Bowl of Cherries.
Kicked out of Yale at age 14, Judd Breslau falls in with Phillips Chatterton, a bathrobe-wearing Egyptologist working out of a dilapidated home laboratory. There, young Valerie Chatterton quickly leads Breslau away from his research and into, in order: the attic, a Colorado equestrian ranch, a porn studio beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and a jail cell in southern Iraq, where we find him awaiting his own execution while the war rages on in the north. Written by a 90-year-old debut novelist who’s also an ex-Marine, a two-time Oscar nominee, and one of the co-creators of Mr. Magoo, Bowl of Cherries rivals the liveliest comic novels for sheer gleeful inventiveness. This is a book of astounding breadth and sharp consequence, containing all the joy, derangement, terror, and doubt of adolescence and everything after.
h2, The Author
Born in 1917, Millard Kaufman plunged into World War II on Guadalcanal as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, then made D-Day landings on Guam and Okinawa. He co-created the beloved Mr. Magoo and was twice nominated for screenwriting Oscars—in 1954 for Take the High Ground! and in 1956 for the legendary Bad Day at Black Rock. He won the Brussels World’s Fair screenwriting award for Raintree County in 1958. He is the author of Plots and Characters, a text on screenwriting that was published in 1999, and has taught at Johns Hopkins and at the Sundance Institute. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his second novel.
Review by Adam B. Vary
September 28, 2007
Judd Breslau is a prodigy of seriously unrealized promise. At 14, he and his poet mom are abandoned by his dad, an emotionally mingy, mediocre academic. A year later, he’s kicked out of Yale. Soon, he finds himself in a minor province of war-torn Iraq in a prison built primarily of human excrement, awaiting execution. How he gets there is a picaresque of inexhaustible comic invention by debut novelist Millard Kaufman, whose dexterous prose swims with Judd’s delightfully precocious turns of phrase in Bowl of Cherries. One fave: “The room was permeated with the lingering stench of old and laminated farts.” (Grade: A; EW Pick)
The New Yorker
“First at Ninety”
By Rebecca Mead
Issue: September 17, 2007
Millard Kaufman, a début novelist whose book “Bowl of Cherries” comes out this month, has been described by his publisher, McSweeney’s, as quite possibly “the best extant epic-comedic writer of his generation.” This is high praise, and would be higher still were it not for the fact that there are few, if any, epic-comedic writers extant from Kaufman’s generation. Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of “Cherries,” who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional southern Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete.
“People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste?” Kaufman said the other day. “So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?” The novel, which is equal parts “Catcher in the Rye” and “Die Hard,” is likely to offend Iraqis to the same degree that the work of Sacha Baron Cohen offends natives of Kazakhstan. “It seemed to me there was a lot of public interest in Iraq, which is why I set it there, but it could have been set in Oswego, New York, where I have also never been,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News for thirteen dollars and seventy cents a week. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Marines, with whom he participated in the campaign to win Guadalcanal and landed at Guam and Okinawa. “I weighed a hundred and eighty-two pounds when I went overseas, and when my wife met me afterward she didn’t recognize me—I weighed a hundred and twenty-eight,” Kaufman said. “I had dengue fever and malaria, and I didn’t really feel like I could spend the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in New York anymore.”
He moved to California, where he took up screenwriting, winning an Oscar nomination in 1953 for a movie called “Take the High Ground.” (He was nominated again two years later, for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”) He lent his name to Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, for a movie called “Gun Crazy.” “The only time I ever met him was at a meeting of the Writers Guild,” Kaufman said. "It was such a bore, and I left and went into a bar at the hotel, and Trumbo was there. We met because some guy was standing between us who was fairly drunk, and he said, ’What’s all that noise?’ One of us said, ’It’s a writers’ meeting.’ He said, ‘What do they write?’ and we said, ‘Movies.’ He looked aghast and said, ‘You mean they write that stuff?’ " Kaufman’s most enduring contribution to entertainment, at least thus far in his career, is as co-creator of Mr. Magoo, whom he modelled in part on an uncle. “That is what we thought the character was based on until, twenty years later, we were accused of being nasty about people with bad eyesight,” he said.
Kaufman began the novel after his most recent screenplay, which he undertook at the age of eighty-six, came to nothing. His alliance with McSweeney’s was a product of circumstance. “My literary agent, who was younger than me, had died suddenly, and I had nobody,” Kaufman said. He is now writing a second novel. “Years ago, I was working in Italy, and Charlie Chaplin and his family came from Switzerland,” he recalled. “We were at a beach north of Rome, and it was a very foggy day and the beach was lousy. At about three o’clock it cleared up, and Chaplin said, ’I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.’ That made an impression on me.”
Kaufman writes longhand and has a secretary type up his work. “The only promise to myself that I have ever kept was no more typewriters,” he said. “I hate the damn thing.” (When it was suggested to Kaufman that he might want to check his Amazon ratings after “Bowl of Cherries” comes out, he said that he wasn’t sure what Amazon ratings were.)
None of Kaufman’s friends have read the book, not even the members of his lunch club, which meets weekly at Hamburger Hamlet and includes Christopher Knopf, the seventy-nine-year-old former president of the Writers Guild, and Arthur Hiller, the eighty-three-year-old former president of the Academy. Kaufman is the oldest member of the group. “Everybody I know is dead by ninety,” he said, “and I don’t think I can dig them up for lunch.”
“Hot Novelist: Millard Kaufman”
By Gavin Edwards
Issue: October 18, 2007
How do you avoid the pitfall of your first novel being a thinly veiled autobiography? By living a life so wide-ranging that you couldn’t get it all in one book. Before Millard Kaufman wrote his debut, Bowl of Cherries, he had served in the Marine Corps, been nominated for two Academy Awards, co-created Mr. Magoo and turned down the chance to co-star in a movie with Sophia Loren.
So Kaufman, who is 90, instead made Bowl of Cherries a freewheeling comedy that careens from a Colorado horse ranch to an Iraqi prison to a porn studio underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
Kaufman spent his professional life as a screenwriter whose most notable film was 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock, where Spencer Tracy single-handedly faces down a hostile Western town. “In movies, you have to find your subject and stick to it like grim death,” says Kaufman. “With a book, I like to go wild, just because I can.”
Published by McSweeney’s (which Kaufman had never heard of a year ago), Bowl of Cherries is the work of a writer unshackled, finally able to use vocabulary and structure veroboten in Hollywood. Louts are “crapulous”; young men are “love-swacked”; breasts are “plagent.”
Kaufman is already working on a second novel: “I’m physically incapable of sitting around and doing nothing. Despite my age, I can get into a lot of trouble.”
“Blind Ambition: A Modern-Day Satire From the 90-Year-Old Creator of Mr. Magoo”
By Ron Charles
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Once you reach a certain age, the appearance of yet another brilliant novel by someone barely old enough to vote is deeply irritating. It’s akin to that moment when you realize while brushing your teeth before bed: “By the time Byron was my age, he’d been dead for 10 years.”
Well, buck up. Here’s a shot of adrenaline for middle-aged hopes, and it comes, of all places, from McSweeney’s, that insufferably youthful publishing company in San Francisco run by Dave Eggers. Their lead title this fall is Bowl of Cherries, a smart, zany comedy by a first-time novelist who’s 90 years old. A few film buffs may recognize the name Millard Kaufman—he was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s (“Take the High Ground!” and “Bad Day at Black Rock”)—but everybody knows Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon klutz he created with John Hubley in 1949.
Now, almost 60 years later, Kaufman is back with another hapless hero who wanders around falling into mischief. Judd Breslau is an impossibly brilliant 14-year-old boy who’s trying to finish his doctorate in English literature. When his father disappears and his mother waltzes off to Colorado to work for a poetry magazine that publishes her “dilapidated rhymes,” Judd is left to fend for himself. And so begins one of the strangest journeys in American fiction, which, after all, specializes in the strange journeys of teenage boys.
Judd tells us his chaotic life story from a prison cell in Assama, a backwater province of Iraq, far south of where American soldiers are prosecuting their war on terror. He’s waiting to be executed by ganching—flung from a tower onto bamboo spikes—a prospect that, he admits, “scrambles the circuitry, sunders my peace of mind, and plays hob with my nervous system.” Nevertheless, he’s writing this tale of how he came to die in Assama, rumored to have once been the site of the Garden of Eden. Now it’s the only place on Earth where the inhabitants construct all their buildings from human excrement (“evacuative biodegradables,” for marketing purposes).
That weird incongruity between highbrow/lowbrow humor is only part of what makes Bowl of Cherries so irresistible. Kaufman’s comic imagination, his ability to mix things scatological and historical, political and philosophical, reminds one of those young’uns Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. The ridiculous slapstick in Assama is straight from Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” and a cameo appearance by a goofy President Bush will take you back to “Dr. Strangelove.” But Kaufman seems to have more heart than those ’60s satirists; his precocious young hero pulls on our sympathies even as he trudges on through absurdity.
Judd’s journey to the Assama prison begins months earlier when he’s asked to leave Yale. Disappointed at first, he soon realizes it’s a relief, “an end to abstruse striving, to dogmatic bluster, Talmudic dissection, to the fractured assignment of Meaning and Levels to a phrase, a clause, a guiltless comma which the author, pinned like a butterfly on a board, probably never intended … an end to the inkhorn vocabulary of literary scholarship that was like a throat disease.”
Suffering a “premature midlife crisis,” he takes a job at a crazy think tank in Baltimore, run by an Egyptologist who’s on the verge of discovering how the pharaohs used sound waves to teleport limestone blocks to build the pyramids. For months, Judd is instructed to sit in his room, think about suicide and play a tuba while watching for any indications of levitation. He might have considered his new career a waste of time except that in this madhouse he spots Valerie, the director’s “achingly beautiful” daughter, and falls instantly, irrevocably in love.
The rest of the story, which rambles through a farm in Colorado and a porn studio in New York before finally arriving in the once Edenic hellhole of modern-day Assama, is driven largely by Judd’s efforts to win Valerie’s affections. Over and over, powerful men use her to get Judd to help them pursue their schemes of world domination. In many ways Valerie seems an odd match for the young genius. When he tells her that her “home looks far from salubrious,” she asks, “Where’s Salubrious?” Completely smitten, Judd can see only that “she has an uncluttered mind,” to which her father counters, “There’s nothing in it.”
But this is no ordinary boy. Planning his assault on Valerie’s heart, he thinks, “We’ll begin with the disarming bond of friendship, the epicene sedative which would give way imperceptibly to stronger medicine, a steamy philter to enflame her with a passion as ardent as mine.”
I’m a little rusty on what 15-year-olds do to get girls, but unless they’re trying to woo the SAT prep coach, I doubt any of them relies on “epicene sedatives” or “steamy philters.” I can’t remember when a novel kept me so chained to the dictionary (asseverate? steatopygous? chalcedonic?). More than just comic pretension, though, Judd’s vocabulary is all part of the story’s explosive richness, its constant disruption of our expectations.
As the Iraq War grinds on in the north and insane men introduce nuclear fuel to help modernize Assama, everything points toward an apocalyptic finish. Judd finally sees the men who have used him for what they are: “puppets of their own passion,” proclaiming their “service of mankind. A ringing dedication, shrill, clear, and dangerously self-deceptive.” And yet Kaufman turns away from the cynical finale that easily could have finished Bowl of Cherries. Maybe something about surviving 90 years of disastrous human history has given him the courage to scrape out a little hope. Yes, there’s a mushroom cloud—all of Judd’s bosses have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb—but that’s not enough to keep this young man down. Or Kaufman. He’s reportedly working away on a second novel. Please, nobody distract him.
Review: Bowl of Cherries
By John Lewis
Issue: October 2007
This debut novel takes place partly in Greenspring Valley and was penned by a 90-year-old author—who wrote the Bad Day At Black Rock screenplay, was nominated for two Oscars, taught at Hopkins and the Sundance Institute, and co-created Mr. Magoo. I don’t know about you, but I’d read any book by a writer with that résumé. Happily, Kaufman doesn’t disappoint, and his narrative is infused with the wisdom and whimsy such a résumé implies. A bevy of eccentrics populate the book—which is set in Brooklyn, Colorado, Iraq, and Baltimore County—with an Egyptologist working out of his ramshackle house in the Valley chief among them. They give the book its madcap charm, as the story shifts from love story to coming-of-age tale to comic novel and back again. Its teenage protagonist occasionally lapses into Eisenhower-era speech that no self-respecting contemporary teen would use, but such lapses are forgivable. Kaufman exudes a vitality that novelists half his age would envy.
Review: Bowl of Cherries
Issue: October 12, 2007
Millard Kaufman offers all 89-year-olds new hope, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. At 90, the co-creator of the cartoon klutz Mr. Magoo has just published his first novel, and it turns out to be a “brilliant” comic epic that puts him in a class with those relative “young-uns” Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Kaufman has a good excuse for withholding his literary talent for so long, said Teddy Wayne in RadarOnline.com. “I’ve been kind of busy making a living writing screenplays,” he says. When the last one, started four years ago, didn’t pan out, Kaufman started writing about a 14-year-old American doctoral candidate awaiting execution in an Iraqi town built entirely of human excrement. Kaufman’s wildly unpredictable picaresque, Bowl of Cherries, was off and running.
Kaufman had plenty of real-world experiences to draw from, said Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. As a Marine during World War II, he made landings at both Guam and Okinawa. He then used those combat memories to write screenplays for two films—Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground—that garnered him Oscar nominations in the mid-1950s. One day while Kaufman was working in Italy, Charlie Chaplin taught him an important lesson by walking away from a family day at the beach just as the afternoon sun broke through the clouds. Chaplin explained that unless he wrote every day, he felt as if he didn’t deserve dinner. “That made an impression on me,” says Kaufman. In fact, he’s already working on a second novel.
Rocky Mountain Chronicle
“Never Roll Over: Bowl of Cherries Proves That Life Is Sweeter With Age”
By Evan P. Schneider
September 25, 2007
For a great many reasons, Millard Kaufman is a paradox of our age. For one, he doesn’t have email. For two, he thinks most movies today are made for kids. At ninety years old, he is certainly a noteworthy exception to our youth-obsessed society and may force us coin a phrase at the opposite extreme of “child prodigy.” In fact, with the publication next month of his debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, Kaufman might be considered the antithesis of the long-hailed John Keats (whose entire oeuvre was written before his death at age 25) and the recently lauded Jonathan Safran Foer (who, at 25, published a highly successful debut novel).
“I’m a late bloomer. [Movie] producers are looking for writers as young as possible nowadays,” says Kaufman, who is the co-creator of Mr. Magoo and worked in film until the age of 86. “And I’m not as young as possible.” But why a novel? And why now? Like the book, Kaufman says, “It’s about existence. How do I do it? How do I keep going?”
The ninety year old’s inquisitiveness and tenacity shine brightly within the novel, in which he weaves words more impressively than a spider spins a web. Slightly reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall,” Bowl of Cherries is the story of Judd Breslau (a fourteen-year-old genius, ironically enough), kicked out of his graduate program at Yale and, after a series of wildly unlikely events, is thrown into an Iraqi prison to await his execution. Nowhere in the tale does Kaufman relax his sharp wit or penchant for lucid observation.
As Judd ponders adolescent beauty alongside imminent death, Kaufman’s writing summons the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka. Judd globe-trots, seeking his first and only love, Valerie, but finds himself in the shadow of a multi-armed political and intellectual beast, a conflict that Kaufman says is rooted in both human temptation and the mysteries of the world: “How the hell did the Egyptians build the pyramids? No one seems to know, exactly. And why did Thomas Chatterton, a little-known English writer, commit suicide at such a young age? But above all, what are humans supposed to do with their excrement?”
These conundrums, of course, are complex but, as Kaufman says, “Nothing is impossible. We have been through many terrible losses and defeats, and each time we have survived.” As the novel progresses, Judd’s past and future converge, as does world history. The cyclical, parallel motifs of which Kaufman makes use suture together not only the threads of the plot, but his outlook on the plights of our modern world: “I’m not necessarily optimistic, but we’ll manage, we’ll get through this, too. We will not be defeated that easily.”
Fruit, especially a bowl of cherries, can be tempting, both allegorically and literally. The bowl of cherries in the novel, though, packs a wickedly subtle surprise and, like the book itself, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Fraught though it is with Kafkaesque futility, the floor of Bowl of Cherries never falls through to hopelessness. “Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail—but we just have to keep plodding,” Kaufman says.
Even if attention is drawn to his book’s rather abrupt fireball of a conclusion or its ornate vocabulary, which will thoroughly exercise lazy readers, it seems Kaufman, even at ninety, is a step ahead.
“That’s another wonderful thing about human beings. We try to solve every damn thing,” he says. Already at work on his second novel, Kaufman seems intent on proving that younger isn’t always better.
“Millard Kaufman’s Life and His Bowl of Cherries: The Nonagenarian Novel”
By Marc Weingarten
October 17, 2007
Millard Kaufman is wary of the attention his debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, might receive. “I don’t want people to think this is the work of some 90-year-old freak,” he says in a voice that’s strong and sturdy. The fact that Kaufman—a screenwriter from Hollywood’s studio-system era who wrote the flat-out classic Bad Day at Black Rock, as well as Raintree County, Never So Few and others—has taken his first stab at fiction in his ninth decade is fairly newsworthy. But Bowl of Cherries is more than a senior moment; it’s a loopy wonder of a novel, a mordantly funny picaresque that sends its protagonist, an egghead 14-year-old named Judd Breslau, on a journey from the suburbs of Baltimore to the fraught region of Assama in Iraq, a place that has cornered the market on cement made from human crap. Breslau is looking for an elusive golden girl, the daughter of an armchair scholar named Phillips Chatterton who thinks the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids with sound waves, but first he has to learn the secret of the magic cement. If all this sounds improbably whacked out, it is—but Kaufman’s rapier-sharp prose and keen instinct for finding the absurd in everyday life makes this a social satire of the first order.
So you were a major player during the golden age of the studio era.
There’s a golden age in everyone’s life. It means that you were young once. But working for the studios was no picnic. It was a matter of survival. You did what you had to do or you were canned. I was lucky, because I was under contract to MGM for 13 years.
How did you get such a nice long-term gig?
I was hired because Dore Schary, the head of the studio, was fascinated by the Marines, and I had been in the Marine Corps. I had never written a movie before—I had been a reporter at the Daily News in New York—but they needed a training film written. I would have gone back to New York, but I had malaria and dengue fever from the Pacific, and I thought the sunshine would help.
Two weeks later, Schary wasn’t sure about me. My agent, ever loyal to me, told him, “Look, try him out for two weeks. If it doesn’t work out, you can hire a real writer.” Well, I outlasted Schary, as it turned out. He was fired before my time at MGM was up.
Had you ever written fiction prior to Bowl of Cherries?
I had never written a novel until last year. I wouldn’t have done it if the circumstances hadn’t existed in which it became increasingly difficult for a person to write a picture if that person was over, say, 40 years of age.
When was the last time you wrote a feature?
I think I’m the oldest person in the Writers Guild to write a script. I was 86 at the time. It was for Ridley Scott’s son, who’s a director. We didn’t see eye to eye, and it came to nothing. I had had a long run, but I realized that I needed something to do in order to keep me out of trouble. So I thought I’d write a novel.
How does fiction writing differ from scriptwriting for you?
I found it enjoyable, but, I don’t know if it’s my age or what, I’d just go over and over sections looking for the apposite word. I guess I had this exalted view of fiction writing, that it was a higher art, but it’s really just like anything else—you sit your ass down and you write the goddamn thing.
Some reviews have pointed out that all of the adults in your book suffer from hubris and arrogance disguised as self-delusional good will—a nod perhaps to the current administration’s policy in Iraq?
People are bumblers. The president is a bumbler. I don’t have much respect for him, but they all have problems. Clinton did a pretty good job, but he was full of shit too. The Iraqi thing—I didn’t want this book to be a war novel, but since the beginning of recorded time, which is about 6,500 years or so, we’ve never had peace in the world. There’s always a goddamn flare-up somewhere. I couldn’t have ignored that, but I kept it in the background. I just think I’ve hit on two resonant ideas. One is the son searching for the father who’s abandoned him. The other is the unattainable woman who suddenly becomes attainable.
And what about Grady’s obsession with learning the secret of turning human excrement into building material? Where did that come from?
Well, it seems to me that we as a human race have gone through a qualitative change when we stopped being nomads and moved to cities. Nomads could crap anywhere and it wasn’t a problem. Suddenly, in cities, crap became a big waste issue. I just thought, well, what if shit became a hot commodity, something that could be used for the greater good? Plus, there are a lot of good rhymes for shit.
It’s remarkable how well you nailed that sardonic, flip tone of your teenage protagonist.
A number of friends have told me that they need a dictionary to read the book, but this kid in the novel is a goofball, a precocious kid, and he would do things like that—use big words that no one understands. People are telling me that I have a distinctive writing voice, and I’m thinking, Christ, I’ve never thought of it before!
This book is full of historical digressions. How did you do your research?
All of the research was from Britannica. It’s like a movie feature—you put the stats together and make a story out of it! Also, I’m a very good liar.
Do you use the Internet?
No, you have the Internet. I don’t go near the goddamn thing. It’s gonna bite me or something.
It’s a tad ironic that McSweeney’s, the quintessential hipster imprint, is publishing a book by a nonagenarian. How did that come about?
My agent, Doris Falsey, died before she could send it out, and believe me, it’s not easy to get an agent when you’re 89 years old, regardless of what you’ve done. So I turned to Nina Wiener at Taschen, who had edited a screenwriting book I had written, and she got it to an editor at McSweeney’s named Eli Horowitz, and he bought the book. Nina handled everything. I don’t know about all the contract stuff.
Rumor has it that you worked with O.J. Simpson on a film.
O.J. was a very charming, shrewd and smart kid. We were working on a film together in Canada, and O.J. had asked the director, Terence Young, if he could skip out for a day to shoot a commercial. Well, O.J. took Terence’s car without telling him. When O.J. came back, Terence was waiting for him, and O.J. said, “Well, I figured if anyone could get another car on this set, it would be the director.” He knew what he could get away with. But what do I know? I liked him! O.J. and my daughter Amy goofed around on the set for three weeks, and I thought he was terrific! I guess I’m a poor judge of character.
You were a front for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was blacklisted for the film Gun Crazy. How did that work out?
Trumbo had just gotten out of jail, and we shared an agent, George Willner. One day, George told me, “Dalton Trumbo has an opportunity to write a script, but I need to know right now if you could lend your name to it.” I mean, this could land me in jail, and my agent’s telling me it’s now or never. But I did it, and no one ever knew. Maybe it was a bad picture, that’s why no one cared!
What fiction do you admire?
I still read Gatsby every year, and Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. When I was in junior high school, my English teacher assigned Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond. I started reading it and I was enthralled. I guess it was an unconscious influence on me, ’cause it has a lot of characters, and the story jumps all over the goddamn place. I like crazy stories. But my favorite novel is Bleak House. Dickens to me is the greatest writer of prose in the English language.
Were you ever affected by the blacklist?
When I was doing Bad Day at Black Rock, they came after Dore and me. Dore, because he wouldn’t fire anyone who was accused of being Red, and so they pressured him. They got to me because I had passed around a letter to a bunch of writers that was addressed to Darryl Zanuck. We were requesting that he revert the rights to a book back to the writer, Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, because they were never going to make the picture, and someone in England was willing to do it. The book was never pulled out of Fox, though. They just dumped it. But I was in deep water; they published my name in Red Channels.
They had said my father, Fred Kaufman, was a known commie who orchestrated a railroad strike. Well, there was, as it turned out, a Fred Kaufman who led a strike—but it was the Pullman porters’ strike. That Fred Kaufman was an African-American!
New York: Vulture Blog
“Millard Kaufman on Being a First-Time Novelist at 90”
By Connor Kilpatrick
October 1, 2007
By the time Mr. Magoo co-creator Millard Kaufman reached middle-age, he’d already earned two Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground!), helped create one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time (based on his uncle), and served as a marine in World War II. Now, at 90, he’s written his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, about a 14-year-old prodigy on an intercontinental trip that takes him from the Yale campus to a porn studio under the Brooklyn Bridge and finally to an Iraqi prison cell. Kaufman spoke with Vulture about writing, meeting Lyndon Johnson, and turning down Sophia Loren.
So you just shot up one morning and said I’m going to write a novel!?
Well, I don’t know whether writers shoot up in the morning and do anything besides go back to sleep. One day the thought crossed my mind—what the hell happened with human excrement when people stopped being nomads? They knew what to do when they were nomads—they’d just take off. But if you settled in a city and you had this stuff around you constantly, what do you do about it? Somerset Maughaum once said, “Find your subject and stick to it like grim death.” I always thought that made sense, it certainly made sense in pictures. But I got about four different subjects here that I stick to [in the novel].
Plus the espionage stuff, with the President sending characters to Iraq…
I’ve only met one president in my life and that was Johnson. I didn’t recognize him when I walked into his office. He was so goddamn handsome! Much more than in the newspapers. Plus he was enormously bright. I tried to get him to talk about Truman and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and instead he kept telling me about the pains and aches of his wife. So I didn’t get very far there.
Some might consider Bowl of Cherries vulgar, particularly the parts involving pornography and horse genitals. Have you reached an age where you don’t care what people think?
If they don’t like it they can go fuck themselves. Over so much of my life I’ve been limited by writing for pictures. There’s certain things you can’t say, certain things you can’t show. In the book I found I had much greater freedom than when I was writing for pictures.
Young writers like to talk about how grueling it was to write their first novels. But here you are at 90.
A lot of people do make a big deal out of writing and while it’s not a little deal it seems to me there’s a large issue at stake. If there’s so much pain and difficulty, I think they’d be much happier doing something else. There’s nothing romantic about writing for Christ’s sake. It’s like how everybody seems to make a big deal about the glamour of being an actor. Christ, out here I was offered a job as a lead in a picture with Sophia Loren and I told them to shove it up their ass. I’m not interested in being an actor!
You were offered a lead opposite Sophia Loren and you turned it down?
There was a wonderful French director who did a picture called Le Diabolique. He called me from Paris and asked if I wanted to re-write the thing. So he gets here and he’s at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I go over and we start talking. He wanted Lancaster and I said, “If you want Lancaster, you have to make the character a little more sensible.” Now it’s hot as hell, hottest day of summer I could remember. And as I’m telling him what to do and how to do it, I’m walking up and down in his hotel suite and unconsciously, little by little, I’m unbuttoning my shirt. By the time I get done talking, my goddamn shirt is wide-open. There’s a key in the lock and Loren’s husband comes in. He says in French, “Ah, so you’ve found the animal!” The director said “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, if you write the picture you can play the part with Loren.” It was going to be shot in the Greek islands. And like a goddamn fool I said “Nah, I don’t want to do it.”
What’s this I hear about you taking cobra venom?
Oh my god! That was when I was in school. I had a friend whose name was Macht who became a doctor in Cincinnati later. He and I, as undergraduates, were friends and his father, Buddy, was head of a large experimental drug company, experimenting with cobra venom as an analgesic. Incidentally this was how I met my wife. Buddy asked us to take part in this procedure and my wife did it purely of science, which I thought was admirable. Except when they asked me, I said I’ll do it for $5. I got my $5 and took this stuff and about 5 years later I married her.
What did it do?
It didn’t do very much to her, but it sure as hell had an effect on me! I took this stuff with three other guys, one of whom’s father belonged to a very posh country club in Baltimore. And the next thing I knew—and this sounds goofy but it’s true—the next thing I knew I was playing golf, which I had never done before in my life, on this course at this guy’s country club, and it’s raining and we’re all naked.
So the experiment was a success!
I’d like to blame that on the cobra venom and if I can’t blame it on the cobra venom, that’s terrible!