Walter Bernstein '40, Celebrated Screenwriter, Dies at 101

Walter Bernstein was a proud Dartmouth graduate, class of 1940. He always loved his alma mater, and his picture is on the "Wall of Fame" in the Film Studies Department in the Black Family Arts Center. He visited often to talk about screenwriting and his experience with the Hollywood blacklist. Until his death at 101 on Friday, he was one of the last surviving "victims" of that horrible period in our history.   

Born in Brooklyn in the shadow of Ebbetts Field, Bernstein always said he was consequently condemned to a hopeless passion for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a life-long hatred of the New York Yankees. After graduating from Dartmouth, he began publishing fiction in The New Yorker. Drafted into the Army in 1941, he served first in the infantry and then as a correspondent for the G. I. weekly magazine, Yank, where he was the first correspondent to interview Marshal Tito behind German lines in Yugoslavia.  During this time, he also reported on the war for The New Yorker. These essays were later collected in a book, Keep Your Head Down, published by Viking. 

After the war, Bernstein wrote for television, the new industry competing with Hollywood, contributing teleplays to such pioneering shows as "Studio One," "Philco Playhouse" and "Robert Montgomery Presents." In 1947, he finally went to Hollywood and worked on two movies, All The Kings Men and the Burt Lancaster thriller, Kiss The Blood Off Your Hands (1948). According to Bernstein, when he returned to New York, it was just "in time to be blacklisted from 1950 to 1958 in films and to 1961 in television."  It was during this period that he wrote numerous TV shows under pseudonyms and "fronts," including material for Walter Cronkite's "You Are There" with fellow blacklistees Abraham Polonsky and Arnold Manoff. It is the experience of these years that is the foundation for the personal screenplay he wrote for Woody Allen's film, The Front (1976), one of the first features to deal with the Hollywood blacklist and to exploit for dramatic effect the fact that so many of the people involved in its making were themselves blacklisted.  Besides Bernstein, some other well-known blacklisted names whose stories are a part of this film include the film's director, Martin Ritt, and many of the film's actors, such as Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi.  Bernstein was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. He lived in an apartment several floors down from ours in New York City's westside during this time, and Zero lived across the street. I remember them both at our house quite often since my Dad, Maury Rapf, was also a member of the "blacklist club."

The first film that Bernstein wrote under his own name after being cleared from the blacklist was That Kind Of Woman (1959), directed by his friend, Sidney Lumet, and starring Sophia Loren. His writing credits include another Lumet film, Fail Safe (1964), and when it was remade as a live television presentation with George Clooney in 2000, Bernstein did the teleplay and was co-executive producer. When Sidney Lumet came to Dartmouth to accept the Dartmouth Film Award in 2005, Walter accompanied him, and a picture of the two of them in front of the Hop is attached to this remembrance.

Walter is an uncredited contributor to The Magnificent Seven in 1960, but he received credit for Heller In Pink Tights that year. Some of Bernstein's other films include Paris Blues (1961), The Money Trap (1965), The Molly Maguires (1970), Semi-Tough (1978), Yanks (1979), and The House on Carroll Street (1988). In 1980 he both wrote and directed Little Miss Marker with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews. 

He also continued to work in television.  During the 1990s he wrote "Doomsday Gun" and "Miss Evers' Boys," about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, both for HBO.  "Miss Evers' Boys" won an Emmy for best picture of l997. In 1999, he did "Durango" for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the TV mini-series, "Hidden," in 2011. He received the Writers Guild of America-East Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Gotham Award for Writers from the Independent Film Project, the Hudson Valley Film Festival Screenwriting Award, and the Nantucket Film festival Award. In 1996, his memoir of war, movies, and the blacklist, Inside Out, was published by Knopf.  

In addition to writing full-time, Walter Bernstein was an adjunct professor of screenwriting at New York University and creative adviser at Robert Redford's Sundance Screenwriting Lab and Great Britain's Moonstone Screenwriting Workshop.

His was a life shaped by passion for his craft and by political and social commitment.  In classes at Dartmouth, he loved working with students, answering questions about screenwriting, Hollywood, television, and especially about the so-called "McCarthy Era" in the 1950s. After one of his classes and a screening of The Front, a student wrote: "I'm still standing and applauding. . . . It's a film that has once again reminded me that protesting for peace in this world and standing up for justice is a difficult battle."  Asked if the blacklist could happen again, Bernstein echoed what he presciently wrote in 2000 in the "Introduction" to his Memoir: "Of course it can. . . . Maybe not right away; you need a powerful external enemy and we don't have one yet.  But our prosperity and strength have never saved us from the damage we inflict on ourselves because of our fears and the political profit that can be made from them." He was always a voice of sanity in a sometimes insane world, a tireless and creative writer, an inspiration to generations of students, and a generous man. I will miss him very much.

- Professor Joanna Rapf

Hosted by Professor Joanna Rapf, Walter Bernstein takes questions from students at Dartmouth's Loew Theater (July 25 2002)