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Walter Bernstein, the resilient screenwriter who drew upon his ignominious experience on the blacklist in 1950s Hollywood to pen the Oscar-nominated script for The Front, has died. He was 101.
Bernstein died Friday night, screenwriter, former WGA West president and longtime family friend Howard Rodman reported on Twitter.
Bernstein also adapted Eugene Burdick’s novel for Sidney Lumet’s nuclear-disaster film Fail-Safe (1964) and Dan Jenkins’ book for the Burt Reynolds football romp Semi-Tough (1977), and he wrote the John Schlesinger war drama Yanks (1979), starring Richard Gere. Another three films he worked on starred Sophia Loren.
Born in Brooklyn, Bernstein formally joined the Communist Party while attending Dartmouth College — “I never thought there would be repercussions,” he told The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg in 2012 — then served in the U.S. Army during World War II, traveling all over as a correspondent for Yank magazine.
He was blacklisted in 1950 while working as a television writer, and his name did not appear in any credits of a film until 1958 or a TV show until 1961. Bernstein, though, was able to clandestinely continue his career, at first by using pseudonyms and then by paying others — known as “fronts” — to take credit for his scripts.
“I didn’t make much money, but I was able to work. And I made some very good profound relationships with other blacklisted people,” he told Christian Niedan in a 2013 interview for the website Camera in the Sun. “And this may sound off, but in some respects, it was a not-unhappy time because of that, because of the feeling of solidarity, the feeling of community we had. We helped each other.”
The Front (1976), directed by Martin Ritt, starred Woody Allen as Howard Prince, a small-fry restaurant cashier/bookie who is hired by three blacklisted TV writers (Michael Murphy, Lloyd Gough and David Margulies) to become the face of their work.
Bernstein wanted to make the movie as a straight drama, but Columbia Pictures head David Begelman became interested only after he and Ritt introduced comedic elements to the story and got Allen to star on a rare occasion that he didn’t also write or direct.
Like Bernstein, many of the cast and crew involved in The Front had been real-life blacklist victims, including Ritt and actors Herschel Bernardi and Zero Mostel. (Mostel’s tormented character, comedian Hecky Brown, was based on Philip Loeb, a blacklisted actor who committed suicide after being banned from the industry.)
“It was our movie, it was our revenge in a way,” Bernstein said. “We were saying, ‘We’re still here.’ It was a very satisfying experience.”
After nearly a decade on the blacklist, Bernstein had finally gotten his name on a screenplay for the 1959 Loren film That Kind of Woman, directed by Lumet. “He recommended me to [producer and Loren’s husband] Carlo Ponti,” Bernstein told Feinberg. “He didn’t know or care about the blacklist or know me, he just took Sidney’s word for it.”
That Kind of Woman came out about a year before the release of Spartacus (1960), which is renowned for producer-star Kirk Douglas’ decision to give the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit.
Truly saddened to hear that Walter Bernstein — legendary screenwriter, and one of the great humans — died last night. He was 101. I feel so damn fortunate that three generations of our family got to know him.
Here's Walter from 10 years ago, when he was a young man of 91. pic.twitter.com/yLGvTb3mJY
— Howard A. Rodman (@howardrodman) January 23, 2021
The son of a schoolteacher, Bernstein was born on Aug. 20, 1919, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and then a student at Erasmus Hall High School. During the war, he was a correspondent for the Army weekly magazine Yank, and he infiltrated Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to score a rare interview with Marshal Tito.
Following the service and stints at The New Yorker, Bernstein in 1945 published a book of his war stories, Keep Your Head Down. He then headed to Hollywood and helped on the screenplay adaptation of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), a film noir crime caper starring Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. He also briefly worked for Lancaster and Harold Hecht’s Norma Productions.
Bernstein returned to New York in the early 1950s to try his hand at live television. Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee had embarked on a witch hunt to root out the communists in show business.
“I was writing this [anthology] show for CBS called Danger, writing very happily for them,” he told THR. “One day a producer, Charles Russell, said to me, ‘There’s a problem here, you have to put another name on the script. I don’t know [what’s going on,] they just told me upstairs that they can’t use you anymore.”
Bernstein’s name would appear in Red Channels, a newsletter with names of suspected communists working in Hollywood, in the summer of 1950. “There were about eight designations for me — all true, all things I’d done,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “I’d written for communist magazines, I’d supported Russian war relief, I’d supported the loyalists in Spain.”
That meant he was automatically blacklisted, and the only way he could continue his career as Walter Bernstein was to testify and finger other Hollywood lefties. He wouldn’t do that.
But Lumet, then a director on Danger, and Russell allowed him to keep writing secretly (Ritt was a producer on that show and had been blacklisted), as did Russell again on You Are There, a program hosted by Walter Cronkite that dramatized news events.
The writers “were blacklisted, there was nothing more they could do to us,” Bernstein said, “but Lumet and Russell would have been blacklisted too if it had been known that they were hiring blacklisted people. They took a big chance.”
One memorable story in The Front has Hecky being forced to accept a gig at a Catskills resort for a salary that was a fraction of what he used to get before he was blacklisted. That really happened to Mostel, and it was Bernstein who had driven him to the job.
Allen later put Bernstein in a scene with Diane Keaton, Sigourney Weaver and himself under the Thalia theater marquee in Annie Hall (1977). “I still get a check when it’s shown, from SAG, for $7.50,” he told Niedan.
Bernstein wound up writing three movie in all starring Loren, including Michael Curtiz’s A Breath of Scandal and George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights, both released in 1960. And he wrote a draft for another film out that year, The Magnificent Seven.
Bernstein also worked with Ritt on Paris Blues (1961) and The Molly Maguires (1970) and with Semi-Tough director Michael Ritchie again on An Almost Perfect Affair (1979) and The Couch Trip (1988).
Bernstein then wrote and directed Little Miss Marker (1980), a 1930s-set period piece that starred Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews.
Bernstein, who taught screenwriting at Columbia University, NYU and City College, received an Emmy nomination for writing the 1997 HBO telefilm Miss Evers’ Boys, and in 2000, he turned his Fail-Safe screenplay into a live black-and-white CBS telefilm that starred George Clooney.
Bernstein published Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist, in 1996.
In his Camera in the Sun Q&A, Bernstein recalled that a British critic once referred to him as “that useful screenwriter.” He liked that.
“To be useful is important to me,” he said, “to feel that what you’ve done has been of some use — whether artistically, or socially, or politically or whatever hasn’t been a waste.”
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