A screenwriter shows his art

October 12, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Hard to believe that the same man invented Mr. Magoo, Steve McQueen and karate movies. Harder still to believe that he's from Baltimore; but it is true -- more or less -- and screenwriter Millard Kaufman (Hopkins, class of '39; Marine Corps, Okinawa branch,class of '45)is back and will introduce is back and will introduce his most famous movie -- "Bad Day at Black Rock" -- at the Baltimore Museum of Art at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The event is sponsored by the Baltimore Film Forum (phone 889-1993).

Kaufman, 73 and fit as a fiddle, is one of those great old guys, ex-newspaperman and merchant seaman, who swaggered his way into Hollywood in the late '40s and managed to talk himself into a career at MGM for 12 years, back in the days when Hollywood was still a movie town and not a packaging town. His first job was writing for a star who'd never talk back or demand his own dressing room -- "Mr. Magoo." He got a hundred bucks a week.

He got into features when MGM was looking for a combat vet to write a combat picture and Dore Schary, MGM's chief of production, took a gamble on him. The movie was "Take the High Ground," with Richard Widmark.

Kaufman dismisses modern conventions of criticism, such as "film noir" and "auteur theory," with a laugh.

"Let me tell you, that auteur theory is just so much bull----. In pictures, everybody contributes."

Case in point, "Bad Day at Black Rock." He wrote it in three weeks for MGM, but it was Dore Schary who came up with the idea that Spencer Tracy would have a crippled arm.

Why? For the allusions to wounded heroes in Hemingway and on back to "The Iliad"?

"Hell, no. Dore knew that every actor was a sucker for playing a cripple. He knew Tracy wouldn't turn down the chance!"

And as for the martial arts used for the first time in an American picture?

"Well, Spence was one-armed and if he's gonna beat some guys in a fight, the only way is, he has to kick 'em . . . So I dreamed up the judo. Didn't know a thing about it. Still don't."

And McQueen? Well, Kaufman was involved with Frank Sinatra, John Sturges and Sol Siegel in a production of a World War II novel called "Never So Few." They were looking for a key second lead and it was Kaufman who spotted McQueen on the television show "Wanted Dead or Alive" and brought him to Siegel and Sinatra's attention. "Never So Few" was McQueen's first film role.

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