailboys. Does Sammy Glick, 57 years after his birth, still hit close to home?
Andrew Sarris, critic and Columbia University film professor, says the Hollywood Sammy Glick inhabits “is a world of big studios, and that world doesn’t exist in that form anymore. There’s still a lot of stupidity around, it’s just not as well synchronized.” Todd Boyd, professor at the USC School of Cinema-Television, thinks, if anything, that Sammy’s world might be outdated. “Hollywood is much more interested in the present as opposed to the past. What may be considered scathingly critical in one era may seem laughable in another.”
“It’s so big now,” Schulberg says. “Whether it’s Sony or Murdoch, no one quite knows who’s running it. At least we knew Harry Cohn ran Columbia.” Will Hollywood ever be less fearful about offending its centers of power? Please, Schulberg says, a greater fear probably exists today because “it is so mysterious as to where this power is.”
“Maybe people in Hollywood don’t like seeing themselves,” says Richard Gladstein, executive producer of such indie hits as “Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction.” “There is obviously a fascination with Hollywood and making movies. With ‘Entertainment Weekly’ and ‘Premiere,’ the public clearly has an appetite for what goes on behind the scenes.” At the same time, he says, as producer of the upcoming “Hurlyburly,” starring Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey and set in Hollywood: “It was a difficult film to finance, and it only cost $10 million. ‘Oh, they work in the film business?’ That doesn’t seem to be a positive thing.”
“Look at all the cameos in ‘The Player,’ everybody wanted to be a part of that movie,” says Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “These are people who have some sense of social conscience, some sense of liberal values, who are also aware of the shortcomings of the industry they work in. They want an opportunity to exorcise the guilt.”
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, says that anyone who believes moviegoers aren’t interested in Hollywood “has been living in a cave. Other movies were scathing about Hollywood. This movie is not breaking virginal ground here.” So Sammy’s disagreeable, he says, “so was Gordon Gecko, so was Charles Foster Kane. Sammy Glick is no worse than any of them. He’s a metaphor for someone who pursues ambition with a malignant fidelity.”
“This story is not about the film business, but about people and human nature,” Bill Gerber says. “I think Sammy is very sympathetic.” Has he ever known any Sammys? “Yeah,” he says. “Real well.”
Budd Schulberg approaches the town with a paranoid reluctance, still surrounded by sharks. “Anyone who knows Hollywood knows Sammy is not just a dinosaur of the ‘30s and ‘40s,” the author says. “Sammy’s children and grandchildren are walking the streets.”
“I saw Sammy Glick on a battlefield where every soldier was his own cause, his own army and his own flag, and I realized that I had singled him out not because he had been born into the world any more selfish, ruthless and cruel than anybody else, even though he had become all three, but because in the midst of a war that was selfish, ruthless and cruel Sammy was proving himself the fittest, the fiercest and the fastest.”
--"What Makes Sammy Run?”
When schulberg speaks of Sammy Glick, he speaks of two Sammy Glicks:
There is Sammy the character, the creature to his Victor Frankenstein. He’s the Sammy who keeps outrunning him, who haunts his life “like a bad brother.” He’s the Sammy who’s the subject of, on average, 20 letters a month in Schulberg’s mailbox. “They say, ‘I just read “What Makes Sammy Run?”, and I’ve read your other books and think it’s the best book you’ve ever written.’ It gives me pause. Jesus Christ, did I really peak at 26?”
Then there is Sammy the film, the project he remains “guardedly hopeful” about, the one he grows less and less patient with as he grows less and less young. It’s the Sammy that can almost make a Sammy out of him, prodding the studios to move faster with the deal. It’s the project he refers to when he says that on his last day on earth, he will leave some work unfinished.
The writer sinks into a couch too small for his large frame. With a legal pad and pencil, he likes to let the words flow, to let them go, not to come back and look at them until time has passed. Lately, though, when he’s in his office working on pieces for a boxing magazine or answering correspondence, Budd Schulberg will become distracted. The Hollywood prince is still haunted by the question he first posed nearly six decades ago, as a much, much younger man with far less experience, lacking what critics call “perspective.” What is it that still makes Sammy run so damn fast and so damn well? Is he chasing Sammy or is Sammy chasing him? And who’s going to hit the finish line first?
“Hollywood is an ideal playing field for people who know how to operate. That might, in some cases, be their only talent, but it can be major and take them all the way to the top. That has not changed. That is why, I think, Sammy is still working, still running.” Budd Schulberg recognizes the pun, and cracks an apologetic smile. “Forgive me.”