I guess you could say that our relationship with Budd Schulberg was typical Hollywood: we met him, we liked each other, and in the end, we kind of broke his heart. But that didn't mean we didn't stay friends. In Hollywood, nobody will hurt you like your friends. It's a given. Sometimes it's intentional, Sammy Glick-style, but it's worse when it isn't. Which doesn't make it any easier to write about. We both ended up loving Budd and, given the shot, like many others before us, we couldn't get the movie of his classic, What Makes Sammy Run?, made. Why us? Why did we think we could do what others had not done for 60 years? Why not us, we thought at the time. Of course, here we are 13 years later, and not quite there. Okay, nowhere. And Budd, rest his soul, was a lot more gracious about our failure than his indelible Sammy would have been. As Al Manheim, Sammy's Boswell put it: "Sammy always made you feel that any confession of failure was on level with admitting that you had a yen for nothing but female dogs and ten-year-old corpses..."
Recently we sat down to fake interview ourselves about how it all didn't happen, or maybe just to commiserate -- not as much about not getting the movie made, but about how we had finally lost an unlikely friend.
Ben: In '96 I got a new agent right before The Cable Guy bombed. His first piece of advice was not to do anything for six months. He said I was in "movie jail." I had time to read. Billy Gerber and Gene Kirkwood, at Warner Brothers, somehow got the idea to give me a shot at greatness. They said why don't you direct and act in Sammy. I read the book and loved it. Sounded like a good idea to me, especially considering my incarceration. The financing for the movie I was waiting to play Jerry Stahl in -- Permanent Midnight -- was taking a while to come through (if ever, according to my agent/jailer), so I asked Jerry if he wanted to work on re-writing Budd's script with me in the meantime. Why did I ask Jerry? I knew he was a good writer and I was scared out of my mind to try to do it alone.
Jerry: Ben Stiller, fresh off Cable Guy, Jerry Stahl, fresh off a park bench in MacArthur Park. In retrospect, I can imagine how thrilled Budd Schulberg, the man who wrote On The Waterfront, must have been to have a couple of giants adapting the greatest work of his lifetime.
It was not like we were the first to tackle Sammy. The book has already shown up as a live television drama on Philco Television Playhouse in '49. It was revived in 1959 as a two-parter on NBC, with future Dynasty giant John Forsythe as Al Manheim and Larry Blyden as Sammy. Steve Lawrence starred in a Broadway musical version in 1964. (Weirdly, three years before Hair.)
Ben: In the nine months it took to get the financing for Permanent Midnight, we re-wrote Schulberg. Our idea was that there be might be a way to contemporize the story, without re-setting it in the present. Keep the flavor of the era, but give it a little more "edge"... We even started writing in a suite at the Chateau Marmont. I seem to remember a bit of Musso & Frank's time, as well. Just to get that deep "Old Hollywood" feel. When we were done we had a great (or so we thought) script. We sent it to everyone and came to our first meeting -- though we didn't know Budd was going to be there.
Jerry: We met around a tanker-sized mahogany table at Warner Bros. that might have been put there in the thirties. Budd came in: a shock of white hair, pink-cheeks, his blue eyes slightly watery but almost supernaturally piercing. He took us in, stayed quiet for a moment, and then spoke up in his trademark soft, susurrus stutter, and let us have it. With good reason. Whoever had typed up the title page left off "based on the novel by Budd Schulberg." (I blamed Ben. Ben blamed an assistant.) When Budd brought that up, out of the gate, I kind of loved him for it. He might have been an Oscar®-winning, two-legged incarnation of Hollywood History, but he was pissed, the way any writer would be pissed. And he let us know. Once he took us to school for our heinous faux pas, however, he relaxed and voiced only mild objections to our stab at rendering his classic for the screen.
Not surprisingly, Budd had actually adapted Sammy for the screen before we ever rolled in. But nobody wanted to make his, either. Which may be one explanation of why he never leapt out of his chair screaming at the fact that he, the grand master, had to sit there and let two little pischers make carnival with his masterpiece. He was a gentleman.
There are good projects that don't get made all the time. Most aren't famous for not getting made. And most aren't written by an author who is Hollywood incarnate history, who literally penned one of the most quoted lines in Hollywood history, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am..." And which was what we felt like, after a while, for never being able to deliver what we knew would mean so much to Budd.
Ben: But still, we stayed in touch, years after there was any real talk of mounting the movie. Whenever I'd re-connect with Budd, he'd look at me with those alarmingly blue eyes, "Well...?" And I'd just sigh ... "Not yet, Budd, not yet." I had to get over the feeling that every time we saw each other we were both reminding ourselves of the unfinished business between us, and the frustration we both felt. I don't know if I ever did.
I gave him an award a couple of years back at some makeshift film festival in Culver City. I dropped it off the podium, of course, and Budd just laughed. At some point he really could have just said, "Enough of you, Stiller, and your pseudo- Sammy crusade. You had my baby, and you didn't get it done." It would have been easy, even expected. But he didn't. Never. He always asked how my dad was, or how the project I was working on was going.
The last time I saw him was with his family at a little restaurant on the upper west side, a breakfast place. He looked dapper, as always. I could tell he was feeling a bit under the weather, a little rundown. He had a surgery, and was recuperating. We didn't discuss Sammy that last time.
Jerry: The last time I saw him, a week before his death, was in Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. He had collapsed that morning and lost a lot of blood. But his eyes were just as intensely blue -- his cheeks still rosy. He seemed serene -- even as a frenetic parade of nurses, family and occasionally, an actual doctor stepped in to check him. I mentioned that I happened to be working on something about Hemingway, and at the sound of his name, Budd perked up. "He was a b-b-b-b-bully." Apparently the great man began to push and taunt young Budd from the moment they were introduced. "So, you think you're a writer, huh?" Eventually, Papa was unlucky enough to suggest a boxing match. He threw a punch at Budd. And Budd -- no stranger to the ring -- threw one back. That was that. "He didn't like it when you fought back," Budd said.
Everyone in the room listened with rapt fascination. It was a hell of a story.