Ask Walter Bernstein what makes for a good screenplay, and he’ll answer you with a (possibly apocryphal) story about Henry David Thoreau. “He was living out at Walden Pond and a friend came to tell him that Samuel Morse had just made the first successful wireless telegraph transmission from Boston to Portland, or something like that,” Bernstein says with the practiced storyteller’s delight in a well-told tale. “And Thoreau asked, ‘But what did it say?’ That’s always stuck with me. With all the technology and everything else, what’s it about?”
“What’s it about?” is a question Bernstein, who turned 95 this month, has been asking himself in one form or another for most of his 65-year career, which has stretched from the early days of live television to the modern era of binge watching, and from the lionized “golden age” of the studio system to the low-budget indie renaissance. And Bernstein shows no signs of slowing down. Currently, he has no less than a half-dozen projects kicking around in various stages of development, teaches MFA students in the Department of Dramatic Writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, is a longtime creative advisor to the Sundance directing and screenplay labs, and serves as a council member of the Writers Guild of America East (where he’s running for re-election). In 2011, “Hidden,” a four-part series he co-created with the Irish writer Ronan Bennett, aired on the BBC and can now be streamed via Netflix. He’s also been mulling a second volume of memoirs to complement 1996’s “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.”
“I write every day, or what passes for writing,” he says over a recent lunch at Cafe Luxembourg on New York’s Upper West Side, where he lives with his wife, the literary agent Gloria Loomis. Dressed sportily in a blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and white athletic sneakers, he is small of stature but bristles with a wiry energy. “I wake up and I sit down at the computer, and after that it’s up for grabs. That’s what I do. They’ll carry me off writing.”
Of late, those efforts have yielded “Kunstler,” a not-quite biopic of famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler, which Bernstein co-wrote with “Bulworth” Oscar nominee Jeremy Pikser. “It deals with his career in the sense of three big events he was involved with: the Freedom Riders, Attica and Wounded Knee,” says Bernstein. “The movie covers those, along with whatever his personal life was at the time, which was pretty fucked up.” There’s also “Getting Out,” a rewrite of a script Sidney Lumet (for whom Bernstein wrote the classic nuclear paranoia thriller “Fail-Safe”) was developing at the end of his life — a project that has since attracted the attention of another iconic New York director.
“A couple of months ago, I get a call on a Sunday night from Spike Lee saying, ‘I’ve read your script and I love it. Can I come see you?’” Bernstein recalls. “I said, ‘Sure, let’s make a date.’ And he said, ‘No, now!’ So he comes over and we talk a bit about the script. I had suggested at one point that Bobby Cannavale would be good for the lead, and Bobby had gotten the script to Spike. He said, ‘I want to do this in the fall, and I’ll be in touch.’ Naturally, it’s the last I’ve heard from him.”
But then, as Bernstein is quick to note, “This is a business that’s based on rejection and the anticipation of rejection. It’s tough. You have to be like one of those mechanical toys that, when you knock it down, it pops back up again.”
By that measure, Bernstein is something of a human Energizer bunny. Born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family, insulated from the worst of the Depression by his father’s steady employment as a schoolteacher, Bernstein grew up drunk on movies, ditching school or Hebrew lessons whenever possible to take refuge in the neighborhood picture houses. The movies were just starting to talk then, and Bernstein liked what they had to say, even if the thought of someday working in the business seemed as grand a fantasy as any of the far-flung adventures unfolding on the screen.
When Bernstein did come to Tinseltown, in 1947, he brought with him the kind of life experience that most of today’s film-school grads can only dream about. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1940, he had been drafted into the Army, where his writing abilities landed him a post on the staff of the Army’s first official inhouse magazine, Yank. As World War II raged, Bernstein reported from Palestine, Egypt and the front lines of the brutal Sicily campaign, also contributing stories to the New Yorker. Bluffing his way into German-occupied Yugoslavia in 1943, he managed to get the first American interview with the Partisan revolutionary leader (and future dictator) Josep Broz Tito — after hiking seven days through arduous mountain terrain to find him.
Compared with that, making movies should have been a breeze, and for a while it was. After earning his first screen credit on the minor 1948 noir “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine), Bernstein returned to New York and went to work in the burgeoning new medium of television at the behest of his close friend, producer-director Martin Ritt. But no sooner had Bernstein started than the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s began penetrating even the industry’s most liberal-minded spheres of influence. A supporter of radical politics since his student days (when he’d joined the Dartmouth chapter of the Young Communist League), Bernstein was cited eight times in “Red Channels,” the 1950 pamphlet that called out communist sympathizers by name and indexed their alleged transgressions. Among Bernstein’s crimes: supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and advocating for the Russian War Relief Fund.
That was more than enough for Bernstein to join the hundreds of other names on Hollywood’s unofficial Blacklist. And while he managed to avoid testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, like many blacklistees he spent the next decade of his career as a phantom, writing (chiefly for the CBS anthology series “Danger!” and “You Are There”) under various pseudonyms and — when studios and networks started demanding to meet writers in person — through the use of straw men (and women) known as “fronts.”
“The studios never liked the Blacklist,” Bernstein says between bites of an enormous tuna burger. “They didn’t want it. If you think about someone like (writer-director) Abraham Polonsky, he was coming off of ‘Body and Soul’ (1947), which was a big hit, and he had a deal at Fox. When the Blacklist started, Daryl Zanuck tried to protect him. He said, ‘Don’t come into the studio, work from home, we’ll figure it out.’ Until it got to the point where Zanuck said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. You’ve got to go.’ He didn’t like it or want it, but he went along with it.”
Years later, Bernstein would look back on those days with a pungent mix of anger and absurdity in “The Front” (1976), his Oscar-nominated screenplay about a two-bit bookie who becomes the stand-in for a group of blacklisted writers. The movie was a collective effort by a number of blacklist victims, including Ritt (who directed) and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi and Lloyd Gough. When it came to the part of the hapless front himself, Columbia Pictures wanted Warren Beatty or Robert Redford. But Bernstein and Ritt pushed back and got their preferred choice for the role, a nightclub comic with only a handful of movies under his belt: Woody Allen.
“It was great to work with Walter,” says Allen, who returned the favor the following year by giving Bernstein a cameo role in “Annie Hall.” “He wrote the very best script on blacklisting that’s been written to date. I’m told the picture is still played all the time on college campuses.”
When the Blacklist ended, Bernstein quickly rebounded, and he’s been steadily at work ever since, moving freely between big screen and small, often on projects with a strong political or social dimension — movies like “Fail-Safe,” “The Front” and “The Molly Maguires” (1970), a tragically underseen account of the fight for better working conditions by Pennsylvania coal miners in 1870s Pennsylvania, starring Sean Connery and again directed by Ritt.
“The notion of how a character’s actions and choices are constrained by the world he or she lives in is very much something that Walter understands and is second nature to his political thinking and his writing,” says former HBO Films president Colin Callender, who commissioned a series of Bernstein scripts throughout the 1990s, including the Emmy-winning “Miss Evers’ Boys” (1997), about the U.S. government’s controversial use of poor, rural black men as guinea pigs to test the effects of syphilis. At the time, says Callender, HBO was striving to recapture the feel of vintage anthology series like “Playhouse 90” from “the days when dramas really had something to say and put characters center stage that weren’t normally the focus of movies and TV. Given Walter’s own history as both a writer and a political animal, he was an inspirational writer for us to go to.”
“For him, everything begins with and is defined by character,” says screenwriter Matthew Robbins (“The Sugarland Express,” “Crimson Peak”), who first met Bernstein in the 1970s, when they were both working out of a Marin County production office owned by George Lucas, and has considered him a close friend and mentor ever since. “When Walter was hitting his stride as a professional writer in the ’40s and ‘50s, they didn’t have such a category of movies as ‘character-driven dramas,’ which has become a genre designation in today’s marketplace. Back in those days, no movies could be taken seriously unless they were character-driven. That was the source of his understanding and his talent, and it still is.”
“We’re all conditioned by the times we live in,” says Bernstein, who attributes his longevity to resilience and a healthy sense of humor. “I came out of the Depression, the War, and the Blacklist. Those are the things that formed me, so I wrote in a certain way. Social impact today is much different. To write something socially conscious when I first went to Hollywood was to have a black character who wasn’t Stepin Fetchit. There’s a scene in ‘Body and Soul’ where Canada Lee, who was black, comes into a room to meet this crooked white boxing promoter, and Abe Polonsky told me that when they first shot the scene, the studio objected to the fact that Canada Lee didn’t take his hat off. Different times.”
On the other hand, much remains the same. “If you want to attack someone in this country, you’re always safe to call them a socialist. It’s a word that’s been successfully demonized,” he says, noting the prevalence of the term in much anti-Obama rhetoric. And getting a script from page to screen? That remains as tricky as ever. “One of my sons has been a location manager and is now dipping his feet into producing,” he says. “So he’s on the phone talking to agents and people like that. The thing I keep trying to knock into his head, which is so hard, is that nothing is real until it’s real.”