Pulitzer Prize-winner dies at 81
Art Buchwald, who started his career as Variety‘s Paris correspondent, became an internationally known journalist-humorist and who affected the entire studio system with his “Coming to America” lawsuit, died of kidney failure Wednesday in Washington, D.C. He was 81.
After having a leg amputated in January 2006, Buchwald refused dialysis, preferring to stay in a Washington-area hospice, where he received visits from his family and well-known friends. He was expected to have just days to live, but outlived his prognosis by nearly a year and wrote a book about the experience.
The avuncular and witty Buchwald published thousands of columns filled with his humorous social and political reflections, writing first from Paris and then from New York. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1982.
But in Hollywood, his name caused tremors as a result of his successful 1988 lawsuit against Paramount over the Eddie Murphy film “Coming to America,” which called into question the studio accounting system on motion pictures.
Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Arthur Buchwald never finished high school. He ran away from home to join the Marines at age 17 in 1942. He spent 3½ years in the Pacific theater, where he edited the newspaper and did public relations for the Special Services Dept.
After the war Buchwald studied at USC and was managing editor of Wampus, the campus humor magazine. He wrote a column for the Daily Trojan as well as a variety show, “No Love Atoll.”
Again he left without completing his studies and moved to Paris, where he got a job as a correspondent for Variety. He sold the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune on his sample column, “Paris After Dark,” which quickly caught on, as did his subsequent “Mostly About Paris.” By 1952 the columns were being run in the U.S. under the title “Europe’s Lighter Side” and later “Art Buchwald in Paris.”
The 1953 column in which Buchwald explains Thanksgiving Day to the French people is regularly reprinted.
Buchwald collected the columns into several books including “Don’t Forget to Write,” “Paris After Dark,” “Art Buchwald’s Paris” and “I Choose Caviar.”
His first novel was “A Gift From the Boys.” In subsequent years he wrote “You Can Fool All of the People All of the Time,” “Counting Sheep,” “I’ll Always Have Paris” and other bestsellers.
After returning to the U.S. in 1962, Buchwald became a widely syndicated columnist based in New York, commenting on the American scene. In 1970, his humorous political play “Sheep on the Runway” enjoyed a modest run on Broadway.
Over the years, Buchwald wrote treatments and proposals for several motion pictures, including a 2½-page treatment for a comedy called “King for a Day,” about a visiting dignitary in the U.S. He and producer Alain Bernheim submitted it to Paramount. After being shown to Murphy’s production company, the project went into limbo and Buchwald eventually sold it to Warner Bros.
When “Coming to America” was released in 1998, based on an idea purportedly by Murphy and Arsenio Hall, Buchwald accused the studio of plagiarism and of not acting in good faith to develop his idea. He and Bernheim sued for $250,000 plus 19% of the film’s net profits.
The suit highlighted the studios’ complicated accounting system. Despite grosses of $145 million to the studio and a production cost of $48 million, Paramount claimed there were no net profits on the movie. Buchwald and attorney Pierce O’Donnell claimed the net profit system in Hollywood was a scam.
Though Buchwald and Bernheim received only $1 million, their victory was far from pyrrhic. Buchwald had gone up against the Goliath, and though he hadn’t received the kind of remuneration he was asking for, he’d won.
Thereafter, when Par was challenged on the net profits for such films as “Indecent Proposal” and “Forrest Gump,” the studio quietly took care of those matters before they received widespread public airing.
But the damage was done. The studio accounting system and the definitions of gross and net profits came under greater scrutiny throughout the ’90s, causing the studios a great deal of heartache and large legal fees.
The case was the subject of a 1992 book, “Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount,” by O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal.
Buchwald was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters in 1986 and recently received a lifetime achievement award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Buchwald’s last contribution to Daily Variety was only days ago, when he offered his thoughts on his favorite films and the role film comedy played in his career in the Jan. 5 issue. Click here to read “The Gold Standard.”
But Buchwald’s famous wit was in plain sight from the beginning, as his reporting/reviewing at the Variety Paris bureau in 1949 vividly illustrates. Here are two reviews of films directed by world-esteemed filmmaking luminaries Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville. Neither were spared Buchwald’s laser-like scrutiny.
He separated from his wife, Ann McGarry, to whom he was married for 40 years, before her death in 1994. He is survived by a son, two daughters, two sisters and five grandchildren.
David S. Cohen and Richard Natale contributed to this report.