Screenwriter Walter Bernstein, among the last survivors of Hollywood’s anti-Communist blacklist whose Oscar-nominated script for “The Front” drew upon his years of being unable to work under his own name, died Saturday. He was 101.
The cause was pneumonia, according to his wife, the literary agent Gloria Loomis.
A World War II correspondent for the military who also had been published in The New Yorker, Bernstein was at the start of what seemed a promising film career when the Cold War and anti-Communist paranoia led to his being blacklisted in 1950, a fate which ruined the lives of many of his peers and led some to suicide. Job offers to Bernstein were rescinded and onetime friends stopped speaking to him. FBI agents looked through his trash, showed up at his door and followed him outside.
“I was starting to look around when I left my house, looking over my shoulder when I walked down the street, bracing myself for the inevitable encounter,” he wrote in his memoir “Inside Out,” published in 1996. “Even expecting it, I was startled when it came, and there would be the sudden sour taste of fear for a moment and then a shaming wave of anger, not at them but at myself for being afraid. I could never really get angry at them. They were only doing their job, like delivering milk.”
Unwilling to provide the House Un-American Activities Committee names of suspected Communists, the way director Elia Kazan and others had been spared from banishment, Bernstein found employment through the use of “fronts,” people willing to lend their names (and receive part of the proceeds) for scripts he had written.
His fronts included an actor’s wife hoping to help her husband break through in movies and a friend of a friend, a guy named Leo, who had a gambling habit to support. Few were aware at any given time that Bernstein had contributed to such hit CBS television series as the crime drama “Danger” and to “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite and featuring re-enactments of historical events ranging from the Boston Tea Party to the death of Cleopatra.
While many were blacklisted just for supporting left-wing causes, Bernstein actually was a member of the American Communist Party and remained so until 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev revealed the many brutalities of Joseph Stalin, who had died three years earlier. Bernstein would remember his decision with “relief” over no longer abiding Soviet dogma and “sadness” for the people who were fellow idealists.
“I had left the Party, but not the idea of socialism,” he wrote in his memoir, “the possibility that there could be a system not based on inequality and exploitation.”
The blacklist began to weaken in the late ’50s and ended for Bernstein in 1959 with “That Kind of Woman,” starring Sophia Loren. He was soon working on “The Magnificent Seven,” the Hollywood adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai,” and on an A-list film that ended in tragedy, “Something’s Gotta Give.” Marilyn Monroe was cast as a shipwreck survivor who returns to her husband and children after being presumed lost. But Monroe was often late or absent altogether from the set and was fired in June 1962. Two months later, she was found dead from an apparent suicide.
In the 1970s, Bernstein was able to use his own story for what became his most acclaimed project, “The Front,” starring Woody Allen as a stand-in for blacklisted writers and featuring Bernstein’s friend Zero Mostel, who also had been ostracized in the ’50s. Bernstein received an Academy Award nomination in 1977 and a Writers Guild of America prize for best screen drama. Around the same time, Allen gave him an acting cameo in the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall.”
His other writing credits included the Burt Reynolds football comedy “Semi-Tough” and films by such old friends as Martin Ritt (“The Front,” “The Molly Maguires,” a story of rebelling miners he once cited as his personal favorite) and Sidney Lumet (“Fail-Safe”). Bernstein himself directed “Little Miss Marker,” a 1980 release based on the Damon Runyon short story.
In 1994, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Eastern branch of the Screen Writers Guild. Into his 90s, he taught screenwriting at New York University and was an adviser to the film school at the Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford.
Bernstein was married four times, most recently to Loomis, and had five children. Over his long life, he also enjoyed an eclectic range of friends and acquaintances, from authors Irwin Shaw and Shirley Jackson to songwriter Irving Berlin and actress Bette Davis, who, Bernstein was surprised to learn, shared his admiration for the writings of Karl Marx. “The most wonderful books,” she called them.
Descended from Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Bernstein was born and raised in New York City and by his teens had found his passions for movies and politics. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he reviewed movies for the campus newspaper until he was fired for panning the popular 1937 fantasy “Lost Horizon.” In his spare time, he read Marx and Engels, Steinbeck and Dreiser, and sought out films by Sergei Eisenstein and other Russian directors.
“The books had opened my head,” he wrote. “The movies opened my heart.”
He was drafted in 1941 and spent much of World War II as a reporter for the Army publication Yank, filing dispatches from the Middle East, Sicily and Yugoslavia, where he became the first American to interview the country’s longtime leader, Josip Broz Tito. After the war ended, in 1945, he joined the staff of The New Yorker and received a 10-week contract to work for Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. He stayed 10 months, long enough to be noticed by government agents and to discover his love for movies wasn’t dispelled by learning how they were made.
“I had been initiated into the mystery, participated in the sacred process,” he wrote in his memoir. “Making a movie was like building a cathedral, the hard and skilled work of many hands. Then you looked at it when it was finished and, if you were blessed, you saw Chartres. If not, you saw St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. It was still a cathedral. Even as an acolyte I could still enter the dark, embracing cave and feel mysteriously freed.”