Obituary: Walter Bernstein, Hollywood scriptwriter who was hounded by FBI

Walter Bernstein, scriptwriter. Born: August 20 1919 in New York, United States. Died: January 23 2021 in New York, aged 101.
Walter Bernstein pictured at an event n 2005Walter Bernstein pictured at an event n 2005
Walter Bernstein pictured at an event n 2005

Like a scene out of a Hollywood thriller, scriptwriter Walter Bernstein was tailed by the FBI in the 1950s when the authorities tried to destroy his career and he was blacklisted due to his left-wing affiliations.

Not only did Bernstein continue working under assumed names, he managed to capitalise on the experience, using it as the subject of several films, including The Front with Woody Allen. It also provided him with material for his well-regarded book Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A victim of Senator Joe McCarthy’s crusade to rid American society of Communists and other left-wingers, Bernstein appeared on a blacklist of 151 names from showbusiness and the arts in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television in 1950. But, like other talented writers, he managed to find people who would “front” for him, pretending to have produced screenplays he had written. “The writers were luckier than the actors and directors,” Bernstein said. “They had to show their faces and we didn’t.” The practice reached its height of absurdity when Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel on which Bridge on the River Kwai was based, won on Oscar for the screenplay. Not only did he not write it, he could not even speak English.

In The Front (1976) Woody Allen played a restaurant cashier who agrees to front for a blacklisted writer for a fee. Director Martin Ritt and actor Zero Mostel had also been blacklisted. Bernstein said: “We deliberately hired blacklisted actors. It was kind of our revenge in a way, saying, ‘We’re still here. You didn’t drive us out’.” Bernstein followed up The Front, with Semi-Tough, a comedy starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson as American footballers, and Yanks, a drama with Richard Gere and Vanessa Redgrave, about US troops in England during the Second World War.

Described as a “human Energizer bunny” in a 2014 article in Esquire magazine, Bernstein continued teaching film until a few years ago and was in his nineties by the time the BBC broadcast the 2011 mini-series Hidden, on which he worked with writer Ronan Bennett and which starred Philip Glenister.

Unsurprisingly Bernstein sometimes tapped into paranoia, suspicion and fears whose origins lay in the McCarthy era. Reviewing Hidden in the Guardian, Sam Wollaston wrote: “It's murky, atmospheric, intriguing… My only tiny problem is that I'm not entirely sure what's going on.”

Bernstein’s teacher father and his mother were Jewish emigres from Eastern Europe, and Bernstein was born in 1919 in New York, where his school had so many pupils that they attended in shifts and his school day was over by noon, allowing him to spend afternoons at the cinema. His father had friends in France and Bernstein enrolled in a language course at Grenoble University, where he was excited to mix with Marxist intellectuals. Back in the US he studied English at Dartmouth, the Ivy League university in New Hampshire. He reviewed films, without having seen them – “Anyone could review a movie after seeing it” he said later. He joined the Young Communist League and found a market for short stories at The New Yorker magazine.

After graduating he was drafted and served as a reporter for the army newspaper Yank during the Second World War, filing articles from North Africa, Palestine, Sicily and Yugoslavia, where he managed to track down and interview Marshal Tito, who would later serve as the country’s Communist president.

Bernstein joined the Communist Party after the war, though like many others he resigned after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

A collection of short stories, based on his military experiences, proved popular and he headed for Hollywood, receiving his first screenwriting credit on the thriller Blood On My Hands, starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. It came out in 1948, just as the anti-Communist “witch-hunts” were beginning to gather momentum.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

During the 1950s he worked largely in TV under assumed names, hiring or persuading friends or acquaintances to attend meetings in his place. He worked repeatedly with director Sidney Lumet. With the power of the blacklists beginning to weaken, Lumet gave him his second film credit on That Kind of Woman, with Sophia Loren, in 1959, more than ten years after his first credit. Bernstein wrote the first draft of The Magnificent Seven without a namecheck, though the omission was for reasons other than politics. Bernstein’s version stuck closely to Japanese original The Seven Samurai. Walter Newman wrote most of the dialogue and new plot elements, but William Roberts, who did the final tweaks, got the sole writer credit.

Bernstein was one of the writers on Something’s Got to Give, Marilyn Monroe’s final, unfinished movie. And he directed one film, Little Miss Marker, starring Julie Andrews, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis. Other credits include Heller in Pink Tights, Ritt’s Paris Blues, Lumet’s The Molly Maguires, with Sean Connery as a rebellious 19th-century Irish-American coal miner, Harold Robbins adaptation The Betsy and The House on Carroll Street, which again had a blacklist theme.

Three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife and by five children.

Related topics: