In 1954, Budd Schulberg wrote his Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront. Now 94, the writer and playwright traveled from Menemsha to Scotland this week to see a new stage version of the classic film performed at the Edinburgh International Festival.
“I’m really looking forward to this,” Mr. Schulberg said over the phone before taking off for the week-long trip. In the background his wife, Betsy worried aloud about getting his heart medication on the trans-Atlantic flight.
A half century ago, Mr. Schulberg worked on the classic film with director Elia Kazan. With the groundwork laid by a series of New York Sun reports chronicling the corruption in organized labor on the New York docks, Mr. Schulberg immersed himself in the lives of the longshoremen for two years.
“I sat in on meetings the rebels held and roamed about the waterfront bars,” he said in an interview with American Legends. “I would report back to Kazan on what I had seen.”
In 2007, acclaimed British actor and director Steven Berkoff began working on bringing the iconic film to the stage. According to British papers, the maverick director injected the piece with the experimental theatrical tricks that have become his trademark, like slow-motion sequences and the use of mime.
And it seems to have worked. The play opened at the Nottingham Playhouse in April of this year to rave reviews.
“No one who sees this On the Waterfront will forget it,” the British Theatrical Guide states. “One of the theatrical events of the year.”
Mr. Schulberg said he is excited to see what the director has done with his famed piece. He has a bond with the story, as he does with any of his works, which include his 1941 Hollywood expose novel What Makes Sammy Run?, his 1947 novel The Harder They Fall and his 1957 screenplay A Face in the Crowd.
“Frankly, everything you write really is part of you,” Mr. Schulberg said.
Before the show even opened at the Edinburgh Festival, there were already talks of taking it to the West End in London, the United Kingdom equivalent of Broadway.
There’s an argument that the West End wants more stars in the production, Mrs. Schulberg said Monday. But her husband, she said, could play the deciding role if he liked what he saw at the festival last night.
Mr. Schulberg remembered watching Marlon Brando play his lead character Terry Malloy.
“I was on the set every day so I could see day by day how well Marlon was doing with it,” Mr. Schulberg said. “He took it very seriously.”
He remembered being struck by the actor’s transformation once in costume. And he was excited Monday by news that Simon Merrell, the actor playing Malloy, might be every bit as good as Mr. Brando.
“The Method-style acting is outstanding,” a theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote of Mr. Merrell. “While not offering a slavish imitation, Simon Merrell’s mixture of aggression, bruised vulnerability and sullen beauty can stand comparison with Brando’s in the film.”
Mr. Schulberg has been coming to the Vineyard with his fourth wife since the two married in 1978. His year-round residence is in West Hampton, N.Y.
The son of B.P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount Pictures, Mr. Schulberg has lived a life seemingly at odds with Hollywood. He was ostracized from the town at age 27 when he wrote What Makes Sammy Run?, the story of a back-stabbing Hollywood ladder-climber. And in 1951, when called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, the former member of the Communist Party said, “I will co-operate with you in any way I can.” He and Mr. Kazan named names and felt the backlash from the Hollywood left.
Mr. Schulberg has collaborated with everyone from Spike Lee to F. Scott Fitzgerald. His friends have included Bobby Kennedy and Muhammad Ali.
“He’s kind of amazing,” Mrs. Schulberg said of her husband. She added, as if to pile another achievement onto his life’s resume, “he’s 94 years old.”
The Schulbergs are set to return to the States Monday, following a press conference Sunday. It was Mrs. Schulberg’s prediction that On the Waterfront would be the talk of the festival. Mr. Schulberg seemed content just to see the experimental production.
“It’s a long life,” he told the New York Times in 2001, quoting advice he had given to a fellow writer plagued by fame years ago. “You’ll go up and down like the mountain range, and all the time you’ve just got to do the best you can.”