Screenwriter Walter Bernstein Recalls How He Ended Up On the Hollywood Blacklist
Fellows Jyson McLean and Ian Hendrie talk with Walter Bernstein at the Screenwriters Lab. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.
Ilyse McKimmie, Labs Director, Feature Film Program
Wednesday, July 10th, 2013
At the conclusion of last month’s Sundance Institute June Screenwriters Lab, participants attended a screening of “The Front,” written by Walter Bernstein, which offers a comedic look at the Hollywood Blacklist in the ‘50s starring Woody Allen as a “front” for blacklisted writers. Bernstein, himself a victim of the blacklist, was present for the screening and was joined by fellow screenwriter Dough McGrath for a Q&A following the film. Below is an excerpted portion of the discussion.
Doug McGrath: So, first of all – heaven [applause]. It was just wonderful. Now, I was interested in what you said at the beginning. You and Marty Ritt (Norma Rae, The Great White Hope) had both been – had you known each other for a long time?
Walter Bernstein: Yes, we were friends.
DM: Did you know each other when you were blacklisted?
DM: Were you friendly during the blacklist? Did you stay in touch during all that?
WB: Yeah, we were both living in New York at the time. Marty was teaching when he could. And in the period before I got any work at all, I was living with him for a while, and he was supporting me and his wife and himself by gambling. He was a very, very good gambler. And between horses and ballgames and poker, we lived. So we were good friends.
DM: And tell us about your experience of having been blacklisted, first. How did that happen?
WB: The first indication I had, I had started working in television, live television. It was just beginning, really. And I had done some work on a half-hour show, Charlie Wild Private Detective. The whole show cost $5,000, of which the owner took $1,500 and spread the rest around. Anyway, my agent called me and asked would I do a script for an advertising agency—at that time the ad agencies produced a lot of the shows. So I wrote the script, I forget what it was, he came to pick it up and bring it to the advertising agency, and he said “Put another name on it.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know. I‘ve heard things around. You’re on some kind of list or something, I don’t know what it is. But no use looking for trouble—p ut another name on it.” So I thought up some name and put it on, and sent it in and got paid, and I forgot about it.
And I got a call back from him saying the producer wants to see you. And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, he wants to see the writer, he wants some changes.” And I said, “I can’t go up as this other guy. People know me as me up there.” I had known some people there. He said, “Well, he wants to see the writer. He’s got a right, he paid for it, he wants to see the writer.” I said, “Forget it, I can’t go.” And he got very angry. And I forgot about it. Then he called back and said, “I fixed it!” And I said, “Well, how’d you fix it?” And he said, “Well, I fired this other writer who was on it, and I hired another writer to do the changes.” I said, “Great, who’d you get?” He said, “You!” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I got Walter Bernstein to come up and do the changes.” And I said, “Why couldn’t you do that in the first place?” and he said, “Never mind that, just go up.”
So I went up and I met the producer, and I had to listen while he told me what a shit the other writer was, and he gave me the notes, and I did the changes, and he was very happy with it. And he said, “He should have gotten you in the first place because you’re a much better writer than the other guy.” And that was my first indication that there might have been something wrong.
And then the final thing—not the final thing but the definitive thing—I was writing a show at CBS called Danger. Sidney Lumet was directing, Yul Brynner had started directing it, and he had left to do this – he had left reluctantly to do this musical that he thought wasn’t going to last very long and he would be back. Sidney, who had been his assistant, took his place. And the producer was an ex-actor, very nice guy named Charlie Russell. And I came in, I wrote several shows, happily, with them, and he came in one day and said, “I can’t hire you anymore.” And I said “Why not?” and he said, “You’re on a list of some kind. I’m not supposed to tell you that. I’m supposed to say we’ve changed the direction of the show or some kind of story.” And he said, “But put another name on it.” You know, and that’s how it started. I put another name on it and that went along for a while, and then the networks, you know, decided that writers (who were an untrustworthy lot anyway) were probably doing this kind of thing, and so the requirement was there had to be somebody who could come up that they could see, really. And that started the whole business of getting fronts. But I was blacklisted and I couldn’t work. And that’s really how it started.
DM: And did you use a front?
WB: I used a number – in 10 years, 10 or 12 years, I used a number of fronts. They had to have certain requirements. They had to be somebody who could make some sense in a meeting with a producer, and people did it, fronted for you for various reasons. Some people did it for money, they wanted a piece of what you got. Some people did it because they wanted to be in the business, they wanted the credits that they would have. Some people wouldn’t take any money, they did it because they thought [the blacklist] was bad. But it was also a question of ego that happened, often. There was one man who fronted for me, very nice man, and he came in one day and said, “I can’t do it anymore.” He said his agent and parents were after him for money, all the time, and he wouldn’t take any money from me. And his friends were saying, “Why are you still living in this crummy thing, when you’re making all this money?” So it was tough to keep a front for any length of time.
DM: Sure. And when you’re in that position, what do you feel toward your front? Do you feel resentment, gratitude, relief? I can’t quite imagine it.
WB: It depended, really. Basically, gratitude. I mean, if somebody was, you know, basically also sticking their neck out. It was known what they were doing, if they had any kind of aspirations or something. There was one time when someone fronted for me, and on the basis of that got a contract in Hollywood to do something, and left. And I was in a rage. How could they do that to me? But it was, you know, it was gratitude, and uncertainty. You were dependent on them. And so it was a whole bunch of different things.
DM: When you started, were you married at that point? Did you have your family?
WB: No, but I was paying alimony.
WB: I was divorced.
DM: Uh huh. So when it came time to do The Front, I thought it was so interesting that you said you started it originally thinking it would be a drama.
WB: Yes. That’s what Marty and I wanted to do.
DM: And were you hoping, I forget in your story, did [David] Begelman commission you to write the script or you had written the script?
WB: No, I hadn’t written the script at all. He commissioned it. And, you know, he liked the – he was interested in anything perverse.
DM: Yes, well, that’s kind of proven.
WB: It was the undoing of him, finally. No, he commissioned the script.
DM: And when you moved from the idea of a drama to a comedy, what happened? Had you and Marty talked it out in great detail before you went to [Begelman] to try and sell it? And then when you decided to make it a comedy, did you end up losing things from it, or just treating it in a different way?
WB: Well, you know, if we had done it straight, the way we wanted to do it, we really would have gone into the question of the blacklist. Why somebody was blacklisted, and what the blacklist meant. I mean, I was not blacklisted by mistake, for example. The things I was accused of I had done – political things on the left. And we would have tried to deal with that, and deal very specifically with questions of civil liberties. We would have done it much more on the nose. But, and Marty felt, originally, that if we did it as a comedy we would lose that. And then as I was writing I was thinking “Well I‘m glad we’re losing it, really.” That I kind of liked the way of doing it the way we did it. And I felt we were able to make the points that we wanted to make. The political points were made, and in a much more audience-friendly way.
DM: OK. Well, also the blacklist itself is so absurd – it’s not comical, because it ruined so many lives. But if you treat it straight on, you miss, in a way, what you found here by coming at it sideways, which is you kind of expose the ridiculousness of it this way.
WB: Well it was often something, you know, quite grotesque about it. And to treat it this way, I finally felt, you know, was…Marty and I both came from a tradition of content. The primacy of content, basically. We always would say, “What’s it saying? What is this about?” And we were anxious that the way we wanted to present it represented what we wanted to say, basically. And I felt that it did. I didn’t think it lost anything. It either was going to be a good movie or not.
Lead photo: Fellows Jyson McLean and Ian Hendrie talk with Walter Bernstein at the Screenwriters Lab. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.