Schulberg had a long career in Hollywood stretching back to the 1930s, but he was most famous as the writer of the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, and the infamous Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?
He was born in New York in 1914, but he grew up in the vibrant Hollywood of the 1920s. His father, B.P. Schulberg was president of Paramount Studios and his mother, Adeline, was a literary agent. In 1934, he travelled to the Soviet Union, and upon his return to the States joined the Communist Party. He would leave the party and become bitter about communism six years later after Party members attempted to influence his writing and demand propaganda be included in his work.
After graduating cum laude from Dartmouth in 1936, he returned to Hollywood and began his career as a screenwriter. He turned in his first major screenplay, Winter Carnival, in 1938, and was dismayed when an unhappy studio insisted he work with another writer to rewrite the script. His dismay turned to joy when he discovered the writer he was going to be working with was F. Scott Fitzgerald.
From his NY Times obit:
“I thought it was just a joke, like saying ‘Leo Tolstoy,’ ” Mr. Schulberg recalled. “And I said, ‘Scott Fitzgerald — isn’t he dead?’ And he said, ‘No, he’s not dead, he’s right in the next room reading your script.’ ”
But Fitzgerald was in the final years of destroying himself with alcoholism, and the enterprise ended after he and Schulberg went on a legendary bender in New Hampshire.
During WWII, he made films for the armed forces, working alongside John Ford. At the war's end, he was assigned to compile evidence for the Nuremberg trials and in the course of his duty, he tracked down and arrested Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker made infamous for her pro-Nazi propaganda films.
In 1941, he published his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? It was a powerful and searing indictment of Hollywood back-stabbing and inside deals. Stung by how accurate and cutting the depiction of the studio system was, Hollywood moguls warned Schulberg that he would never work again. In 1947, his second novel, The Harder They Fall, was released to similar acclaim. It has become the definitive novel about the corrupt side of boxing and is held up as one of the great sports novels of all time. For his third novel The Disenchanted, Schulberg presented a slightly fictionalized account of his short-lived but tumultuous partnership with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1951 Schulberg was called before HUAC during its ruthless investigation of communist influence in the film industry. Identified as a Party member, and still convinced that communism represented a real threat to freedom of speech, Schulberg named names, including screenwriter Ring Lardner and director Herbert Biberman. Both would become famous as members of the Hollywood Ten. Like Elia Kazan, Schulberg's testimony was seen as a massive betrayal by the liberal community, and once again, Schulberg was told he would never work again.
In 1954, he fought back. He wrote the story and screenplay for On the Waterfront, which Kazan directed. It was seen by many as an explanation why both the men named names and a defense of going against the opinion of others to stand up and make a moral choice. The film won eight Oscars, and is now regarded as one of the finest American films ever made. Kazan and Schulberg would re-team in 1957 for a searing and incisive examination of the political power of television, the underrated A Face in the Crowd.
Schulberg never stopped writing or being passionate for social justice. He wrote journalism, wrote for television and released more books. He encouraged African American teens to write by establishing the Douglass House Watts Writers Workshop, and he also founded the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in New York in 1971. In 2001, he began a collaboration with Spike Lee to make a film about the life of boxing great Joe Louis. As of yet, there is no film, but one hopes Mr. Lee does make the film. It would be a fitting final work by a man who never stopped fighting for what he thought was right.