Interview by Pat McGilligan
He was dead, I was told. Or at least he wouldn't answer my letters (he didn't). He didn't have an up-to-date address listed with the Writers Guild (San Diego?). When I finally trapped him on the telephone, he said he was far too busy to grant an interview. I said I was coming anyway. Would he talk? He said: We'll see.
Philip Yordan is the great mystery man of the post-1930s generation of Hollywood screenwriters. No writer has more protean credits for the last forty-fifty years: from the noirish Dillinger (1945), House of Strangers (1949), Detective Story (1951), The Big Combo (1955), and The Harder They Fall (1956) to the quintessential Westerns Johnny Guitar (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955); from the literary adaptations of God's Little Acre (1958) and Studs Lonigan (1960) to the science fantasy Day of the Triffids (1962); from the historical/biblical King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), to . . . roughly 100 titles in all (credited and uncredited), Yordan estimated. And he is still at work, in his mid-seventies, spawning one or two films a year.
No screenwriter is the subject of more "in" Hollywood hearsay and legend. To believe the half of it, his own life might be filmed as an Amazing Story . Three of the four Yordan "collaborators" I spoke with pursuant to this interview were themselves working fitfully on works of fiction inspired by this true-life character: one a play, another a novel, a third a motion picture. Each of them had a seemingly inexhaustible store of incredible but maybe-not-true anecdotes to relay about a writer who has snake-charmed and mind-boggled everyone he has come in contact with in Hollywood.
His biography, according to the lore, begins in Chicago, where, after a
term as a would-be actor at the Goodman Theatre, he decided to become a lawyer. Only he was too preoccupied with his various mushrooming business enterprises to actually attend classes, so he hired someone else to go through law school under the name of Philip Yordan and to pass the necessary boards. Maybe so, maybe not—this anecdote was repeated by many old friends and associates; Yordan denied it vehemently.
Cut to his first major Broadway triumph, Anna Lucasta, a plot with a distinct resemblance to a certain Eugene O'Neill play, set in Harlem with an all-black cast. (It was filmed twice, once in 1949 directed by Irving Rapper, and again in 1958 directed by Arnold Laven.) Named by critic Burns Mantle as one of the ten best plays of the 1944–45 season, Anna Lucasta has been the object of some speculation among Yordan insiders. One told the tale that Yordan, incapable of writing such a showpiece entirely on his own creative impulse, painstakingly copied Anna Christie structurally and plotwise, adapting it to a Chicago setting with a Polish family background. When that failed to excite producers, according to another version of the same apocrypha, Yordan hired an out-of-work black dramatist to provide a revision with Negro dialect and characterization. Maybe true, maybe not—but a pattern in his career of such, shall we say, innuendo, has not only haunted Yordan but enhanced his mystique as Bigger Than Life.
In 1938 Yordan came to Hollywood to work for director William Dieterle. It was the perfect jungle for expression of his genius at supplying the demand. In short order, he became known among producers as a bravura "spitballer": that is, someone who can talk a good script (and one has only to meet Yordan to appreciate how spellbinding is his vernacular). More of an adaptor, less of an originator, often a final-draft man, he became a much-sought-after script doctor and coarsened dialogue specialist, arriving at the eleventh hour to contribute the famed lightning-quick "Yordan touch."
That was part of what he did, often uncredited. The other half of the time, Yordan was de facto producer of his own films: for the King brothers at Monogram, for longtime partners (producer) Sidney Harmon and (editor/director) Irving Lerner with Security Pictures, for friends Anthony Mann (who directed seven Yordan films) and Nicholas Ray (who directed three), and for producer Samuel Bronston in Spain.
Actually, according to Milton Sperling, a veteran producer-screenwriter, Yordan was more of a "businessman-writer."[*] Said Sperling, who worked with Yordan both as a producer and as a co-writer, "Phil's talent as a writer
collided with his interests as a businessman, always. He used writing as a tool to make money." According to Sperling, it was because Yordan was so frugal, so trapped in business procedures that he would take on more deadlines than he could possibly handle, that Yordan began his practice of employing "surrogates" to write his screenplays in order to multiply his earnings and his prestige.
Previous published reports to the contrary, Yordan's practice of employing "surrogates" did not begin or end in the 1950s with his hiring of the victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Certainly that practice proliferated and was made easier because of the blacklist—and the scripts Yordan "supervised" that were actually written by Hollywood leftists became yet another aspect of his legend, particularly with the French film critics. But in this interview Yordan admitted at least one instance of " surrogate" scriptwriting dating back to the 1940s; so we can be relatively sure there are still more to be revealed.
"Surrogate" scriptwriting is really not so unusual. Ben Hecht, Mr. Prolific, professed to detest screenwriting, and he would sell a film idea based on a two-page treatment written in the grand Hechtian style. If he was too busy or too disinterested to write the script, a stable of junior writers he kept for that purpose would give form and sense to his spew of words and hold him to deadline; they were always careful to add the Hechtian flourish. But in Yordan's case, he was employing unemployables during an era of political and cultural repression. Brave and exciting, no? No—it was more complicated than that . . .
The best-known of the "surrogates," and one of the first of the blacklistees to join the Yordan payroll, was the poet, documentarist, and screenwriter Ben Maddow (see Ben Maddow interview). Introduced to Yordan through Irving Lerner, who knew Maddow in the 1930s when both were in the forefront of the American documentary movement, Maddow had adapted Intruder in the Dust and The Asphalt Jungle for MGM before finding himself persona non grata at the studios because of left-wing affiliations. Out of work under his own name, he was grateful to Yordan for the opportunity to "write underground," and Maddow is credited in various film encyclopedias as having scripted such Yordan-signed films during the 1950s as Johnny Guitar, The Naked Jungle (1954), Men in War (1957), God's Little Acre (1958), and two directed by Lerner, Man Crazy (1953) and Murder by Contract (1958).
Though Yordan admitted to some of this (he even conceded that Maddow wrote the only novel "by Philip Yordan," Man of the West ), he bridled at the question mark of Johnny Guitar and told a long anecdote about the writing of that "bold excursion into camp" (David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film ) that was convincing in its detail. When I first asked Maddow about writing Johnny Guitar, he was adamant that he had written the screen-
play, though he said he never met Nicholas Ray (nor Anthony Mann, for that matter) and he could not remember ever having seen the finished film at a screening. After I mailed him a video copy of the motion picture and he had had a chance to view it, he had to confess he did not recognize any of the script as his own. In short, Maddow himself may be mistaken about Johnny Guitar .
(The missing link may well be the overlooked writer of the novel, Roy Chanslor, a career Hollywood screenwriter whose list of fifty-some crime and Western programmers includes the source basis for Johnny Guitar and Cat Ballou .)
After Maddow, there came Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman, Arnaud D'Usseau, Julian Halevy (a.k.a. Julian Zimet), and probably others—all Hollywood progressives reduced by the atmosphere of the McCarthy era to pseudonyms and/or working abroad.[*] It should be emphasized that the ones I have talked to spoke warmly and protectively of Yordan; they felt they reaped professional rewards as well as his friendship. There were individual fallings-out: Yordan's "oral contracts" left a lot of loopholes, and Ben Maddow, for one, remembered his anger and astonishment at passing through England and discovering a Penguin edition of Man of the West for which he had not been compensated.
But, in general, Yordan lit up the lives of these cultural lepers. They admired him for being physically courageous (he almost went blind at one point and had to submit to dangerous experimental surgery), for being glamorous/repulsive (an inexplicable ladies' man, he was catnip to the Hollywood sex sirens and was forever introducing a new wife), and for being an endless touchstone of outrageous experiences.
There seems to have been very little political camaraderie, if any. Yordan claimed never to have voted, never to have read a newspaper before the 1970s, and to have regarded the Hollywood leftists as pesky insofar as their politics was concerned.
"I can only tell you this," said writer-producer Milton Sperling (not a blacklistee, incidentally). "When I went to Paris and visited him [Yordan] during the Algerian crisis, he lived down the street not far from the prime minister. So his neighborhood was barricaded by a tank in the street and
soldiers carrying guns on the roofs. I said, 'What is a tank doing on the street?' Philip looked out the door and said, 'What tank?' I said, 'Maybe it's because of the Algerian crisis.' He said, 'What Algerian crisis?' "
After the 1950s, Yordan spent fourteen years abroad, developing Samuel Bronston's production slate and receiving $300,000 a script before his cut of profits. The practice of "surrogate writing" was more in the open; his "factory" of writers congregated on the top floor of the Hilton in Madrid.
"Yordan was always eager," recalled Bernard Gordon, "to pick the brains and/or talent of anyone who might be around, never appeared to have much interest in the matter of what credits might accrue to other writers, and turned everyone loose on every project. Sometimes, it seems, as on The Circus Story [produced as Circus World in 1964], the rooms of the Madrid Hilton were filled with writers who were all working simultaneously on a script—sometimes knowingly, sometimes not."[*]
Among these latter "surrogates," the baffling assertion is often encountered that Yordan, owner of an Oscar and credited writer of so many film classics, did and does very little actual writing.
"Philip Yordan has never written more than a sentence in his life," said Ben Maddow flatly. "He's incapable of writing."
"He was primarily a deal maker," said Bernard Gordon, "a very creative one who, once the deal was made, lost all interest in the actual process of filmmaking. Being on the set was an agonizing bore for him and a waste of time. He did take the time to work with writers and offer ideas, good or bad, but I think his strength was that he was an instinctive showman. He never wasted time catering to his own taste in films; rather, he had a sense of what could be promoted, and concentrated his energies on that.
"During the years I worked with him I saw very, very little of his own writing efforts, though he fancied he had an ear for dialogue, and he was always willing to pick up a pen and scribble on a scene. His own speech was salty and witty, so perhaps he could write good dialogue. I just don't recall any instances of his doing that. As to what went on before I started to work with him, I just can't say."
When the Bronston financial empire collapsed, Yordan emerged unscathed, produced some low-budget quickies in Europe, and eventually returned to the United States, where he affiliated with a number of fly-by-night production companies that got mention in the trades but failed to generate much of a splash at the box office, or otherwise.
His business dealings have been shadowy, to put it politely, and old-timers in Hollywood got a chuckle out of a recent (1984) sighting in Variety reporting that Yordan, a defense witness at a murder-conspiracy trial in Florida, was apprehended while trying to flush key documents down a toilet in a Tallahassee court building.
The key documents? His (presumably ghosted) "script for perjury," a three-page written statement repeated virtually verbatim by Yordan on the stand. According to a U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, which involved a dummy film corporation in the Cayman Islands, "one of the documents contained instructions from the defendant in the trial on how Yordan should testify, in the event that another document directly contradicted information that Yordan had previously given Federal agents and prosecutors."
Maybe true, maybe not—Yordan said they were only personal documents that had nothing to do with the trial (and he was not otherwise implicated). But it brought to mind the old Hollywood anecdote about Yordan's Oscar acceptance speech in 1955. Some say he did not have the foresight to have a "surrogate" prepare a script, which is why he said all of two words, "Thank you."
Milton Sperling said that Yordan's habit of employing "surrogates" was already an open secret in Hollywood by the time of Broken Lance because Yordan had made the mistake of shopping too many scripts around town at times when he was under exclusive contract to this or that studio. Yordan was working so fast and furiously that he could not keep the assignments straight. Once, said Sperling, who was producing films at Warners, Yordan dropped off a script on his desk on the same day that he delivered one to Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Sperling received an angry phone call from Zanuck: "I believe you have a script of mine, and I have one of yours!"
Yordan had mixed up the two scripts. "Zanuck charged Yordan like a rhinoceros and said, 'I'm going to blackball you in this business!' " recalled Sperling. "It was a very difficult moment for Yordan because he was exposed in this dubiously legal situation. It was shortly after that that he departed for Spain.
"They were both very good scripts, by the way," added Sperling.
In 1959 Sperling himself fired Yordan when the screenwriter delivered his script for The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). Yordan's secretary materialized a few days later to claim that she had written it. Confronted by Sperling, Yordan admitted this woman had indeed taken down his words, but insisted she had been awarded a proper secretarial bonus. Sperling dismissed Yordan from the project and promptly hired a new writer. (This same secretary, "who was with me for years," according to Yordan—and is variously described by Yordan collaborators as "a Southern gal with something of a hunchback" or "a small dwarflike lady "—seems to have been rather adept
at polishing Yordan's dictation over the years. Strange, no one can remember her name.)
But Sperling is a stalwart Yordan defender, among many: He said that Yordan is a first-rate writer when he chooses to be and that he could have been the best if he had not been seduced by the big money that flows from the profits of motion pictures. Sperling co-wrote several Yordan films, including the latter-day Captain Apache ("a real shlock operation") in 1971, and said he was eyewitness to the fact that Yordan would sit and work at a desk on the screenplay just like any writer. Indeed, Sperling said he himself was more the "walker" and Yordan was more the "sitter."
"What he [Yordan] did generally [in his career] was to have someone else write a first draft; then he would put in his Yordan thing. It was an abrasive, tough, very crisp, very colloquial kind of writing. And it was very good. Don't let anyone tell you he couldn't write. He could write exceedingly well. . . ," said Sperling. "He had a kind of Jungian memory of film, a kind of collective unconscious, a memory bank, that would work for him in any given situation.
"He could have been one of the best writers. He had ability, no question about it. But his greed overcame his creative talent. He was born twenty-five years too late. Had he been in Hollywood in the twenties, rather than the late thirties, he would have ended up running a studio."
In effect, he did. A one-man studio. So many credits, so many tough and bizarre characters in memorable film stories—despite the "surrogates," the common denominator of the movies is the "gutsy" (Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia ) Yordan personality. The best Yordan films are of a piece: bitter-edged and uncompromising. The noble beast in the lawless jungle; the ruthless, chivalric villains and pragmatic, doomed heroes; the loner on some internal quest at odds with external forces; cataclysm and apocalypse, pocket-size and world-scale—these were his motifs, springing out of his life and his imagination.
As for Yordan himself . . . as of this writing he is alive and kicking in San Diego, where he is a co-founder of Visto International, which churns out low-budget videocassette exploitation features primarily for the European market. It might be said that the cheapo bloodbath videos are the modern-day equivalent of Monogram programmers.
One Saturday morning in 1987 Yordan welcomed me into his office-in-a-garage in a suburban tract, where there were stacks of film cans, file cabinets, and office supplies, and an extensive library of reference books, many of the "most unforgettable character I ever met" type. His Oscar statuette was nowhere in evidence. For three hours, interrupted by phone calls and express-mail deliveries, he answered my questions, chewing on a succession of unlit cigars.
In the end, we turned the tape recorder off, chatted amiably about recent
films (he loved Taxi Driver because "it stayed with the killer, and a killer is an interesting person"), and he walked me to my rented car.
He said there was a heckuva lot he had left out of our conversation, like his Hollywood girlfriends: Ava Gardner, Simone Simon ("I lived with her for about a year and a half"), Lili St. Cyr, and, of course, others. The publishers were after him to write a book about his life. Maybe after the article
came out, I would consider working on his autobiography? I could fly to San Diego for a week, stay in a motel at his expense, bring my tape-recorder . . . ? The eyes of Philip Yordan closed in on the potential "surrogate." I was flattered. I said: We'll see.
Philip Yordan (1913–)
* It has been alleged that the blacklisted writer Ben Maddow wrote these screenplays, sold and signed by Yordan. Yordan disputes that in the cases of Johnny Guitar and God's Little Acre .
** The blacklisted writers Arnaud D'Usseau, Bernard Gordon, Ben Barzman, and Julian Halevy all had varying degrees of involvement in the writing of these scripts.
*** These films are listed in the 1979 International Motion Picture Almanac as Yordan productions, but they may have never been released.
All That Money Can Buy [a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster ] (William Dieterle). Uncredited contribution.
Syncopation (William Dieterle). Co-script.
The Unknown, Guest (Kurt Neumann). Story, script.
Johnny Doesnt Live Here Anymore (Joe May). Co-script.
Dillinger (Max Nosseck). Story, script.
Why Girls Leave Home (William Berke). Uncredited contribution.
The Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes). Story suggestion.
The Chase (Arthur Ripley). Script.
Whistle Stop (Léonide Moguy). Script.
Suspense (Frank Tuttle). Story, script.
Bad Men of Tombstone (Kurt Neumann). Co-script.
Tap Roots (George Marshall). Uncredited contribution.
House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Script.
Anna Lucasta (Irving Rapper). Co-script, from his play.
The Black Book [a.k.a. Reign of Terror ] (Anthony Mann). Co-story, co-script.
Edge of Doom (Mark Robson). Script.
Detective Story (William Wyler). Co-script.
Drums in the Deep South (William Cameron Menzies). Co-script.
The Enforcer (Bretaigne Windust). Uncredited contribution.
Mara Maru (Gordon Douglas). Co-story.
Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk). Co-script.
Houdini (George Marshall). Script.
Blowing Wild (Hugo Fregonese). Story, script.
Man Crazy (Irving Lerner). Co-story, co-script, co-producer.*
The Naked Jungle (Byron Haskin). Co-script.*
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray). Script.*
Broken Lance (Edward Dmytryk). Remake of House of Strangers .
Conquest of Space (Byron Haskin). Co-adaptation.
The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann). Co-script.
The Last Frontier (Anthony Mann). Co-script.*
The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis). Story, script.
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray). Uncredited contribution.
Scarlet Coat (John Sturges). Uncredited contribution.
The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson). Script, producer.
Joe MacBeth (Ken Hughes). Script.
The Wild Party (Harry Homer). Uncredited contribution.
Four Boys and a Gun (William Berke). Co-script.
Men in War (Anthony Mann). Script.*
Gun Glory (Roy Rowland). Based on his novel Man of the West .*
No Down Payment (Martin Ritt). Script.
Street of Sinners (William Berke). Script.
The Bravados (Henry King). Script.
God's Little Acre (Anthony Mann). Script.*
Island Women (William Berke). Script.
The Fiend Who Walked the West (Gordon Douglas). Co-script.
Anna Lucasta (Arnold Laven). Script, from his play.
Edge of Fury (Irving Lerner and Robert Gurney, Jr.). Uncredited contribution.
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner). Uncredited contribution.*
The Lost Missile (William Berke). Uncredited contribution.
Day of the Outlaw (Andre De Toth). Script.
The Bramble Bush (Daniel Petrie). Co-script.
City of Fear (Irving Lerner). Uncredited contribution.
Studs Lonigan (Irving Lerner). Script, producer.**
The Time Machine (George Pal). Uncredited contribution.
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Budd Boetticher). Uncredited contribution.
King of Kings (Nicholas Ray). Script.
El Cid (Anthony Mann). Co-script.**
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray). Co-story, co-script.**
The Day of the Triffids (Steve Sekely). Script, executive producer.**
The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann). Co-script.
The Thin Red Line (Andrew Marton). Uncredited contribution, producer.
Battle of the Bulge (Ken Annakin). Co-story, co-script, co-producer.
Crack in the World (Andrew Marton). Uncredited contribution, producer.
Circus World (Henry Hathaway). Co-story suggestion.
Bikini Paradise (Gregg Tallas). Uncredited contribution, producer.
Custer of the West (Robert Siodmak). Uncredited contribution, producer.
The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Irving Lerner). Script, co-producer.
Krakatoa, East of Java (Bernard Kowalski). Uncredited contribution, producer.
Captain Apache (Alexander Singer). Co-script, co-producer.
Badman's River (Eugenio Martin). Co-script.
Horror Express (Eugenio Martin). Uncredited contribution.
The Mad Bomber (Bert I. Gordon). Uncredited contribution.
Psychomania (Don Sharp). Uncredited contribution.
Pancho Villa (Eugenio Martin). Uncredited contribution.
Brigham (director unknown). Script contribution.***
Cataclysm (several directors, including Gregg Tallas). Uncredited contribution.***
Cry, Wilderness (director unknown). Script, producer.
Bloody Wednesday [a.k.a. The Terrorists ] (director unknown). Script contribution, producer.
The Unholy (Camilo Vila). Co-script.
Novels include Man of the West .
Plays include Any Day Now, Anna Lucasta, and The Bride Got Farblondjet .
Academy Awards include Oscar nominations for best original screenplay for Dillinger in 1945 and best screenplay for Detective Story in 1951. Yordan won an Academy Award for best screen story for Broken Lance in 1954.
Writers Guild awards include a nomination for best-written American drama for Detective Story in 1951.
Researching Yordan's screen credits, I encountered enough claims and counterclaims to append this unusual "anti-filmography."
Philip Yordan Anti-Filmography
When Strangers Marry (William Castle). In this early instance of "employing surrogates," Yordan paid Dennis Cooper to write the screenplay; then Yordan rewrote it, Yordan says.
Dillinger (Max Nosseck). Robert Tasker, a Hollywood screenwriter with an armed robbery conviction and a San Quentin prison past (for many years, he was John Bright's writing partner), is said to have contributed substantially to the screenplay which is credited solely to Yordan.
House of Strangers (Joseph L. Mankiewicz). According to Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz by Kenneth L. Geist (pp. 148–149), Yordan was hired by producer Sol C. Siegel to develop the character of a shady lawyer who figures fleetingly in a Jerome Weidman novel, I'll Never Go There Anymore . Yordan was fired after "spitballing" roughly seventy-five pages of a first draft, or two thirds of the script. Mankiewicz's rewrite made a "night and day" difference, as Mankiewicz "scrapped all of Yordan's dialogue and substituted his own." The Screen Writers Guild decreed a shared credit, and Mankiewicz angrily refused to split, so Yordan was awarded a solitary credit.
Man Crazy (Irving Lerner) and The Naked Jungle (Byron Haskin). Blacklisted writer Ben Maddow claimed to have written both of these scripts, signed-and supervised by Yordan.
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray) and Broken Lance (Edward Dmytryk). If one film is the cornerstone of Yordan's reputation, it is the oddball Western Johnny Guitar . Yet who wrote the screenplay is unclear. It is based on an obscure novel by Roy Chanslor, a capable, prolific screenwriter whose credit appears on upwards of fifty films, including Tarzan pictures, Black Angel, and the basis for Cat Ballou . Apparently Chanslor also wrote a screenplay draft. Some film encyclopedic sources credit Ben Maddow as having written the script. Maddow may or may not have written a script draft [see accompanying Yordan interview], but he is less and less certain of it. Yordan, meanwhile, insisted he rewrote Chanslor's script on location in Arizona. For Broken Lance, on the other hand, Yordan admittedly did not write a
single word. He won his Oscar for Best Original Story for material in the story files that had formed the basis for House of Strangers, salvaged, provided a Western context, and refurbished by producer-writer Michael Blankfort.
Men In War (Anthony Mann), No Down Payment (Martin Ritt), and Gun Glory (Roy Rowland). Yordan did not dispute that Maddow wrote Men In War for him, as his surrogate. For No Down Payment, Yordan said he, in effect, employed Life magazine writer John McPartland to write a novel, then derived the script from the novel. To add to the confusion, there is a draft of the script by Dalton Trumbo in the University of Wisconsin film archives. Gun Glory, finally, is based on Yordan's only published novel, Man of the West, from 1955 and copyrighted in the name of Yordan's production company, Security Pictures. Yordan himself admitted that Maddow wrote the novel.
God's Little Acre (Anthony Mann). Ben Maddow said he wrote the screenplay for God's Little Acre, which Yordan denied without adding particulars.
Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth). Director De Toth told Bertrand Tavernier that "a lot of people," including himself working against deadline on the spot, rewrote the screenplay.
Studs Lonigan (Irving Lerner). Blacklisted writer Arnaud D'Usseau wrote much of the script as Yordan's surrogate (Yordan admitted). Another blacklisted writer, Bernard Gordon, came in on the back end for some polish and continuity. As to The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, director Budd Boetticher told Cahiers du Cinéma that it was he who fired Yordan, and then worked on the script during filming.
El Cid (Anthony Mann). Blacklisted writer Ben Barzman (director Joseph Losey's frequent collaborator) was instrumental in the screenplay, which is co-credited to Yordan. Director Anthony Mann told Bertrand Tavernier that "not one line" was written by Yordan. Also, Bernard Gordon said he wrote "almost all of the personal scenes for the two stars [Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston]."
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray) and Day of the Triffids (Steve Sekely). Though Yordan is co-credited with the screenplay for 55 Days at Peking, Bernard Gordon said, "The story and script were written entirely by me. . . . He [Philip Yordan] did no writing at all." Arnaud D'Usseau was aboard (uncredited) for
some spot writing. As to Day of the Triffids, a British film magazine reported: "Howard Keel later said the script was so sparse he had to make up lines for himself so he had something to say. No one seemed to have any confidence in the script or in the film." In any case, Bernard Gordon said he wrote the entire screenplay and Yordan "did no writing at all on the script or the adaptation."
Circus World (Henry Hathaway). Though Yordan is credited with "story suggestion," Bernard Gordon said he wrote the first two or three script drafts, and "the original concept, the story, and some of the script were mine."
Custer of the West (Robert Siodmak). According to Bertrand Tavernier, actor Robert Shaw wrote "half of the script" while on location during the filming.
Let's start with your coming to Hollywood. When and why?
I had a play down at the [Studio Theatre] New School for Social Research in New York—this was in the late '30s—which was seen by a Hollywood director named William Dieterle. I was living in Chicago. He called me from New York and asked me to meet him between trains from New York to California. He said he was doing a picture and he wanted me to come out and write it for him. I asked him what the subject matter was, and he said, "King Zess." That was it.
Now, he was coming in twenty-four hours on the Twentieth Century from New York, so I had twenty-four hours to bone up on "King Zess." I really didn't know who Dieterle was, because I hadn't followed movies that closely. I called up the Goodman Theatre, which I once attended, and nobody there had ever heard of "King Zess." I went to the library and looked up Dieterle and found out he had done, I believe, [pictures about] Zola [The Life of Emile Zola, 1937] and Pasteur [The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936], so I figured it was [going to be] some biblical picture.
Well, Dieterle arrived with his wife. His wife was an aristocrat; she came from a very wealthy wine-growing family in the Rhine. She adored him. Dieterle himself was a German actor/director, a big, hulking, handsome man, very far to the left. He conducted himself very dramatically, reserved, polite. Not at all as I had pictured a Hollywood director.
We had a short discussion between trains and he said I would be his first choice to write "King Zess" because of the fact that I was from Chicago. I had no idea at all [what he was talking about]. (Laughs .) At that time, your attitude towards the great in Hollywood was that you didn't ask questions, you just kept your mouth shut. You were in the presence of royalty, of divinity. These were the chosen people. So you didn't dare ask questions.
Even years later, I remember I was shocked in a meeting with [Darryl] Zanuck and Joe Mankiewicz where Mankiewicz actually asked Zanuck a question.
Getting back to this, after Dieterle had left Chicago, I still couldn't find anything out about "King Zess." When I arrived in Hollywood and Dieterle's chauffeur picked me up, I asked him what Dieterle was working on. He told me Dieterle was making a picture about jazz. The king of jazz! "King Jazz" was what he meant. Chicago, I guess, was the jazz center [of the country] at that time—it had shifted from New Orleans to Chicago.
It was the Depression, late '30s, probably '38. Dieterle set me up in an apartment a block from Hollywood Boulevard. I had my own Murphy bed and kitchen, and outside the window were orange trees and the sky was blue—no smog. Hollywood Boulevard was beautiful. Just delightful.
Anyhow, that was my first job in Hollywood. The film was called Syncopation . It was quite dreadful. It was a picture that somebody else [based on a story by Valentine Davies and co-written by Frank Cavett] had written beforehand, and I tried to fix it up. I knew very little about screenwriting. It was an impossible idea. Dieterle had one of these intellectual concepts that made absolutely no sense of combining the rise of modern architecture and the rise of jazz.
What was your background as a writer prior to your writing plays? Had you gone to the Goodman Theatre as an aspiring playwright?
I had gone to the Goodman Theatre as an actor. I had just passed my bar and was working as a lawyer. I always enjoyed writing; that is, I enjoyed reading, and I always thought I would write, because I wanted to live in a one-room kitchenette and wear a tam and not go to work. I hated a job, I hated work. I hated the idea of having to go down to an office. If I had had to go down to an office, I would have resorted to something far more desperate.
I decided I'd write short stories. I wrote some short stories. I don't remember them—they were all rejected. But when Esquire rejected one, I wrote a personal letter back to the initials of the person who had rejected it and enclosed the story again, asking if he couldn't take a few minutes to give me some help. The person wrote me back a letter and said, "Look, your prose is stilted, but your dialogue is excellent. You have a flair for dialogue. Why don't you try writing plays?"
This was what kicked me off. I had never seen a play in my life. Seen a lot of movies, but never a play. So I went to plays. I think the first play I ever saw was in Chicago, called The Spider [a mystery melodrama by Fulton Oursler and Lowell Brentano]; I didn't learn much from it. I went to the library and I got plays and started to read them. Shakespeare was, well . . . I couldn't grasp it; Shakespeare didn't do anything for me. At that time, the Philip Barry sophisticated sort of comedy and, a little later, the John Van Druten comedies
were popular in New York. They did nothing for me—these superficial people bothered about certain things. I couldn't see the comedy. I couldn't see anything in plays, until I read Eugene O'Neill, whom I had never heard of. Well, I said, this I can write. This is it. This is people. People!
Was your class background upper class, or middle class, or lower class?
I'd say middle class. Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. Not the rough neighborhood.
Where did you get your interest in ordinary people off the streets?
Chicago. That's Chicago. Chicago is full of Poles, and I come from Polish immigrants, so the Poles interested me. Because they're a brutal people—well, you can't make any broad designations—but in Chicago, in my period, they were. Life was very hard, very difficult, especially in the Depression. It didn't affect us because my dad got into the beauty supply business and that was excellent throughout the Depression, because any gift that could raise seventy-five cents would go get her hair set.
[Producer-writer] Robert Blees told me a funny story once about how you started out by marketing some liquid soap back in Chicago .
Oh, I made anything. Made that. I didn't do any research, I used to think up everything myself. I wanted to go to law school, but I also wanted to write and to have free time. So I started a company called Cooperative Buyer Service, a mail-order business with all the beauty supplies that my dad was selling. I would fill orders for cost and charge one dollar for handling. I was getting in three hundred orders a week. I couldn't handle it. So I sold it to a [law school] classmate of mine, a much older man who was a CPA for Colgate Palmolive, and he made the American Beauty Company, a million-dollar company, out of my idea. Which is still a good idea. You sell at cost, you charge for handling. It's terrific for the beauty shop where they can buy one hundred dollars' worth of stuff and there's a 10 percent override.
There's a great Hollywood story that is part of your legend, about you hiring somebody else to go through law school for you. Is that apocryphal?
When you studied at Goodman, were you taking acting seriously? Were you playing leads or character parts?
Oh, I played leads because I was five foot ten and husky, and most of the students at the Goodman were wimps, so I got good roles. In fact, two producers from New York saw one of my plays and offered me a small part in a play on Broadway. But I was, even then, in my last year of law school, and I said this is nonsense, being an actor.
I didn't have the face of a leading man. There were no character [leads] like today. Guys like Richard Dreyfuss couldn't play waiters. They would never get a chance to go before the camera. I still don't enjoy seeing these [kinds of] faces. . . .
You prefer a handsome leading man?
Not the Bob Taylor type, but at least a Steve McQueen, who wasn't good-looking but sort of rugged. Pacino is good, even though [he is not conventionally handsome] . . . and [Dustin] Hoffman happens to be a very fine actor with an unfortunate face.
Let's return to Dieterle. I know you did some uncredited work on his The Devil and Daniel Webster  . But Syncopation is your only credited screenplay for him .
Dieterle had an opportunity to become a giant, but you couldn't talk to him, and he was very narrow. He had a lovely home near Warner Brothers, and I would go to dinner there about three nights a week, and who would be there?—Leon Feuchtwanger, Thomas Mann, the Reinhardts [Gottfried, Wolfgang, and Max]—the older German refugees that came to Hollywood, the great artists. Because Dieterle was successful, they'd come to his house, and I would just sit and listen to these people.
But Dieterle went bust. He was such a fine man, he carried me at $35 a week, which paid my rent and meals, comfortably. My rent was $32.50 a month—no car—who needed a car?
So I ran into a writer by the name of George Beck, who needed a collaborator. He took me into Columbia Pictures as a junior writer. I was getting $250 a week, a fantastic salary, working with George there. And they gave us an assignment. This was in the good old days. The Golden Days. I call them the Shit Days.
Imagine getting this assignment: Sam Bischoff was the producer. Nice fella, but this is a guy who should be running a bookie joint. What's the idea? It's called . . . something like Victory Caravan . Three name-orchestras—like Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw—are on a train with their girl singers and their whole orchestra (this was during the war), and they're going from Los Angeles to New York. . . . Imagine, you have to go back to your office and write a movie about three orchestras and three girl singers on a train. It was enough to make you commit suicide. I don't think anybody today would ask anybody to write that.
How is it that somehow you ended up at Monogram, working with the King brothers?
Well, George Beck comes in one day after lunch and says, "Look, I just had a meeting with the King brothers. They want me to write a script for them, but they can't pay any money." George was then getting about $1,500 a week. So he says, "I told them you're a good writer, why don't you go to see them?"
I went to see Frank and Maurice [King]. Frank was like a 300-pound Chinaman. Always a big cigar in his mouth and his drawer full of Hershey bars, a couple hundred Hershey bars. Always wondering why he was so fat because, he says, "I don't eat." Maurie had been a prize fighter and would always have black coffee, but he was heavy, too.
When I first met them, they wouldn't pay for a script. I came into the office and they were, uh, they weren't gangsters, but they had [investments in] slot machines and they were probably running something [illegal] in town. Nobody questioned it. They had a few bucks, not rich, but they had a few bucks. They asked me to write them a gangster picture.
I wrote them a gangster picture [Dillinger ]; they liked it. Frank was intelligent. I don't think he graduated from grade school, but he was intelligent—he could read, he could understand. He gave it to [studio head Steve] Broidy. Broidy says, "Are you crazy? It's expensive! Well, this picture looks like it's going to cost over $50,000. The one I made before cost $26,000. We have got to protect our investment, so Chester Morris has to play Dillinger." I said, "Chester is fifty years old and he can't play Dillinger."[*] He says, "Well, I'm not going to put up the money unless . . ."
It's only been in the past ten years that you could make pictures without names. For years in Hollywood you couldn't even make a little picture without a name. That's one of the things I didn't like about the so-called Golden Age. The audience was at the mercy of the stars.
There was a kid that came in the office by the name of Larry [Lawrence] Tierney. Boy, he looked like Dillinger, and he was mean, and I wouldn't sell the script until they agreed to put him in it.
So Frank says, "Look, write something simple [next time]." He put me in touch with a fellow by the name of George V. Moscov. George I spent a week with and he taught me production and the fact that you can't make a million moves [in a script]. The next script I wrote was very tight. They decided to make it. I said, "Frank, you make the picture any way you like. But you haven't made any arrangements to buy it." Maurie turns to him and says, in Yiddish, "Give the bum a few dollars." I guess they didn't know if Yordan was Jewish or not. I understood [their Yiddish] explicitly.
I said, "Look, I don't want to sell it." They said, "Listen, we want you to become one of the family." I had already started on another script they liked, so they said, "What do you want?" I said, "I don't want to get paid for the script. I'll write. If you don't make the picture, you don't pay me. If you make it, I want a third of everything. Your producer fee, the writer's fee, the profits, the three of us together." Well, Maurie says, "Meshuggener," which means "He's crazy." And Frank says, "No, look, he writes, he's good and he writes for nothing. If we don't make it, we don't pay. So what the hell's wrong with it?" I said to Frank, "Look, Frank, I don't use an office, I don't use a secretary. I type it myself and I bring it in to you, you read it, you get a free look. I consult with you, I help you with the casting, I work with the director, I work with the production manager. I'm not part of your company. You can go off and make as many pictures as you want. When
you make a picture with me, it's just an extra picture that takes very little effort. All it takes on your part is a nod." I learned that if you presented the thing logically and said, "I'm giving you two thirds for nothing and you can always go ahead and make other pictures," they would buy it. They were very honest. And they always paid me.
We made that picture before Dillinger, called The Unknown Guest . It all took place on one set. It was the first Monogram picture to play the Chinese theater [Grauman's in Hollywood] as a B. But every picture I did for them played the Chinese, which was almost impossible for Monogram.
Did you find it more compatible to work on a shoestring budget out of the limelight?
No, because I was never in the limelight with Dieterle. He didn't see many people. He was a recluse himself except for the German refugees. He lived in a hilltop place and they had no children.
It's working with someone who appreciates what you're doing. [Producer Samuel] Bronston appreciated me like Frank King. Some of the pictures [I wrote] were [budgeted at] $16 million and some were [budgeted at] $60,000, so this wasn't the question.
I worked for Walter Wanger once. Walter was a gentleman. He was brought out to Hollywood because he was the only educated Jew [among the film executives]. He was a Dartmouth graduate and they wanted to bring somebody out here with some class. So they brought Walter. Walter says to me, "I don't want to read this script. Scripts are shit. They're nothing. It's the subject matter, the story, the title, the cast, the costumes, and the set. That's the picture."
Like Cleopatra —names, costumes, sets. Wanger wasn't interested in the rest of it. Didn't believe in scripts. So there was no sense working with Walter. I consider myself a good writer and the reason I enjoyed working on the B pictures is that all there was was the script. You didn't have anything else. I knocked out one after the other, and they all played the Chinese.
Do you know a critic by the name of Agee?
Yeah. I just read a book of his. Just the other day. Here. [Takes a book off the crowded shelf .] Read this paragraph here.
(Reading .) "I want to add to Manny Farber's and Orson Welles's my own respect for the Monogram melodrama, When Strangers Marry . The story has locomotor ataxia at several of its joints and the intensity of the telling slackens off toward the end; but taking it as a whole, I have seldom, for years now, seen one hour so energetically and sensibly used in a film" [James Agee, James Agee on Film, p. 155].
It shows you that there was some appreciation. I also have a book of [François] Truffaut's.[*] I never met Truffaut, even though I lived in Paris off and
on for fourteen years. He wrote a book in which I'm mentioned. He says out of all the Hollywood writers, the true artist is Philip Yordan because everything is there in his scripts. The director has to put it on the screen. But the sets, the characters, the dialogue and the humor—it's already there. And I never met the guy.
Did you feel that gratification at the time, in the 1940s, when you were making the films?
Well, it was always hard to get the money to do the films, and there was always a hassle with the directors and all that, so no, I just felt that I was getting what I was writing over on the screen. When Strangers Marry , by the way, had Bob Mitchum, Kim Hunter, Dean Jagger, and a couple of other names in it, but it was a cheap little picture.
What difference does it make to you, writing on a small level or writing on a big-budget level?
Same thing. I don't write any differently.
Is it harder either way?
No. It's the same thing.
Do you have to put in more narrative description [for the more expensive set-pieces]?
No. I never do that anyway. When I was at Columbia during my early period [in Hollywood], Sidney Buchman had become the [de facto] head of production. [Harry] Cohn had evidently made some flops, and had been temporarily semiretired. Well, Buchman had a meeting with all the writers. He says, "Look, don't put any shots in. I can't read the script with the shots. Do not describe the characters. We're gonna cast it. Just write the script—like you would a play." That's how I write 'em.
Now, if I were writing a Western, I'd just say, "There's a lone rider on the horizon and his name is Tom Early." That's all. I wouldn't describe anything else.
Were there drawbacks to working with the King brothers and for Monogram on such a bargain-basement basis?
No, no. I loved it. I loved it because Frank would pick me up every morning for a delicious breakfast; unfortunately, he came by at 6:30 A.M. , which is a little early for me. And Frank didn't have a night life, but Maurie did. Maurie would take me to nightclubs where we'd have dinner and the broads and stuff. So I had a very good life with them.
Did they have any story sense?
Oh, Frank could tell you, "I like it" or "I don't like it."
And he would be right?
I agreed with him. He very seldom commented. I must tell you that, except under special circumstances, I never rewrite, and my best work was no re-
write at all. Because of the pressures I could usually write an original screenplay faster than I could doctor somebody else's screenplay. Practically everything I did was solo. I never collaborated with a writer. When there's two names on the script, there was not a collaboration. Not that I'm opposed to it. But I work with directors, not writers.
When you write, do you write the way they say [Georges] Simenon does? In a kind of blind passion, without sleep, without eating; just sitting down and writing in a fury, and afterwards feeling totally exhausted, debilitated, and having to sleep for many days?
I need eight hours sleep. I need a full breakfast. I cannot write until I have my breakfast. I stop for a big lunch and I stop for a big dinner. In those days I needed a lot of good Havana cigars. No drinking, no booze—none of that bullshit. No. The writing has always been fluid. I can do practically any script in five days.
But they're always challenging me. Eddie Small called me in once and said there's a picture at Republic called something like Why Girls Leave Home . They had built a set and hired the actors and Yates [Republic studio executive Herbert Yates] had a pickup on it, maybe $200,000 on the picture. This was on a Friday night and they had to shoot on Monday morning. The Bank of America was on the hook for the $200,000 and Yates, who had script approval, had turned down the script.
It wasn't Eddie's picture, but he says, "Look, Wanger and all the independents, we met, and this mustn't happen. All of the banks will suddenly start looking deeper [into our business] and we'll be in trouble [if the picture doesn't start on time]. So I talked to Yates and mentioned you, and he says if you'll write the script, he'll honor the pickup. But he wants to read the script Sunday night."
That time they had to hire me three secretaries. I started Friday night, I dictated the script Saturday, I worked till Saturday afternoon. Then I went to the Turkish bath and got a rub and I snoozed for about an hour and went back to work. They were typing as I dictated Sunday, and we finished about noon. It's about the only time I worked really straight through. And, of course, they made the picture.
How were you able to write without rewriting? To what do you attribute that? Most people revise and polish and revise .
I must tell you, I don't make outlines and I don't think them [scripts] out. Oh, I don't say they're always good, but . . .
I would say that, almost from the very beginning, I've always worked where somebody was in trouble, so there was no chance to think of anything but to get the picture made. To get it made; then everybody's off the hook. To get it made, to get the element, to satisfy the directors and the actors.
Like once when [producer Walter] Wanger called me in on a picture [probably Tap Roots, 1948] where there was trouble with Susan Hayward and Van
Heflin. I wrote a couple of scenes for them. He never paid me. He sent me a box of cigars.
When I wrote Reign of Terror  for him later on—they were shooting the picture at Eagle-Lion—he didn't pay me for that script either. I went down to the studio, and Wanger had disappeared. He was in New York.
I went to the company lawyer and said, "You're shooting the picture, but nobody bought the script." He says, "Are you kidding?" I said, "No. Walter never paid me for the script, and you're shooting it." Well, he called in Krim—who owned Eagle-Lion—and that's where I first met Krim.[*] He says to me, "Jesus, what the hell's the matter with Walter? Phil, you've got to give us a release!" I said, "Of course, I'll give it to you—pay me! What is this, the Salvation Army?" He says, "Phil, we've only got about $15,000 in the company. That's all the cash the company has, except for the money set aside for the shooting. I'll give you $10,000 . . ." I said, "$10,000!?" He says, "That's all I got." I took it. And when he became head of United Artists, he remembered.
The best example of this troubleshooting came later on when MCA was my agent and Lew Wasserman took a personal interest in me. Lew, at the time, was setting up deals for the studios. He'd go into Paramount and he would work out their schedules for the year, for the most part. He would sell them books or originals, he would sell them to writers or to directors; then he would package the actors. That's how MCA became an important agency, because they were really running the studios.
Well, Herbert Yates, at Republic, wanted to do something big. And Joan Crawford had dropped out of Metro, so Lew Wasserman says, "Why don't you make a picture with Joan Crawford? A Western . . ."
A favorite of Lew's was Nick Ray. Lew liked him. Nick was a very difficult man. Nobody understood him. This guy had the hardest life of any person I knew in Hollywood. Totally misunderstood. But Lew sold them Nick Ray and a Western called Johnny Guitar . A stupid book that made no sense at all, with a script by the author of the book.[**] It was terrible.
That would be Roy Chanslor?
Yes, yes. I don't want to demean Roy, but you just couldn't make a picture out of it. It was nonsense. I guess Republic had bought it for Gene Autry or something. Then, when Yates was looking for something for Joan Crawford, Lew remembered Johnny Guitar, and he sold him a package.
I got a call about eleven at night from Lew. That's when Lew was really working, before he took over at Universal and became what he is today. He said, "Phil, I'm in deep trouble. I've got Joan Crawford and Nick Ray and a bunch of our people in Arizona and they've been shooting for a week. And Joan won't go before the camera [anymore] because she says the script stinks." I got it through the grapevine that she had called up from Sedona, Arizona, for a Carey Cadillac [a limousine service] to drive from Beverly Hills to Sedona to pick her up.
Lew says, "If she leaves, Republic will go out of business. They can't take a loss on two million dollars' worth of commitment. They'll save only a couple hundred thousand by not shooting. They'll sue me, MCA will sue Joan—but she doesn't care. We can't let that happen. I want you to go there and satisfy her to go before the camera. There's a car on the way to pick you up. I chartered a plane for you and you're leaving right now."
I said, "Sure."
So the car was there, took me to the airport. I'll never forget the trip. The pilot was flying a broken-down tramp plane. He had never been to Sedona, Arizona, and he didn't know where the hell he was going. He kept looking at a map and asking me to look out the window, and I couldn't see any damn thing. It was just black as your bottom out there. Finally, we go over some place where there's some guy swinging a lantern in a field. We landed in this field and there was another guy there who took me to the location, a beautiful motel and a big ranch house for the cast and crew. There were about seventy-five people living there.
When I saw Nick Ray, I said, "Nick, what is it?" He says, "Well, look"—he was getting $75,000 a picture; he owed money in Vegas, he was a gambler and he was in hock up to his ass—he says, "I need this picture; I can't be abandoned, so do something with her. I can't talk to her anymore. She feels I betrayed her. She read the script before and she needs the money too, but she just doesn't want to go ahead."
So I went to see her. She was expecting me. I had already done Anna Lucasta , so I had some reputation. She says to me, "Phil, it's just a crock. Did you read it?" I said, "I read it." She says, "It's terrible." I said, "Well, listen, Joan, you know the situation. If you go, the company goes down." She says, "Well, I gotta protect my career. I'm not on the way up. And this picture could finish me." I said, "I agree with you." She says, "Can you rewrite it?" I said, "Yeah, though with the shooting and all, I don't have much time. But tell me, what bothers you?" She says, "It's non-sense. I have no part. I just stand around and walk around with boots on and have a few stupid scenes." I said, "Well, what's your idea?" She says, "There's Sterling Hayden in the picture and he's not much and some other actor and he's not much and Ward Bond, one of the actors who John Ford is always using in those pictures with [John] Wayne, and he's not much. So I want to play the man. I want to shoot it out in the end with Mercedes McCambridge, and instead of me playing with myself in a corner, let Sterling play with himself in the corner and I'll do the shoot-out." I said, "Ah, uh, um . . . if I do that, will you do the picture?" She says, "Yeah." I said, "Okay."
I went to see Nick, and this was already three in the morning, and I knew that the Cadillac was going to be there in three hours from Beverly Hills to bring her back. Now, Nick didn't hardly ever say anything. In fact, he would sit with his back to you when you talked to him. Look out a window, even if it's night. And I would say something and wait fifteen minutes, then Nick would turn around and he still wouldn't say anything.
Finally I said, "Nick, look, you need the money. I can use the money. MCA is good to us (because they always found me work). So, why don't you get up in. the morning and when you shave in the morning, say, 'I'll never
work with Joan Crawford again,' and then in eight weeks it'll be over!" I remember Nick waited fifteen minutes and then he says, "Never is a long time."
Well, I went and wrote the script. I think it took me about a week. But Lew says, "You better stay on. You're on payroll for the whole picture, so you better stay on." I just stayed. And do you know the picture became a cult picture?!
In fact, I was working at Warner Brothers when the picture opened at the Paramount Theatre, and one day I was having lunch with Jack Warner and he says, "Yordan, what the hell is this?" This was when Hollywood was in really bad shape in the fifties. He says, "Joan Crawford is finished. And here you do a stupid Western with her called Johnny Guitar, it's the name of a man, and she is the one that shoots it out [with the villain], and that doesn't make any sense. At ten in the morning" —this was like noon on a Thursday and the picture was just opening— "they're standing in line at the Paramount downtown in Los Angeles. Why? Her last couple of pictures have dropped dead. So why?"
I never did understand why. How did the audiences know to go to see this picture? I don't know. Anyhow, that's the story of Johnny Guitar .
I had the same situation years later at Fox. [Producer David] Brown, who was partners with [Richard] Zanuck, was the story editor, and I had a seven-year contract at Fox. But I had a seven-year contract at Columbia too once, and I never lasted more than eight or nine months. The pay [at Fox] was good, they treated me fine, and Zanuck even let me work at home. But it was a harder life, I don't know why. There was something wrong with me that I couldn't stay at a studio.
Anyhow, Brown called me in; it was in the morning on a Thursday. He said they had a Western with Gregory Peck called The Bravados . He handed me the book. He said they had a script [based on the novel by Frank O'Rourke]. I read it and again it was a situation like Johnny Guitar . It wasn't a good script and Peck had turned it down.
Brown says, "You know, Peck in a Western is bread and butter. We need that picture, I can't tell you how desperately, for our banks. We need this picture. So, can you write it?" I said, "I can write it if I don't use the script or the book. I'll have to write you an original from scratch." He says, "I don't care what you write, but I want Peck." I said, "Well, I don't know, I never met Peck, but I can do something with it." He says, "What's the deal?" I said, "Well, if Peck doesn't want to do it, there's no deal. If Peck wants to do it, I'll make a deal with you." He says, "Fine."
Well, I went home and I had a secretary, little Southern girl, and I just dictated this story straight through. Beginning to end. Their top director, Henry King, read it and says, "I'll do this." When King says he'll do it, then Peck says, sure, he'll do it.
The story was very simple. A rancher comes back after a cattle drive to find out that his wife was raped and killed, and he's out to get the guys. The picture opens in a town where there are four guys in jail for holding up the bank and shooting the banker, four outlaws; they are going to be hung the next day. Everybody is armed, on guard, and they don't want anybody interfering with the hanging. In rides Gregory Peck and he comes to see the sheriff and he says, "I want to see the hanging." What kind of creep is this that has ridden two hundred miles to watch a hanging?
Guy likes hangings! Then Gregory Peck asks, "Can I look at the prisoners?" The sheriff says, "What the hell do you want to look at the prisoners for?" But he takes him down to the cells and the prisoners look at him and they don't know who he is either.
In the middle of the night, some other guy arrives, the hangman. Only he isn't really the hangman, he's their outlaw friend, and he springs them. When he springs them, they kill a couple of guards. Now, a posse is going to get them, so Peck says, "I want to join you." He joins them. And by and by, you find out that these are the guys that killed his wife.
The posse chases them to Mexico, only they have to stop at the border. But Peck's not an officer of the law, so he goes over the border and he gets them one by one. The first guy he captures and he hangs him. The second guy he shoots. The third guy, I don't know, he kills in some way. The fourth guy is a Mexican and he tracks him all the way down to his house with his wife and baby, and he's about to kill him when he realizes that these aren't the four guys. They're four outlaws who held up a bank, they deserve to die, but these aren't the guys that raped and killed his wife. He has killed three guys out of blind revenge. So he spares the fourth guy.
I don't think there had ever been a picture like that. It was something I just invented on the typewriter as I went along. So when you have an idea like this, what's to rewrite? It's simplistic, you go along and you wait for the kicker—you find out that he's chasing the wrong guys.
I'll tell you how apropos it was [of Johnny Guitar ]. I had a problem. Peck says, "I'll do the picture but I want a few changes." Brown says, "We're all set but we still don't have Peck. He likes the script, but you've got to sit down with him . . . because he won't sign [a contract] until he talks to you."
Well, this guy comes to see me in my little office at Fox and he says, "You know, I lynch three guys. That's not me. I don't lynch innocent people." I said, "They're not innocent, they're . . ."
Well, he had thirty-three changes [he wanted], all written down, which destroyed the whole script. The basic premise was this character didn't want to kill. I said, "Mr. Peck, the whole strength of this picture is you're killing murderers—but not the murderers that killed your wife. And in the end, you do spare the fourth guy, when he proves to you he couldn't have been there. And, of course, you go back to church, because you're a Catholic, you con-
fess, and you get absolution." Henry King was a Catholic, and he loved the ending.
Anyhow, I must say, that after a couple of hours I whittled down his objections one by one. I prefaced the discussion by saying, "Look, Mr. Peck . . ." He says, "Call me Greg . . ." I said, "Greg, you're the boss. Without you, we're in the shithouse. I need this picture because of the banks." And I told him everything that Brown had told me and that my job was to make him happy. I said, "Anything you say, I'll do. I'll do to the best of my ability. You're the boss, so I want your opinion. I'll give you my opinion, but I don't want to make you feel that you shouldn't do the picture." So he didn't say much, he just listened. When I was all through, I made two small changes, and he did the picture.
The picture didn't work. [Director] King was too old. It didn't come across the way it should have.
You buttered Peck up?
I didn't butter him up! I was honest. The same with Joan [Crawford]. Honest. Direct. Saying, I work for the studio, and I'll do anything you want. Anything you want, I gotta do. That was my approach.
[Producer-writer] Jerry Wald had another approach. He once went to see Joan Fontaine at her house about a film. She ordered tea. He says, "Look, before we sit down and drink the tea, you have read the script and here's the writer . . . Are you or aren't you going to do the picture? Are we gonna talk about how you're going to do the picture, or are we going to talk about how you're not going to do the picture? Because if you are going to talk about how you're not going to do the picture, let's have the tea and cookies and tell some dirty jokes and then we'll go. Why discuss a thing you're not going to do?"
Which sets up a negative framework .
Yeah. That was his approach.
Were you aware, during the time you were writing these films, films like Johnny Guitar and The Bravados, of conceiving conflicted, neurotic characters who were driven by psychology to behave in ways that seemed different from [the behavior of characters in] films of the past? Were you at all influenced by Freud?
No. I just tried to make them interesting. Never thought about psychiatry. Never read Freud.
You worked often with directors Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray. Can you differentiate between them for me?
Oh, night and day. I knew Tony in New York when he was with Selznick, one of a dozen directors testing girls for Gone with the Wind . Tony never graduated from grade school. He was an orphan. He and I were about the same age, but ah, [he was] very poorly bred. He loved the theater. He used to sleep in the theater at night. He was an assistant stage manager and maybe he directed one or two plays, I really don't know.
Then when he came to Hollywood, he called me. I avoided him because I figured, jeez, this is a no-talent guy. You couldn't even have a conversation with him, he was so ignorant. And it turns out we made ten, eleven [actually, only seven that are credited] pictures together.
What was the first picture I ever made with him? Ah, Walter Wanger had a script written by some starved little screenwriter [Aenas MacKenzie] about the French Revolution [Reign of Terror ]. Imagine a low-budget French Revolution picture—that's the one Walter Wanger picks to make. I read the script. It was nothing but speeches, Robespierre and all this, and I said, "Tony, this is such shit, it doesn't make any sense. You have a good cast, but you can't follow the script unless you're a student of the French Revolution." He says, "Look, what can you do with it so I can shoot it?" I said, "You've got Bob Cummings. You've got Richard Basehart, a fine actor. I'll tell you what, let's make it very simple. Let's set it in the French Revolution, but what happens is there's a black book that's got all the names [of the enemies of the revolution] in it and if Robespierre gets hold of that book, all of these people are going to go to the guillotine. Bob Cummings is the good guy. He's got to find that book before Robespierre. So the whole picture is about the black book. In the meantime you've [still] got the French Revolution and all the characters making their speeches, all of that."
He says, "Yeah, it makes sense." Then I began to appreciate Tony. He had a camera eye. I went on location with him once on a Western. He saw things. He understood the camera. He would say, "Phil, I'm not that concerned about the dialogue. Nobody listens, they look, they watch . . ." My forte is dialogue, as you know. But . . .
On the other hand, that means he won't tamper with the dialogue .
He never changed it, he never changed it. I remember once, I wrote Men in War  at 150 pages. When he went through the script, he reduced it to eighty-two pages. He threw out all the dialogue. Of course, I put all of the dialogue back in to get Aldo Ray and Robert Ryan to play it. I said to him, "What am I going to do if you send them this script? They won't show up!"
What was Anthony Mann's understanding and contribution to the script versus Nick Ray's?
Mann understood concept. For instance, we did a picture called The Last Frontier  which didn't make any sense. I had to rewrite it while I was at Columbia. Victor Mature was an Indian scout, and there was a fort with all the blue-coated Union solders and the captain of the fort had a beautiful wife. Vic Mature, this rough mountain man and deer-skinner, he was in love with her. I said, "I'll tell you how we can make sense out of this. This man is a primitive. Her husband is a wimp. The woman doesn't care about her husband and they deserve each other. But the only way Victor Mature can get her, because she's a lady, is if he is as cultured as her husband, a West Point man. And what's culture to him? He wants to wear a blue uniform. His character
doesn't have to change or anything, but he has to wear a uniform. But they don't want him in the army because he's impossible and undisciplined. In the end, he gets the uniform. That's the whole picture—about a guy trying to get a blue uniform."
Tony understood. He says, "Now I got the spine of the picture."
How did that compare with Nick Ray? Was Ray more fussy about the script?
Oh, Nick could give you cancer. Actually, I think he died of cancer. He had the most miserable life of anybody I have ever known. Nobody liked him. Nobody was close to him. Actors respected him, because Nick was an educated man—an architect, I believe—but he never spoke. Finally I said to him one day, "Nick, I didn't bring my X-ray machine with me. Goddamit, talk! Say something, for chrissakes." It was very difficult to get anything out of him, except when he recognized it was right.
I knew Nick Ray from before. I'll digress. I'll tell you how I met Nick. I was at a party and there was an actor there by the name of Frank Lovejoy who liked to drink too much. For some reason, he started to pick a fight with me. I never knew why, but he got very aggressive. And Nick, who was a very big man, defended me. I didn't know him then, but I knew of him. I think [director Elia] Kazan brought him out [to Hollywood].
He had a reputation of being a little difficult, even then. But we became friends and he called me in on one or two of his pictures, not to write, but always to doctor a scene or two, which I always did for him. I never got paid, but it wasn't an evening's work. And I never forgot this kindness, this intervening for me.
For Johnny Guitar, he had an interesting concept. He put Joan Crawford in red all the time, because I had written that the posse comes directly from church, at one point, to lynch her. They are all wearing black suits and white shirts and shiny shoes and black hats and black ties—this is the way I wrote it—and Nick seized on that and he used the color system of the black and white of the town, and her in red, throughout the whole picture. So he took that from the script, though I hadn't written it with that in mind.
Who was the better director for your money?
They're totally different. When Nick was doing Rebel Without a Cause , I was at Warner Brothers working for [producer-writer Milton] Sperling on a Bogart picture [unfilmed, because Bogart was dying], some piece of crap. And I went to see Nick at the Chateau Marmont, where he was staying with the kid, Jimmy Dean, a very insecure kid to whom Nick gave support. I had written a couple of scenes for Rebel in-between [my other work]. I'd written the scene where the father's walking around with an apron and vacuuming the floor and is down on his knees picking up something when the kid comes in and pulls his dad up off his knees, or something—I remem-
ber that. Nick couldn't really tell me what he needed, but he gave me an idea of what he needed.
Tony didn't need that much help. What Tony needed was, like on El Cid, in the scene where [Charlton] Heston and Sophia Loren meet for the first time. I was on the set with him. Heston starts in from one side—it's a big garden scene with a fountain in the middle—and Sophia comes in from the other side. He grabs her and kisses her, and I said, "Jesus Christ, this is a scene from the eleventh century, Tony, you can't do that . . ." He says, "Well, what do I do to get away from the [style of a] Western?" I said, "Have him walk across the garden and hold out his hands. She holds out her hands, and they just touch hands. In those days, they just touched hands." He says, "Okay." He understood right away and he did it.
I must say I am surprised by what you say about Johnny Guitar. In many film reference books, Ben Maddow is credited with writing some of the films you worked on throughout the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar.
Did you know Ben Maddow?
I knew Ben Maddow through Irving Lerner. Ben Maddow was having a hard time making a living. I had one or two jobs for him. I don't recall which ones—they had nothing to do with Johnny Guitar. Johnny Guitar I wrote on the set, there in Sedona.
There was one picture, it could have been Men in War, where I sat down and dictated a thirty-page treatment and gave it to Ben and he wrote the script and then I polished it.
I did the same thing on Studs Lonigan  with a playwright who was working on it. I sat down with him and I really dictated every scene, the dialogue, and he wrote in the description. But Ben never wrote any of these things, really.
Who was the playwright working on Studs Lonigan?
Arnaud D'Usseau. A nice man. In fact, when I went to Spain, Arnie came there and worked on a couple of scripts when I was with Bronston. But Arnaud was essentially a playwright, not a motion picture man. And Ben . . .
Ben has a credit sheet filed at the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences where it lists at least five films that he says were supervised by you but actually written by him .
Johnny Guitar, God's Little Acre . . .
Johnny Guitar? That's a total lie. This I resent, because Johnny Guitar was written on location.
Could it be that he had written the script you were rewriting?
No. The original script was by Roy Chanslor, sure.
How about God's Little Acre?
No. Men in War he worked on . . .
How about your novel, Man of the West?
Yes. I sat him down and dictated the thing, as I did with Arnaud D'Usseau. What I would do is dictate the dialogue, and he [Ben] filled it in, I guess. Ben filled that one in.
I mean, the novel—which I have a copy of, with your credit as author. Ben claims he wrote the novel .
Yes, he worked on the novel too, for me, and the screenplay [of the novel, filmed as Gun Glory in 1957]. But if you read the screenplay, you'll see it fits the hero character that I've always written. I've always written the one character. The hero. A man with a cold, hard, bad past—and I never like to go into the past—with his own set of morals and everything else.
Under what auspices were people like Ben Maddow and Arnaud D' Usseau working with you? Were you functioning more as a producer-writer at this point? Or did you have too much work?
No, I didn't have too much work. But I was making a lot of money, and Sidney Harmon, a producer I knew from New York, was some sort of leftist. Sidney produced Men in War; he produced most of my pictures. Really, I produced them, but I always gave Sidney the credit. Sidney helped me out years ago, so when Sidney came to me and says, "Look, Irving Lerner can't find work," I gave him [Lerner] a job as an editor. Then Sidney says, "Ben Maddow is starving to death, can't you find something for him?" And: "Arnie D'Usseau can't pay his rent . . ."
Ah, I'm not saying that they didn't deliver, but they couldn't write with my speed and they couldn't write in my style. If you've ever seen anything Ben's written, Ben hates the establishment, hates everything, it's all negative. Ben could not write a hero. He could never have written the hero of Man of the West . He could write the heavy, but not the hero. Because he didn't believe in a Gary Cooper.
In the 1950s; it was courageous, wasn't it, giving these blacklisted people work? A lot of the blacklisted people worked under pseudonyms, but you gave them work under your own reputation, and then gave them money. Wasn't that good for them at the time?
I'll tell you, I never read a newspaper until I was fifty. I never looked at television until the 1970s. I never read Time magazine. I never tended to be political, I never voted. So I didn't understand this whole blacklist thing. In fact, because I never went anywhere or attended any meeting, I used to get calls from the Right [wing], asking me to come to meetings. They thought I was on the other side of the fence.
In fact, on my first picture [Syncopation, 1942] with Dieterle, I had [the character of] an architect [who] goes broke during the Depression. I had this scene where he's a bum in the woods and he's sitting around a campfire with
all the other bums who are telling him that he ought to get out of the country, when he gets up and makes a speech for about two pages, saying "America is great, all you gotta do is pull yourself together and get out of this hobo jungle and go back to the city and make your way."
There was an arbitration on screen credits, and John Howard Lawson was an arbitrator. He called me in and did he give it to me! He said this was the most reactionary speech he had ever read. He says, "Do you realize what you are saying . . . ?" I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I said, "It's George Bancroft. Dieterle asked me to write a good scene for George Bancroft. I don't know anything about political. If he's out of a job and a bum in the woods, what's he gonna say? So I wrote him a speech." He says, "It's so horrible, what you wrote. You're setting the country back a hundred years . . ."
No, I gave these people work, because Sidney, in a sense, was my conscience. He says, "Phil, you've got so much money, you've got a play on Broadway, you're making $5,000 a week, and these guys are starving to death. Give them some work, for chrissakes."
Was Ben Maddow valuable to you as a writer?
Wouldn't I have brought him to Spain, if he was valuable to me? Ben is a good writer, but he really belonged to the documentary school. His documentaries are excellent. He and Irving Lerner. I gave Irving Lerner [the directing assignment of] The Royal Hunt of the Sun  and he ruined it for me. He couldn't direct the picture. He's a tremendous editor, but he couldn't direct. And the problem with Ben is that everything had to have this social consciousness. Aagh! And no hero. Negative.
Look, I don't give a damn about all this. But I'll give you another example.
Irving Lerner came to me and says, "Leo Golden[*] has got a wife and two kids and they're throwing him out of his house. Phil, he needs $1,200 to save his house . . ." Well, at the time I was working at Columbia and I had that deal at Republic. So I wanted to sell Republic a script, but I couldn't put my name on it, because I was on an exclusive contract with Columbia. So I said to Irving, "Okay, I'll give him $1,200 . . ." Leo came over and I said to him, "Leo, have my lawyer draw up a release on the picture I wrote. I'm putting your name on it, and I'm giving you $1,200 for your name, because I'm selling it to Republic. All you have to do is sign your Republic check over to my company." It's a picture I wrote for Vera Hruba Ralston. So, fine.
The picture comes out and a year later, Leo's broke again, and I get a lawsuit. He says, "You sold the script [to Republic] for $20,000." I met his lawyer. I said, "Sure, I sold it for $20,000. I had a deal with Republic. Yates knew I was writing the film for Vera Hruba Ralston. This was after Johnny
Guitar . But I was at Columbia, so I put Leo's name on it and gave him some money. He never wrote the script. He had nothing to do with it." Leo never wrote a script in his life.
Well, he sued me, and we went to court. They had a little improvised small claims court or something. He sued me for the guild minimum, which was about $5,000 or $6,000 in those days. Before the trial, I met with his lawyer and showed him the contract, the complete release, and everything else. I was indignant. But here the judge was looking at this big, rich Hollywood producer and here was this poor writer being foreclosed, and the big, rich Hollywood producer has paid him $1,200 for the script and sold it for $20,000. His lawyers says, "I think he should get a third." My lawyers says, "Here's his release . . . besides, he didn't write it!" The judge listens to everybody and says, "Give him a third." You know, it cost me $6,000?!
I got so mad at Sidney Harmon. I said, "Stop bringing me these guys! From now on, I don't want you bringing me anybody at all. Forget it! I'm sick and tired of these guys. I need them like a hole in the head."
Believe me, when I worked at Fox for Zanuck, Zanuck read my scripts. Tony Mann wasn't going to work with anybody but me. Nick Ray wasn't going to work with anybody but me. I was in Spain with Bronston. Hell, I must have written over a hundred pictures, so there's a couple of incidents where I helped guys out and all it did was backfire. Though I must say, in Ben's case, he never asked me for anything. He was always very grateful.
Was Irving Lerner introduced to you by Sidney Harmon?
Yeah. Sidney was always bringing me guys that needed jobs. Irving directed five pictures; I gave him all five pictures. He did a picture for me once with Vince Edwards [Murder by Contract ], whom I found off the street and then he became Ben Casey [on television]. I look at the rushes, and there were four gangsters in a room, standing up, walking around and talking. But I didn't see heads. I heard all the dialogue but I didn't see heads, and I said, "Irving, what the hell is the matter with the framing? There's no heads!" He says, "Everybody shoots pictures with heads talking, I'm sick and tired of it, I'm going to be different." I said, "Jesus Christ, Irving! There's such a thing as being different, original, but not shooting guys walking around without heads! Everybody in the theater will yell, 'Frame it! Frame it!' "
You stayed associated with someone like Irving Lerner and even gave him five directing jobs. Didn't you care about what he would do to your films on the back end?
He was a friend. Irving would do anything for me. I would call Irving up at twelve o'clock at night and he would get up out of bed and come over to the house. He was a friend.
At RKO, when I first worked for Dieterle, he took me in a projection room to see somebody else's picture. The director was there, a big director. The
picture stunk and the head of the studio turned to the director and says, "Well . . . bad luck." I never forgot that. They were friends.
Did you work with any of the other famous blacklistees working prolifically and under pseudonyms during the 1950s—people working for the King brothers, occasionally—like Dalton Trumbo or Michael Wilson?
You have mentioned one example where you put somebody else's name on a script that you wrote. Were there other such instances?
No. There was once a fella who worked in a Pickwick bookshop. His name is Dennis Cooper. He was a clerk there. I gave him a story to write and he wrote a script. I had to rewrite it, but I put his name on it [When Strangers Marry ]. This was in the early 1940s.
I am told that one of the great Hollywood screenwriting anecdotes of all time is the story of how you won an Oscar for the screen story of Broken Lance.
I'm told it's credited as a story by you, though it is actually a loose Western remake of your story for House of Strangers.
Fox had bought a book [for House of Strangers ] which didn't make any sense at all, about a New York Italian family. I sat down with [producer] Sol Siegel and said, "I can't do this book." Sol was a man who appreciated writing and Sol says, "Well, can you do an original?" I said, "Sol, I've been trying for about three weeks now and I can't get the opening scene. But I've got a helluva scene somewhere in the middle of the picture." He says, "Let me read it." He reads it and says, "This is great."
Next week, I brought him another scene. I said, "I don't know how this fits, but read it." He says, "This is great also." So I said, "Sol, do I have your permission just to write scenes, and somehow I'll fit them together?" He says, "Go ahead." And he'd call me up every week and say, "Get on your bicycle and bring the pages over. . ."
I wrote an original and this was the basis of House of Strangers . I didn't like what [writer-director Joseph] Mankiewicz did [with it]. He decided to shoot it like a play. Everything was done in full figure. If you look at the picture, you'll see the floor, the heads, and the feet. He should have done a lot of close-ups.
When they made the Western Broken Lance, they took my original story, which Fox owned, and they used that for the basis. That was the basis of the Oscar.
Picked it out of the story files? You didn't do any work on Broken Lance?
No. Fox owned it. I was a contract employee [when I wrote it]. If you go through the studio files, you'll find lots of original stories we wrote in those days. You'll find original stories of mine in practically every studio's files.
And if they used an original story of mine, it qualified. They didn't have to buy it.
But l've seen House of Strangers, and l've seen Broken Lance, and they could have gotten away with claiming it wasn't yours, right?
How could they? Not only that but, look, I had signed away all the rights, but I could have sued "Bonanza." They used my character, the father, Lorne Greene, and all the four sons—that's "Bonanza"—that's my House of Strangers . My original. But don't you understand? I was making $2,500 a week at Fox. They owned everything I wrote.
I don't see the Oscar you won for Broken Lance anywhere in your office .
Look, I must tell you that I was nominated for my first Academy Award for Dillinger, my original screenplay. At the time—I don't want to go into all the details, but in the 1940s the studios, all the majors, had signed a consent agreement not to make gangster pictures. Monogram was not a signatory, so when they made Dillinger based on my original screenplay, Louis B. Mayer was so indignant. He called up Frank King and says, "Frank, you gotta destroy the negative for the good of the industry." Frank says, "Sure, what'll you pay me?" Louis B. Mayer says, "I'll pay you nothing." Hell, the picture went out, the picture cost $65,000, and it made $4 million. I had a third of it.
I'm not sentimental about the Oscar, because I really won it for Dillinger . What happened is, at that time, there were several categories—original screenplay was one—and there were five nominations [in that category]. I was leaving my seat to pick up the Oscar because I had pull with a lot of the writers, all the nominators, when they announced that Marie Louise , some picture made in Switzerland that nobody had ever seen, had won. [*] I can't prove it, but at that time Walter Wanger was high up in the academy, and later he told me, "Look, we couldn't give it to Dillinger . We pulled a switch." What the hell!
It doesn't mean anything to me anymore. At the time, it was important. Dillinger was one of the first crime films of its type. Darryl Zanuck ran that picture again and again, and used it for the basis of many pictures at Fox. In other words, I had created a style.
The person that really helped me on Dillinger, incidentally, was [producer-director] William Castle. I had a secretary and I dictated the whole script to her. William Castle was supposed to direct it. He was sitting with me as I dictated.
Everybody thought this poor bastard was a cheap talent and I couldn't get him work. He worked, he made these little horror pictures at Columbia. But he couldn't work on the bigger pictures. Until Rosemary's Baby  . . .
You are adept at so many different genres—gangster pictures, Westerns, biblical pictures, historical epics, science fiction . . .
As long as it's real. I have no trouble doing biblical pictures like King of Kings . I found that very easy. And I find gangster pictures very easy. Westerns—the first Western was very hard to do, but once I broke through, then I did some of what I consider very excellent Westerns.
Why was it hard for you to break through at doing Westerns?
It's not that easy to do a Western. It sounds like it is, but it isn't. The Western hero is the last hero. He's been parodied as "yup" and "nope," but that's not it at all. He's a man who is accountable only to himself and God. He's alone, he's his own judge and jury, whatever he does.
What helped you to lick Westerns? To figure them out?
I project myself into everything. In other words, from my acting days, I act out everything. That's why I have a reputation for doing good dialogue. That's because I play the dialogue before I put it on paper.
You will write faster if you always have yourself in it. In other words, I always become the character. When I write the heavy, I'm the heavy. When I write the hero, I'm the hero.
Of course, I learn very easily. Milton Sperling was a brilliant producer and a good writer, but because he was Harry Warner's son-in-law, he was intimidated, and he could never express himself at Warner Brothers. I did a lot of pictures with Milton and he taught me a lot. He taught me that the size of your hero is determined by the size of your vilain, so spend more time with the villain than with the hero, because the hero will bask in the reflection of the villain. If you want to make a big hero, you have got to make a big villain.
For Westerns, you just had to work up to the point of being all alone. The mythical Western hero is a man who lives alone, a scavenger who lives off the land. He buys his supplies in a general store, he makes his biscuits and bacon. He doesn't necessarily hunt for a living or for eating. He doesn't need company. He does need a woman. He doesn't need anybody. Though I have always liked the idea of his chivalry toward women. I'm repulsed by men going around slapping women down. It doesn't do anything for me. I don't understand it.
What about the biblical pictures? I'm surprised to hear you say they came so naturally to you .
Those were very easy to do.
Let me just make a parenthetical comment. They say there was a Golden Age. That's for the birds. There wasn't. It was terrible in Hollywood. You had ignorant producers.
Today, you have committees of intelligent Harvard or Yale men, or men out of business college—acountants, lawyers, mainly lawyers. They are more intelligent. But they have no feelings, no religion. You can't appeal to them. A person who has no religion I find it difficult to communicate with because there is no base. I don't care what religion a person is, he doesn't even have
to go to church or believe in God, but he ought to have some faith in something other than himself.
You started writing these religious pictures twenty years into your career. Was that a challenge for you, or did it have something to do with film trends?
No. I had done Edge of Doom  for Sam Goldwyn, which won the Christophers Award [a bronze medallion awarded for "high standards in communication"], and that was a Catholic film. Look, I believe there's only two religions—the Jewish religion and the Catholic religion. Everything else is weak tea. Everything else isn't half the strength.
And, if you're a writer, you can write anything.
Were these religious-themed pictures your idea or Sam Bronston' s?
Sam was a wonderful, generous man, but he never read the scripts. Sam never discussed a script.
Well, for example, whose idea was it to make a film about the life of Christ?
I was in New York. I had had a fight with Columbia. Harry Cohn had gone to the Hawaiian Islands and told me to write [while he was away] a script [of a story] that didn't make any sense. I was under contract at Columbia, but I had made a date to do some work for Howard Hughes at RKO. When Cohn came back, he raised hell with me. So I quit. He says, "You're not going to work in Hollywood while you're under contract to me, and you can't quit."
While this was going on, I got a call from Nick Ray. He's in Spain. He says, "I'm here with a producer by the name of Samuel Bronston," someone I had never heard of. He says, "We're doing the life of Christ and I have script trouble. Phil, can you fly over for one day?" I said, "I can't, I've got to go to Columbia and straighten Harry Cohn out and I've got to deal with Howard Hughes . . ."
Hughes was impossible. I always had to meet him at five in the morning. I always met him at Goldwyn [studios]. He would never walk on the lot of RKO. He had an office at Goldwyn in the basement.
Nick says, "Phil, I'm desperate. Please come over. One day only. One day." So, he sent me a round-trip ticket. I flew to Madrid; I met Sam and Nick at the airport. They were waiting for me as if I was the Messiah. Nick had built me up because it was after Johnny Guitar .
They had a script called "The Son of Man." It was just excerpts from the Bible. And they had built a hundred little sets on a back lot in Madrid.
I said to Sam, "This script doesn't make any sense at all to me. I can write you a script, but it will take me about six weeks" —I had my library back in Hollywood. "I'll go back and write it. In the meantime, you've got a camera-man. Fire everybody else. Tear down the sets. They're useless. Nick, go back to Rome where you are living. I'll be back in six weeks." I went home and I wrote a script in six weeks.
Oh yes, I said to him, "Son of Man is a terrible title. Why don't you call it King of Kings ?" He says, "How can we call it King of Kings without [Cecil B.] De Mille's permission?" I say, "Sam, in the library there's a dozen books called King of Kings . It's a public-domain title. It doesn't belong to anyone. For a six-cent stamp, you can get it registered. . . ." I typed up a letter and registered it.
Nick read the script and liked it. Sam said to me, "You have to stay in Madrid for a year to make this picture for me. . . ." I said to myself, "If I've got to be in Madrid for a year, I might as well make another picture here. Once I finish this script, I'll just be sitting around. . . ."
There were only two subjects I knew of for Spain: Don Quixote and El Cid . So I put out a flyer and discovered a script about El Cid written by one of De Mille's writers [Frederic M. Frank]. A terrible script. So I rewrote it.
Writing something like King of Kings, did you have to transport yourself into a whole other world of the imagination? Here you were dealing with as important a subject as a writer could deal with, the very opposite of, say, Dillinger.
No. It's really not much different. Christ was a loner. He's not much different than my usual character. The Western character. It's the same character. The man alone.
Later on, in Europe, you became heavily involved in horror and science fantasy, films like Day of the Triffids. . . . I notice a lot of collected Lovecraft and science fiction anthologies on your shelves. Did you develop an interest in fantasy and science fiction somewhere along the line?
Fantasy I don't like. I've always enjoyed science fiction. I got all my books someplace else. I just keep my reference library here. And I don't find them [the reference books] too helpful.
You went to Europe almost by accident, and you ended up staying overseas for how long—?
Why for so long? Just because the work was there at that point?
No. Europe was not like it is today. I left there because it changed. When I first went to London in '59 or so, in Rome or even Madrid, you stayed in a hotel and there, always, the hotel manager knew you, the concierge knew you, it was all personal. You tipped well and you got beautiful service. It was all the Old World.
Now, it's no different than America. Madrid is full of overpasses, smog—there were no cars in Madrid when I arrived in '58, just these little taxis—and there's a sort of working class that has developed which didn't exist when I was there.
It sounds reactionary, and it is. But I was living in the Middle Ages and I enjoyed it. I was a don. In fact, the son of the mayor of Barcelona, impoverished royalty, he worked for me. In Paris, I had a lovely apartment, and this
man always wore a majordomo uniform, and I would say to him, "Ah, Victor, when you go out to dinner with me, or if somebody comes over to the house, you don't have to wear this uniform. You are my guest." "No, no, no," he would say, "you don't understand Spain. If you were a rich industrialist, I couldn't work for you because my father is a duke and I am a count,
and I could not be your servant, but because you are an artist, it's okay for me to work for you."
Norman Krasna told me that because he lived in Switzerland and France and England for almost fifteen years, when he returned to Hollywood one of the problems was he didn't know anybody in a position of power anymore. And that is one of the reasons his, credits stopped .
Well, I had been making my own pictures in Hollywood long before I went to Europe, so I really didn't work for anybody else. When, I took an outside job, it was really for an old friend like Nick, Tony, George Pal, Sol Siegel, Walter Wanger, [Russian-born producer] Eugene Frenke—these were all friends of mine. I made my own pictures.
When I was with Bronston, I made these pictures for him. Then I made Day of the Triffids, The Thin Red Line , Crack in the World  for Paramount. I always made one picture a year, and I never tried to get a job. When I came back, eleven years ago, the smog, was so bad in Los Angeles I couldn't understand how people could live there. I really didn't. So we came here to San Diego.
Your official credits seem to stop after Captain Apache in 1971. Have you written any films since?
Oh, yeah. I got a picture, playing now called Cry, Wilderness . A nature picture. A company in Minneapolis. I'm the writer. I don't know if my name is on it as producer or not. The distributor, who had done Sasquatch , which cost maybe $150,000 and made over $4 million profit, says to me, "Give me a picture about Bigfoot and I'll make millions." So I sat down and wrote a picture. He says, "No, no, no, you don't understand. You got scenes in beginning that will scare the audience. It's for kids." So I had to take out all the sacary scenes. Bigfoot couldn't be threatening; he had to be nice. Not blood, no violence, no sex, no bad language. I said, "You reallywant a picture about nothing!" He says, "That's it! Now you've got it! Nothing! I want nothing!" I said, "That's the most difficult thing to write." Well, the picture is about nothing, if you sit through it, which I don't know if you can.
I did Brigham  for the Mormon Church.
I wrote three scripts for pictures that weren't made—in Canada. One was about the Russian Revolution. They had a budget on it of about $20 million. They couldn't raise the money. It was called "The Last Train From Moscow." Practically everything I wrote [in the past] was made, but recently, I've written a number of scripts that haven't been made because the prices are out of line. They can't raise the money.
I just finished a picture, a script I sold to a fella in Florida, called The Unholy .
I just finished another picture; I don't know if it'll be played theatrically. It's based on a massacre at a coffee shop. I think it's very interesting. It's
called Bloody Wednesday in Europe. Here it is called The Terrorists .
I have just done a comedy. It's called "Joe Panda," and we're gonna shoot it in the [San Diego] zoo here. It's a triangle between a zoologist, a girl, and a panda.
Why did you never turn director? It must have been a great temptation .
Well, from Dieterle on, I always worked closely with the director, and usually went over the shots, shot by shot, the storyboard and everything. Not with Nick Ray, but with Tony Mann, I would. Nick, he'd storyboard it too, but he didn't need as much help as the others.
Why I didn't become a director was a conscious decision. Frank [King] didn't want me to direct in the beginning, and probably I did make a mistake because they always look at the director, not the writer. The reason I didn't
care to direct is because the scripts I wrote are really director's scripts anyway, like Truffaut says and this fella Agee.
Also, the idea of having to get up at five in the morning. The idea of having to go to bed at eight at night. The eighteen weeks of shooting. I think these pictures killed Tony, and Nick Ray, and Mark Robson too. It's a very unhealthy occupation. Terrific pressure. I like to play tennis while they're shooting. And the fact is, I had to go in and take over [directing] more than once . . .
Some screenwriters regard themselves as craftsmen. Others —more as artists in their own right. How do you look at your own work?
I think I'm a great imitator. I don't think I'm an originator. I'm a chameleon, I can adapt to anything, or I can write a picture about anything. It's more than just being a craftsman, because I can analyze and find the key. The key is, I like to lock into one thing which enables me to write the script, and that is the key.
For instance, on King of Kings, it defied me. Until I got an idea. The idea I got was Barrabas wanting to throw out the Romans by force. He wanted to use Jesus, because Jesus could arouse the people; when he found out that Jesus had a different idea than him, this is when he lost faith in Jesus. That was the key.
How did you learn to think visually? Isn't that a great leap for writers who came to Hollywood?
I'd seen a lot of pictures. It was very little visualization. Movies are still dialogue. Really, there's not too much visualization input. When I write it, I just write it straight. I only punch in a close-up when I feel it's necessary. I only describe a shot where it's really part of part of the story. Othewise, I don't.
Were there screenwritters you admired?
No. Frankly, when I saw movies, I never paid much attention to the credits, so I'm like the audience. In fact, my wife sees things in pictures [to the extent] she can anticipate what I can't. I look at a picture to enjoy it. I really don't know who wrote them. And I wouldn't go to a picture because [director] John Ford made it, no.
Were there literary gods you were emulating or imitating? The hard-boiled writers? Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett?
I didn't care for any of them. Except for the short stories of Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises was good, but that's about it.
Was there no one who opened your eyes to a particular way of writing?
A French writer, I think, influenced me. Céline. I was impressed. I didn't agree with him, but I was impressed.
Yet you portray yourself as being widely read .
Oh yeah, I'm very well-read, always was. I started reading when I was eleven years old. When I was eleven, we moved from the west side [of Chicago] to the last house on the edge of the river with the forest preserve behind us, and I started to read three, four books a day. I'd go into the woods with a
book. So I've read thousands and thousands of books. During those fourteen years in Europe, I read tremendously, because if you write one script and it takes a year to make, you have plenty of time to read.
Which of your films do you feel best about, proudest of?
It has nothing to do with the script. It may have to do with the associations during the making of the picture, rather than the script.
In fact, I'm surprised when I pick up [film] books and read them. Here [pointing to the shelf ] is a book about the fifty-two great epics of all time. I picked up this book and discovered that out of the great film epics listed here, I've done six of them.
But this was not conscious. In other words, I never was conscious of anything—except the great thrill to me was finishing the script and turning it in before the first day of shooting. It was like a reprieve. A condemned man gets a reprieve.
I do take pride in little things. For example, I knew George Pal [producer, director, and special-effects expert], a wonderful man. But he had no story sense at all. I forget what I had written for George [The Conquest of Space, 1954], but I was in England—Men in War and God's Little Acre were both hits, so Krim had given my wife and I a free trip to Europe. Three weeks, all expenses, limousine, and hotel expenses—they picked up everything as a gift. We went to Paris, Rome, London, a week in each place. When I arrived in London at the Savoy Hotel, it was summertime, August, and freezing. Jeez, it was cold.
Then I got a call from Pal. He had traced me from Hollywood. He says, "Phil, I'm doing The Time Machine  and the script's just terrible." I said, "George, I'm here on holiday." Anyhow, my wife is a good sport, so I hold up and write him a script in a week at the Savoy Hotel. He had very little money—Metro had very little faith in George Pal, for some reason. Science fiction had no class, in those days, it was a downer.
So, I had to invent stuff that would not cost money. I had to think of a way to show the whole history of the world. In the book, they had great settings and descriptions. We couldn't afford any of that. So I said, "Give me a coin in a scene. A big metal coin on a table. The character picks it up and hits it, and, as it spins, the whole history is told by a coin with a voice. It's a soundtrack. It costs nothing." That's what I take pride in. Stuff like that.
Like when I did The Chase . Bob Cummings was a chauffeur working for a crazy heavy, Peter Lorre. I had to show that this guy was crazy, somehow. So, they got into the limousine, Cummings is driving, Lorre is sitting in the back seat. Suddenly, Bob Cummings sees the speedometer go fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, because in the back seat the heavy has a button for the accelerator that he pushes. Lorre controls the speed while Bob drives. They head for a train-crossing, because the guy loves to beat this train, and Peter Lorre slows the accelerator down just enough so they barely beat
the train. Bob Cummings is sweating all the time. This costs nothing, only what it takes to rig up a pedal in the back seat. This is what I take pride in. The devices where you use your head and you don't have to build a million-dollar set.
Let me turn the question around. Which scripts do you feel best about?
I feel very good about Detective Story . Now, it was based on [Sidney] Kingsley's play, and [director] Willy Wyler had [Dashiell] Hammett work on it. But, in fact, Hammett was only on it for six weeks, when Willy called me in to write the script.
In that case the Academy Award nomination was divided between me and Robert Wyler. Robert Wyler was Willy's older brother. He couldn't write a word. But Willy says to me, "Robert's on the Paramount payroll. And to justify the payroll, put his name on the script." What did it cost me? He was a nice man. So, I think I've been pretty generous in my life with people. I put his name on.
Like with Battle of the Bulge . There was some fella [John Nelson] in Spain who did research for me and I put his name on the script. When I rewrote the script with Milton Sperling, Milton objected to putting this fella's name on it. I said, "Milton, he's living in Spain, what does it hurt? You're the producer, your name is first. My name is first on the script, your name is second. Leave this guy's name on. It helps him a lot, and what does it hurt us? We're not giving up anything."
Why Detective Story? Because you did something interesting to open up the play?
When I went in, they gave me Hammett's office. I found a few little cigars in the desk and a typewriter with a cover on. I lifted up the cover—this is a true story—and there was a page in the typewriter that said, Detective Story, page one up in the corner, and "Fade In." That's all there was. That's all Hammett did in six weeks. Never wrote a word.
The play was done on Broadway with three areas on the stage, and when they switched from one area to the other, it was done by blackouts, blackouts, blackouts. In film there's no [such thing as a] blackout! Boy, this was one of the most difficult tasks I ever had in my life. How do you keep that fluidity going? And Willy had said, "I don't want to leave the police station." Boy, that was a complicated job.
It was so complicated I couldn't do it at home. I had to rent a suite at the Ambassador Hotel and hire two secretaries and get about four copies of the play and a couple of pairs of scissors and line the scenes all up on big buffet tables. It was like trying to hold onto a slippery snake, because Willy never sat down and helped you with the script. Never. In fact, when I finished the script, he called in the whole cast and I had to sit for a week at the table just reading the lines with them all.
But he's a tremendous director. When I gave him the script, the set was
already built. I remember walking around the set with him, and him saying, "Here's the first setup. Bingo! Shoot!" Then a still photographer took photographs, Willy put them up in his office, he called in the whole crew and he says, "There's the whole picture. Look at the stills. There's every setup." Willy was in bad shape at Paramount because of Liberty Films—he, Capra, and Stevens had made nothing but flops. So they gave him only thirty days to shoot the picture. That's one of the reasons why he didn't want scenes outside of the police station. He had to film it in thirty days.
How about The Big Combo? Are you fond of that picture?
What about Studs Lonigan? I have half an idea that it was a labor of love for you, because of your Chicago upbringing. Did you read and admire James T. Farrell's trilogy?
No. I never liked his [James T. Farrell's] writing because there's no hero in it.
Studs Lonigan was a terrible mistake. Sidney Harmon cast it. There was a very handsome boy who played the lead [Christopher Knight]; good man, but he couldn't act, he was lousy. Jack Nicholson had the fifth role. If we'd given Jack Nicholson the lead, we might have had something.
Originally, I had Warren Beatty for the lead. He was coming to my house every day, swimming, using the pool. He'd never made a picture, but he was under contract to MCA. MCA says to Beatty, "Look, low pay, just minimum wage, but we want you to do Studs Lonigan because it'll kick you off." Well, I gave the directing to Irving Lerner. Irving comes to me and says, "I can't do this picture for $300,000 with Beatty. Even though he hasn't made a picture yet, he has ideas, and I can't deal with him. We'll never finish in time." So I had to drop Beatty.
I had a deal with somebody who had to finish the picture by a certain date, or they lost their rights. Krim called me in and said, "Can you finish the picture in ten weeks? I'll give you 10 percent of the distributor's gross." So, I wrote it, but I must say that when it was shot, I was in Europe with Sam [Bronston] already.
And The Harder They Fall?
No. [Director] Mark Robson only had one theory: "Attack the establishment!" I'd say, "Mark, who gives a shit about attacking the establishment? Let's try to make a good picture." Also, Steiger's part was the picture. Bogart had a contract with Columbia, so he had to do the picture, and he had no role. He raised hell and gave me a bad time. He behaved very badly on the picture because it wasn't his picture.
He was dying at the time too, right?
Yeah, but I didn't know that. (Pause .) I said to Mark, "Let's get Victor Mature to play the prizefighter." He says, "No, let's get a real fighter." So he found this wrestler [Max Baer] and he ruined the picture. Guy couldn't
act! I said, "Mark, I don't feel anything with this guy. The picture's cold." But Mark was only interested in social content. It's the same thing today with the pictures on television about rape and newspaper headlines and all of this. I'm not interested in this. To me, a thing is interesting or it's not interesting.
When Marty Ritt came to Fox, his first picture [No Down Payment, 1957] was based on an idea of mine. I had read in Life magazine about the building of these new subdivisions where there are no alleys, no separation, no neighborhood, no community. I had an idea about a no-down-payment subdivision of four houses, and I called in a novelist who had written paperbacks and I dictated about fifty pages.
John McPartland. I paid him, I think, $7,500 to write a novel [based on my idea] and I bought the motion picture rights. He wrote it in about six weeks. Well, he couldn't get it published, so I found a publisher for him, Simon and Schuster, and he made about $35,000 on the novel. I never cut into his royalties. And I held all the rights, everything!
I sold the motion picture rights to Fox and wrote the script and Marty Ritt came in from New York. Jerry Wald was the head of the studio under Zanuck. Marty read the script and he didn't like all of the sex stuff in it. He was only interested in the economics. So I went to Jerry and I said, "Look, this guy is way out of left field, and a very good director, intelligent man, very talented. But he wants to make a social documentary out of this picture. And I wrote a sex picture with the economics in there." Well, I had to cut out all but just a little sex. When the picture was finished, [executive Spyros] Skouras looks at the picture and says, "Hell, this is a leftist picture, I can't release it here." He killed the picture.
When it comes to movies, I'm not interested in social content. [Spits out cigar-end .] Yet you'll find it in all of my pictures.
And what does it say?
It's [a theme of] the loneliness of the common man. But he has an inner resource that enables him to survive in society. He doesn't cry, he doesn't beg, he doesn't ask favors. He lives and dies in dignity. The best example of a character like that is Jean Gabin, the French actor, who [often] played the common man. And I think Gabin was so far superior to [Spencer] Tracy, his American counterpart. But Tracy couldn't compare because Gabin was always in Europe [in his films], where you do not rise—the workingman does not rise.
How do you react when you pick up a distinguished film encyclopedia that says, "Philip Yordan is known for writing tough and gutsy screenplays"?
I don't pay any attention to any of that junk. It's because I got into a situation where that was called for, that's all.
But do you feel that it's a fair statement: that you are tough and gutsy and that that is what is generally communicated in your films. You said so yourself, that with your most recent film, the producer wanted to take the sex out, the bad language out, the violence, whatever. Well, that's what most people take out to begin with, whereas that is what you put in to begin with .
Well, I think you've got to keep them from falling asleep.
But you're also reflecting real life, real people, real situations .
Not real real. In the real sense, life is too depressing and nothing really happens. It's a quiet desperation.
Do you know the picture Edge of Doom ? Boy, if ever there was a downer, that's the picture. It opens up with a guy killing a priest because he can't afford a funeral for his mother. Again, this is [Mark] Robson directing—very depressing. And Goldwyn, who liked me, hired me to put some juice into this.
Well, I started writing the script. Goldwyn calls me up for lunch after the second week, and he says he read the scene where the boy comes home from burying his mother—where, in the book, there's a prostitute who lives on the second floor who asks him to have a cup of coffee with her. I wrote—this is not in the book—that when he sits down and is drinking the coffee, he looks
at her and her dress opens a little, and he looks at the rise of her breast and he feels a pressing in his pants and he feels so ashamed, this good Catholic boy, that he doesn't finish his coffee—he runs out of the room.
Goldwyn says, "Ah! Disgusting! I vomited! I vomited right on the floor when I read that scene! How can you write such a degenerate scene? I'm gonna have to hire psychiatrists to help you, my boy! That's so filthy! I gave it to my secretary—she threw up! I gave it to [studio vice present] Pat Duggan—he hasn't shown up for work today!"
I said, "Mr. Goldwyn, it's just a scene. I'll cut it out." "No! No! No!" he says. "You probably got a mental problem." I said, "Well then, fire me, kill me, anything." He says, "No! No! No!"
So I sat in the room for about three days, paralyzed. I couldn't work. The fourth day comes—I had my own secretary with me, who had been with me for years—and Goldwyn comes in and closes the door and sits down and puts his chair against the door. He says, "Now, you write the script." I said, "I can't write with you in the room." He says, "I'm paying you. Write!" I said, "Mr. Goldwyn, you'd better get somebody else. I've never quit a job in my life, but I just can't write it. You don't like what I'm doing." He says, "What you're doing is disgusting! I'll tell you why you gonna write this script. I'm a rich man. I'm paying you three thousand dollars a week. And you're gonna sit here. I just did The Best Years of Our Lives , which made $11 million, so I can afford it. I'll make other pictures, while you sit here on your weekly salary for five years, because I've got a week-to-week contract with you, and as long as I pay you, you have to work on this script. I can demand as many changes of you as I want. After five years, I'm gonna come in on a Monday morning and fire you. Then, you can call your agent. He will tell you Yordan is never going to be offered another job. They will ask: What has Yordan done the past five years? He has disappeared. You'll never work again . . ."
Well, I wrote the script. I had a scene in it where the kid goes into an agency to buy a coffin, and they take him on a tour and show him the bronze coffins, which he can't afford. So the salesman calls his assistant, who takes him down to the basement, where they show him these pine-board coffins. That's when the kid says, "They're not gonna bury my mother in a pine box and throw her in the ground. I want to give her a funeral like they have for rich people. . ."
Well, Goldwyn came on the set with all these coffins when we were shooting and it was the only time he hung around the set. We went to Pasadena for a preview, the whole audience is about eighty years old, and when all the coffins are up on the screen, they get up and walk out. I don't know if the picture even played in the theaters. And Goldwyn loved it.[*]
I like to write about something, okay, something gutsy. You can't do The Harder They Fall, for example, and not be tough. The Westerns I wrote were hard to write, but at least they were dramatic. Milton Sperling used to say, "Phil, your writing is too purple." I guess that's what you mean by gutsy and tough. It's too purple. Maybe I go overboard, yeah.
You are certainly not very affectionate towards most of the films that resulted from your labors .
No. Because there's too much association [for me] with the problems on the pictures.
Like on 55 Days at Peking . There were problems with Ava Gardner getting drunk. She wouldn't come out of her dressing room. I knew Ava because I gave her her first real picture—Whistle Stop . So I pounded on her door and said, "Ava, open up the door or I'm gonna break it down." Well, what does she do? She runs out of the room, drives over to Bronston's house, wakes him up in the middle of the night, and says I'm abusing her. You know what I finally did? I said screw it. I put a double in a bed, I wrote a scene where she gets wounded and she's lying in bed, dying or something, and I gave all of her dialogue to Paul Lukas and [Charlton] Heston, and they had a scene over the double's body in bed where Lukas read her lines.
And David Niven—I remember he signed for $350,000, he arrived in Madrid, and he didn't like the script. I said, "David, you signed for the picture. You read the script before you came. Why are you here, if you don't want to do the picture? We're already shooting. Why don't you go tomorrow and do your first scene. Go look at the rushes the next day, and if you don't like it, we'll redo it." He says, "No, no, no, I don't look at rushes. I hate my face! I won't go to see the rushes. I have never seen a picture I made." Well, he gave me a bad time.
Finally, came the opening scene when he went to see the dowager empress of China with Heston. They had to go into a big palace with her on the throne, both of them standing in a big, empty room. Niven was very upset. It took me a half a day to figure out why. What he didn't want to do was walk in with Heston—with his big shoulders and beautiful uniform. He felt he looked bad [standing next to Heston]. You know how I solved the damn thing? I separated him and Heston by twenty feet, so they're seen in individual shots. When they are seen together, it's a long shot, not a two-shot. And I put a hassock in the room, so when he came in, he could put his foot up on the hassock and stand there with one foot on the hassock. That's all the changes I made.
Or on The Harder They Fall . Robson called me in. Bogey wasn't cooperating. So I went to see Bogey and he says, "Well, ah, this scene . . . ah, I don't like it." I said, "Well, what do you want? You want to change something, we'll change it." He says, "What are you, Shakespeare?" I said, "No, but I'll do my best. . . ."
It was really Steiger's scene. Bogey is standing there in a room when Steiger reads off a long speech and tells him, "You're nothing. I don't need ya. Blow." So, Bogart says what he wants to do is to slam the door when he goes out and almost break it. I said, "Fine, slam the door when you go out."
But it wasn't his picture. He was [supposed to be playing] a weak man that sold out. He didn't want to play that.
Okay, you don't love the films per se. Then what's the upside for you of being a screenwriter? Has there been a positive side?
I guess the appreciation of people I troubleshot for. I have gotten a lot of people out of predicaments. And most of my employment came through, not an agent, but through directors or an actor asking for me.
My life, aside from playing tennis and running around at night, having fun, my day life was always on a picture in trouble. Get it made. Always had a picture in trouble. Very rarely was I sent down on a normal thing. There would always be three, four writers in there before me, and they'd call me up at the last minute. Like on Studs Lonigan, when they were losing their option. Like with The Bravados, when they were losing Peck. Like Why Girls Leave Home, when the bank was going to cut off Republic.
Challenges. I enjoyed the challenges because I felt I could do anything. Nothing bothered me. Analyze it, read it, and I'll find some way out.
I notice most writers have very few credits. Not that my credits are so striking, but when I was called in on a situation, the picture was made. The pictures were made. Good, bad, or indifferent, they were made.
Did you get gratification from the writing itself?
No, not really.
When Sidney Harmon was a producer in Harlem, I started to write plays for him. He came to me once and he says, "Phil, when I read your plays, everything turns grey and dark and the walls start creeping in on me. I'm depressed and it's depressing, and nobody wants this." So, in order to survive, I had to take this quality, which is my basic quality, and put it into melodrama like gangster [films] and Westerns, and then I could get away with it. Because if my scripts weren't melodramatic, they would be depressing.
Why is that?
There's an expression in Yiddish: finster . Which means everything turns finster (dark) before my eyes. I've always seen people that way. (Laughs ).
Like I knew a fella in Chicago. Big, tall, handsome fella I used to meet with a lot and go out at night with to the all-night bars. Here was a fella, about twenty-eight years old, starting to age already. He had lost his teenage looks. Lived with his mother. Already he was doomed. Guy was doomed.
When I met Nick Ray, I knew he was doomed. This man was doomed. George Pal was doomed. I knew Val Lewton. He died of a broken heart.
Tony Mann had a heart attack. There was no respect for these people. They were doomed.
There is that edge of doom in so many of your films —
I like the guy that's struggling against that doom. I don't like a guy that's passive and is crashed . . . and goes down like a cock-a-roach.