Study Guide

On the Waterfront Screenwriter

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Budd Schulberg

Needs More Communists?

Recycling isn't just for plastic and aluminum, but for movie ideas too. Originally, the famous playwright Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible) wrote a script about waterfront corruption, entitled The Hook. Elia Kazan was planning on directing it.

But the head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, shot it down, since his cronies told him that the movie should be focused on fighting Communism. Later, Miller didn't want to work with Kazan anymore, because Kazan had testified against former Communist Party members in front of Congress, naming names. (Source)

So, the project was left without a screenwriter. Fortunately, Budd Schulberg had also named the names of Hollywood Communists to Congress. So he had no problem working with Kazan, since they were in the same boat. It was a match made in heaven (or technically, a match made in the House Un-American Activities Committee).

Schulberg was a Hollywood screenwriter who'd already published an acidic novel about the movie biz, What Makes Sammy Run? Luckily, between that and the anti-Communist thing, he didn't burn too many bridges.

One of Budd Schulberg's early screenwriting experiences was hanging out with an extremely drunk F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby) as they visited Dartmouth College's Winter Carnival, researching material for a movie. Fitzgerald got so drunk that, when the movie's producers showed up at Dartmouth, they fired him. (Source)

Sam Spiegel's Brush with the Grim Reaper

When it came time to write On the Waterfront, Schulberg didn't base it on Miller's script. He was inspired by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by a journalist named Malcolm Johnson, who wrote about corruption in the unions that controlled longshoremen on East Coast waterfronts.

Schulberg put the script through numerous changes, often at the behest of Sam Spiegel, the producer. At one point, Schulberg's wife woke up at 3:30 in the morning to find Schulberg shaving. When she asked him what he was doing, he said, "I'm driving to New York… to kill Sam Spiegel." (Source)


In his earlier drafts of the script, Schulberg had actually made Terry Malloy an older, divorced man and a cynical investigative report. It was only after continued revisions that Terry developed into the classic character we know today. (Source)

Fortunately, Schulberg didn't actually kill Sam Spiegel. On the Waterfront went on to net them both Oscars—Schulberg for Best Screenplay, and Spiegel for Best Picture. Afterwards, they took their Oscar statues and had action figure fights with them in order to solve their problems. At least, we hope they did.

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