Budd Schulberg’s most famous work was the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Its signature line, spoken by Marlon Brando—“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am”—captured the author’s favorite theme of ordinary people struggling against impersonal forces beyond their control.
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Schulberg “was a true child of Hollywood’s elite,” said the Los Angeles Times. His father, B.P. Schulberg, was head of production at Paramount Pictures; as young Budd grew up, it wasn’t unusual “for Gary Cooper to take time out on the set to chat with him or for Cary Grant to drive up in his Model A roadster to present him with a new dog.” After graduating from Dartmouth, he made his own way in Tinseltown, as a writer of short stories and scripts. In 1941, drawing on his industry experiences, Schulberg published What Makes Sammy Run?, “a vivid portrait of a brash and amoral young hustler who connives his way from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood producer.” It infuriated the entertainment establishment, which hated Schulberg’s negative portrayal of the trade. Producer Samuel Goldwyn, his boss at the time, fired Schulberg; at one point, “the 6-foot-4 John Wayne managed to get the much shorter Schulberg into a headlock” in revenge.
With his “scrappy and streetwise” prose, Schulberg moved easily among print, TV, stage, and film, said the Associated Press. His more celebrated works included the 1947 boxing novel The Harder They Fall and the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. But his pinnacle was On the Waterfront, which won eight Oscars and represented both an artistic and a personal triumph. In 1951, as a former member of the Communist Party, Schulberg reluctantly named names of fellow communists in the film industry before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The struggle of Brando’s character, dockworker Terry Malloy, to summon the courage needed to testify against the waterfront Mob mirrored Schulberg’s own dilemma over turning against former comrades. “Once they supported the party against me,” he said, “they were really no longer my friends.”
Schulberg is survived by his fourth wife and four children.
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