The Fortunate Mr. Kaufman
Millard Kaufman just published his first novel. He's 90
years old, and says he wrote it to stay out of
By Dale Keiger
Art by Joe
Hopkins Magazine last spoke to Millard
Kaufman, A&S '39, he had just published Plots and
Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting, drawing on
50 years of experience in Hollywood. Kaufman was the
co-creator of Mr. Magoo, plus a two-time Academy Award
nominee for screenplays (one of them for the acclaimed
Bad Day at Black Rock). A funny, profane,
self-deprecating raconteur, he was also 82 years old. So we
did not anticipate talking with him again eight years later
to mark publication of his first novel, Bowl of
Cherries (McSweeney's, 2007). Bowl of Cherries
is the comic death-row testament of a 14-year-old
erstwhile PhD student named Judd Breslau, who improbably
finds himself awaiting execution by ganching in Iraq.
Ganching involves being flung from a significant height
onto sharpened stakes, and that may not sound like comedic
material, but Kaufman's book, from first page to last,
carries the risk of rendering the reader helpless due to
giggling fits. His publisher notes that the novel "is
packed with renegade Egyptologists, libidinous ranch hands,
excrement speculators, and grenade-toting Israelis," and
that summary makes no mention of the experiments in
levitation by tuba or Judd's encounter with the girl of his
dreams in a New York porn studio. Johns Hopkins
Magazine called Kaufman at his home in southern
California, where he had so much fun writing his first
novel, he's at work on a second one.
First, how did you find your way to Johns Hopkins
I had been a merchant seaman [for two years after high
school]. I'd been all over Europe and the West Coast, and I
loved it to the degree that I thought unless I got the hell
out, I'd be doing this all my life, and I thought that
would be a rather unnatural life. So I decided to go to
college on the money I'd earned. I applied to Hopkins,
Harvard, and I forget where the other place was. I told the
master of the ship about it, and he didn't believe I'd been
anywhere near a school. But he let me off the ship in
Boston. We'd had a fire [while in port in England] and it
had delayed us three weeks. So when I went to Harvard, they
told me they would take me, but not this year because
school had already started. I went down to Baltimore
thinking I'd get into Hopkins, and they told me the same
thing. I was visiting a friend in Washington and didn't
know what to do, so I went to the University of Maryland
and they gobbled me up. In those days Maryland would take
anybody. The following year  I transferred to
What did you study?
English literature. That was the only thing I could get a
passing grade in. I had all As in English literature, all
Bs in history, and damned near flunked everything else. I
paid little or no interest to any other part of academics.
I managed to violate a school rule in which an
undergraduate had to take courses in science. I wasn't
interested and I was lousy at it. I was hardly an academic,
except possibly in literature. One thing that school
offered was an opportunity to do a hell of a lot of
reading, which I thought was wonderful. I loved Hopkins.
After Hopkins, you headed to New York and became a
copyboy at the Daily News. Did you intend to become
Yeah. I loved it when I finally became a reporter, and I
did that up until the war, when I enlisted in the Marine
What did you love about it?
I don't know, I was kind of nosy. I liked to mind other
people's business, and I liked to have a reason to do it
that wouldn't get the hell kicked out of me. Also I liked
the speed of a city room. And thirdly, I liked sitting down
at a typewriter and writing a story. I still like that.
After the war, you decided to stay in
I thought I'd go back [to New York] and become a reporter
again after the war. But during the war I got malaria and
dengue [fever] and I didn't want to face that New York City
climate, summer or winter. So we [he and his wife,
Lorraine] decided to stay on the West Coast.
How'd you find your way into screenwriting?
I remember when I was in the sixth grade there was
something called vocational guidance. I remember the
teacher asking us what we'd like to do when we grew up, and
I had written down "being a screenwriter." Where I got that
I don't know. Later, when I was a seaman, out of nowhere in
Portland, Oregon, the master of the ship gave everybody
three bucks to go ashore, get a hotel, get something to
eat, and come back the following morning, because the ship
was going to be fumigated. So I took the three bucks and
went to an all-night movie. I saw a phenomenal picture
called The Informer, written by Dudley Nichols. I
just sat there all night and saw it and saw it again and
saw it again until early the next morning when I had to
report back to the ship. I remember having a fleeting
thought as I left the theater, that this is something I'd
like to do the rest of my life — write stuff like
I was very fortunate in that [getting
hired] had nothing to do with my ability to write. Dore
Schary, who was head of MGM at that time, had a thing about
Marines. He hired me simply on the fact that I had been in
the Marine Corps and in combat. My agent, who was far from
a loyal man, told me that Dore, two weeks after hiring me,
had had his doubts. But my agent said, "Why don't you give
him a couple of weeks, then you can fire him and get a real
writer?" I was at MGM for about 12 or 13 years. I was very
fortunate. The first picture I wrote won an Academy
nomination, so I was kind of in business. The picture was
Take the High Ground!, about Marines in boot camp,
which for reasons too long to repeat became a picture about
an Army boot camp.
What was the experience like as a writer working for the
studios in those days?
Well, it's always fun to write. As you know, the great
majority of people, particularly from the East, who come
out here are hypercritical of Hollywood. I personally enjoy
it. I think a great majority of the people who are so
critical are people who weren't successful. I was fortunate
in being successful without trying too hard. Maybe that had
something to do with it.
How much of what you wrote actually ended
up on the screen?
What happens in pictures is usually you follow a batting
average not unlike a ballplayer. If you get one script on
screen out of three tries, that's pretty good. I was
fortunate enough to do even better than that. The studio
thought it was rather unusual for a guy to get an Oscar
nomination the first time out, so they made a deal with me
which I accepted because it involved a lot of money but was
a pain in the ass. There are a great majority of movies
that teeter on the edge of being made or being dumped, and
sometimes it's a difficult decision whether a given piece
is going to turn out to be something that's worthwhile. So
they brought me in when they had things like that, and a
lot of what I did was rewrite a lot of this stuff to get it
Was it creatively satisfying?
I guess the answer is yes, because I didn't spend much time
worrying about creativity or writing the great American
novel or being famous. I just found it great to be a
writer, and rather rare to be a successful writer, because
it's not easy. You write and write and write and here I am,
for Christ's sake, 90 years old.
You'd read a lot of novels at Hopkins as an English
major, and continued to read them afterwards. When did it
first occur to you to write one yourself?
Not until about two or three years ago, when I decided to
try to write this one. What I had was a constancy of jobs
writing pictures, or touching pictures up, or messing
around in the picture business. It never occurred to me
that maybe I ought to break away from that and sit down and
try something else. Years ago, when Somerset Maugham talked
at UCLA, some kid shot his hand up and said, "How do you
write a novel?" And without hesitation, Maugham said,
"Well, there are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are." And I thought
later, If nobody knows how to write a novel, why the hell
can't I write one? So I sat down and wrote [Bowl of
You told Michael Silverblatt, the host of public radio
station KCRW's Bookworm, that your first
inclination was to write poetry.
Yeah, but I can't write poetry. Jesus, I was working on a
picture in London once, and for reasons I don't remember, I
kept walking past a church that fascinated me, and I
decided to write a poem about that church. I wrote a sonnet
and sent it to The New Yorker and got one hell of a
fast rejection. That was the end of my writing poetry.
But what got you started on a novel?
Well, you know, even late in life, I do have certain
responsibilities toward my wife and family, and though my
idea of sheer heaven would be to have a terribly rich
father and sit on my ass and do nothing, I have
responsibilities. I can't just sit around too long. Sooner
or later I have to come back to doing something I can do
and get paid for it.
Did you have a model in mind while writing
Bowl of Cherries?
I must have thousands of books in this house, but in what I
laughingly call my study I have four books by themselves. I
love those four books and I constantly reread them. The one
I like the most is Dickens' Bleak House, possibly
the most brilliant novel written in the English language.
The second is the greatest book written in the 20th century
in America, The Great Gatsby. Then, I read a book
called West with the Night [Beryl Markham]. The
other one I like, that knocks me out all the time no matter
how often I read it, is Cold Comfort Farm, Stella
But no, the only thing I thought of as a
model was, wouldn't it be nice if I could turn out even a
modest approximation of Tender Is the Night or
Bleak House or something really good? You know,
nobody tries to do something bad. They succeed at it, but
they don't try.
said, instead of using short simple words, I like to use the
apposite word, no matter how
fat or big
or ugly it is, if it gets me
where I want to go," says Millard Kaufman.
Did you start with a scene, or a line, or a line of
I actually started with a sentence still in the book: "If
you look closely at a detailed map of Iraq" —
something like that. ["If you look closely at a detailed
map of Iraq, you'll find somewhere to the south, between
the western shelf and the equally monotonous eastern plain,
the province of Assama, a flat depression in the shape of a
chicken."] I just went on and on from there and wrote about
twice as much as appears in the book today, most of which I
took out because I was just rambling. I think I had a vague
story in mind, which is basically the story of the book.
But as you know, as a writer, somehow or other you narrow
things down and you just do it. It came relatively easy for
me. I liked the idea of writing a narrative, rather than a
screenplay that's primarily dialogue.
I like to make things up. People have
asked me how many times I've been in Iraq and stuff like
that. I've never been in Iraq! And I don't intend to go
there. I made a lot of it up, including inventing cities
and that sort of thing, which I find kind of fun. I don't
know what I'm doing talking about "fun" when I'm 90 years
old, but I do.
Judd Breslau, your protagonist, has a supporting
cast that's a real collection of loons and misfits
This is the way I like to write. I go as far out as I can,
then I read it and think about it, and then I ask myself,
Is this going too far? If it is, I pull back a little,
until I get what I want. I like things wild and crazy and
freaky, and I find that's what most people are, despite the
fact that they pretend to be infinitely more serious.
Part of what you seem to be doing is having great fun
with the language, employing words like "chalcedonic" and
"nepenthe" and "ithyphallic."
I tried to figure out what kind of language a 14-year-old
very bright kid would use, and I think he would use these
outrageously big, silly words to prove, unconsciously, to
the reader how smart he was. That was part of what I did.
The other part is it comes kind of natural to me. Despite
what Hemingway said, instead of using short simple words, I
like to use the apposite word, no matter how fat or big or
ugly it is, if it gets me where I want to go.
You've said that the dialogue came easy, but the rest
was hard. Did the dialogue come easy because of your
Yeah. But all good writing, and that includes screenplays,
is hard. Bad writing is easy. Writers are willing to settle
for less and fool themselves. The hardest thing for me to
do, in terms of writing, is not to write. Sometimes when I
finish something, I think, Oh boy, I can take some time
off. And I swear that after about 10 minutes I'm ready to
go to work again.
How do you think Bowl of Cherries turned
I like it. I like it. Could it be better? Anything could be
better. I'm sure there are things that Ben Jonson wrote and
he looked at it later and said, "Who the hell wrote this?"
I think Bowl of Cherries is a pretty good book.
And apparently you came out of the experience interested
in doing it again?
It might surprise you if I said that at 90 I can still get
into trouble. So the safest thing for me to do is sit in a
quiet room by myself and work on another book.
What kind of trouble would you get into?
God knows I don't want to advertise that. But if you pick
up the back page of a paper some day and find out I'm in
terrible trouble, you'll say, "Jesus, he told me."
You've been treated in the popular media as something of
a novelty, the nonagenarian who just published his first
novel. Are you tired of that?
Not as long as the fucking thing sells.
Dale Keiger is Johns Hopkins Magazine's associate
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