By Bruce Cook

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The true story that inspired the major motion picture starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren.

Dalton Trumbo was the central figure in the “Hollywood Ten,” the blacklisted and jailed screenwriters. One of several hundred writers, directors, producers, and actors who were deprived of the opportunity to work in the motion picture industry from 1947 to 1960, he was the first to see his name on the screen again. When that happened, it was Exodus, one of the year’s biggest movies.
This intriguing biography shows that all his life Trumbo was a radical of the homegrown, independent variety. From his early days in Colorado, where his grandfather was a county sheriff, to Los Angeles, where he organized a bakery strike, to bootlegging, to Hollywood, where he was the highest-paid screenwriter when he was blacklisted (and a man with constant money problems), his life rivaled anything he had written.


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The production chronicle of Papillon was such a saga of bad luck, dissension, and difficulty that it seems remarkable that a motion picture came out of it at all—much less the reasonably successful one it turned out to be. There were financial problems right from the start. One company started the project only to drop out when the budget began to get out of hand. That was when Allied Artists took it over. And when that happened, it was decided that the picture needed the sort of box-office insurance that two stars could provide—make it a kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on Devil's Island was the idea. Steve McQueen in the title role was good, but Steve McQueen plus Dustin Hoffman as his prison pal would be that much better. Hoffman, it turned out, was willing, and the deal was consummated only a short time before they were committed to begin production.

The trouble was, the screenplay they had in hand, by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., though otherwise quite satisfactory, had no part in it for Dustin Hoffman. A star needs a starring role. One would have to be written for him—and it would have to be done almost simultaneously with production.

In a situation like that, there was one writer—and just about one alone—to turn to: "I may not be the best screenwriter in Hollywood," Dalton Trumbo once said, "but I am incomparably the fastest."

There were many who considered him the best, too—among them, Franklin Schaffner, the director of Papillon, who put the problem before Trumbo and explained that it would mean coming along on location to rewrite the script as it was being shot. Trumbo took the job for a good price; he was still trying to write himself out of the financial hole he had been put in by the failure of his own production of Johnny Got His Gun. There was very little he could do in the way of preparation and research, for there simply wasn't time for that. He read Papillon, of course—"a pretty damned dull book, if you ask me," he later commented. He sketched out a structure to accommodate Dega, the counterfeiter, the character to be played by Dustin Hoffman, a basic outline structure that satisfied everybody, more or less.

As for building the role of Dega, there wasn't much to go on in the book by Henri Charrière; he was only a minor character—in the story and quickly out of it. For the film, of course, he would have to stay in. What sort of man would he be? Trumbo and Hoffman got together during the few weeks that remained before shooting began and talked at length about the problem. And the longer they talked the better Hoffman got to know Trumbo, and the more certain he was that Dega should be in some important ways like Trumbo himself. "He's a real feisty man," Hoffman later told an interviewer, "and he's got a combination of toughness and sophistication and integrity that I felt were right for Dega.… So I said, why didn't he write the character off himself, so to speak?" And that was what Trumbo did, traveling off to Spain with only sixty pages completed of a very long script, and then to Jamaica, writing never more than twenty pages ahead of them, as the film was being shot. It is not, to say the least, an easy way to work; but Trumbo was equal to the job, and if there were delays in the production of Papillon (and there were plenty), they were not attributable to him, as long as he was on the picture.

The shooting in Spain went well and quickly enough. This was the part of the film that was supposed to take place in France: the prisoners bound for the penal colony herded like animals through the streets by soldiers and into a dusty, sun-baked prison yard. There they are made to strip and listen as the warden of the prison informs them that few of them will live out their prison terms and that none will return home again—that for France they no longer exist. It is a cruel speech, certainly, but important and even necessary in that it perfectly sets the tone of the film, preparing the audience for the saga of inhumanity that is to follow. In the picture, it is delivered by the man who wrote it, Dalton Trumbo.

Franklin Schaffner, who chose him for the part, insisted that there was no special story here, and that there was certainly no irony intended (the warden played by a jailbird). When he said that he interviewed a couple of English actors for the part but that one morning he awakened, sat up in bed, and said to himself that it had to be Trumbo—well, what he was telling us, I think, is that he had by then suddenly come to recognize the intensely theatrical quality of the man, the sense of drama that Trumbo projected almost casually but never, certainly, unconsciously. Dalton Trumbo was a natural actor.

It was when the production moved to Jamaica, however, that problems on Papillon mounted, trouble came, and financial disaster struck. There were difficulties that may seem only petty in retrospect but at the time seemed almost insurmountable. Dustin Hoffman, for example, had been led to understand that he and Steve McQueen were not only to be given equal billing but were to be paid the same for their work in Papillon. In fact, Hoffman was getting $1.25 million to McQueen's $2 million. When he discovered that, he was for some days afterward aggrieved, indignant, and angry. Finally, he settled back down to work.

The ganja was, as always, plentiful there in Jamaica, and it was readily available to the company. Some were not content to smoke the stuff, however; they boiled a batch of it up and mixed it secretly into the drinks at a party. Everybody got high but a few got sick as well—among them, Franklin Schaffner, and so a day of shooting was lost. Other days were lost more prosaically to the weather. And there was a period of about three weeks when the money ran out and nobody got paid; it looked then as though the production would shut down altogether.

There was trouble with the local population. One morning on the way to the location, Dustin Hoffman's driver hit a pedestrian and caused serious injury. Because of that, not the driver, but Dustin Hoffman, received threats against his life. Threats only—no attempts. Larceny, however, was something else again. They not only attempted there, but succeeded on the grand scale. Theft and pilferage were constantly a problem, but when the production ended, and before properties could be packed and shipped, the island people began raiding methodically and simply stripped the set. Costumes went—six hundred pairs of shoes were stolen from wardrobe—machinery, even handy pieces of lumber: in all, a thirty-thousand-dollar loss.

But now I'm getting ahead of my story because just before shooting on Papillon was completed, the production suffered its most serious setback—Dalton Trumbo was forced to leave the company before the script was quite completed. What happened was this: Weeks before, just prior to leaving for Spain, he had taken a medical examination for another insurance policy. They heard nothing about it. The examining physician had done his job, all right; he had called attention in his report to a worrisome shadow in the area of Trumbo's left lung. But the insurance agent had simply sat on the report, out of either ignorance or misdirected consideration. At last, however, he passed it on to Trumbo's wife, Cleo. She telephoned him immediately in Jamaica.

"Sure, I remember that call. It was a Sunday. We weren't shooting. There was a meeting right there in the Bay Rock Hotel, where we were staying. Dalton and myself and McQueen and Hoffman were all present, and Dalton was called out of the room to take this call from his wife. He was told it was important. Well, he came back, and didn't say anything. Finally McQueen and Hoffman left, and Dalton stayed and told me what he had just heard. It was very unsettling."

Franklin Schaffner. I talked to him at the old Goldwyn Studios in the heart of Hollywood. He was there cutting Papillon, under pressure to have it ready for simultaneous Christmas openings in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. So many millions were riding on the project that the holiday opening was essential. Never mind that at this point—late fall—it looked like just about an impossible task. With enough hours in the editing room (what was it outside? day or night?), with enough cigars smoked, and enough aspirin to see him through the ordeal, he just managed to make their deadline.

So this was how it was when we talked. That Franklin Schaffner would see me at all under such circumstances seemed remarkable enough and an indication of the sort of respect he had for Trumbo: if he could help, he wanted to. Schaffner seemed to look at it as the least he could do, for Trumbo had given him about as much as any man could down there at Ocho Rios.

"He didn't want to go back until the picture was finished, and he was still a good chunk from the end. But he made a concession and went to a doctor there on the island and had an X-ray made. The local doctor told him there was something there, all right, but that he thought that his doctor back in Beverly Hills ought to see the X-rays and Dalton could work out with him what needed to be done. Well, that's what they did, and in a few days' time his own doctor is telling him to come back there so they can check it out.

"Now, the important thing to remember is that all through this business of getting X-rays and sending them off and waiting to hear from the doctor in California, Dalton kept right on working on the script. That's the kind of professional he is."

Franklin Schaffner was a tall, handsome man with an almost soldierly manner. You looked at him, and you realized why Patton was the kind of film it was. Tough, direct, and commanding, he was a man who looked right with a long, dark cigar in his mouth. When Schaffner talked about someone as a "professional," you got the feeling that this was about the highest praise he could give anyone.

"And the way we were working back then," he continued, "well, a lot of writers would have found it just impossible. I would get up at four A.M. and attack the day's work. This meant, among other things, sitting down with Dalton for an hour around five-thirty or six and giving a last look with him at the pages to be shot that day. Then when shooting was finished, I'd go back to the hotel and sometime that evening go over what Dalton had written during the day. Depending on how many things there were to be dealt with, it might be pretty late at night before the meeting could actually take place. I must say he was good about that. He would never protest what time we met. And of course we put in considerable time every Sunday. It was a script conference we were having the Sunday he got the call."

I asked Franklin Schaffner if there was a lot of give-and-take at these conferences. "Was the screenplay shot pretty much the way Trumbo wrote it?"

Schaffner looked at me as if I were nuts or naïve or both, but he spared me his personal reaction and gave me a direct answer: "That was another mark of his professionalism. He's not a man given to being egotistical on a motion picture script. We worked extraordinarily closely on it, and he took every kind of positive and negative criticism. He can certainly be ruthlessly critical of his own work—objective, and not a Salvationist of his own dialogue. But it's a two-way street. He demands professionalism on both sides. You know, there are a lot of unprofessional directors who throw good dialogue and good writing out the window because of a lack of experience or a kind of ego gratification."

He paused, frowning, and took a couple of puffs on his cigar, as if asking himself where to pick up the thread of narrative he had dropped a few moments before. "At any rate," he resumed, "this was the way he continued to work until it became clear that it was absolutely necessary for him to return to California to have this checked out. There were, as he presented them, three options: It might be nothing, in which case he would turn right around and come back. Or if surgery were required, and it wasn't too serious, he would come back ten days afterward and do a little on-the-job recuperation. Failing that, if the news were really bad, he'd find somebody to replace him because there remained a minimum of thirty pages to be written before the script was completed. Well, he went home then and got the news from the doctor there, and it was bad, all right."

Dalton Trumbo was found to have lung cancer. Tests also showed that there were cancer cells present in his lymph nodes. Radical surgery was called for, but even at that the prognosis could only be termed hopeful—not, certainly, optimistic. A writer would have to be found to take his place. The situation, however, was complicated by the fact that there was a writers' strike on at the time, one directed against television but affecting motion picture production as well. To get a new writer cleared for just the last thirty pages of Papillon might be a rather complicated proposition, under the circumstances. And so Trumbo suggested to the producer of the picture, Ted Richmond, that an easier bargain might be struck with the Writers Guild if they were to hire his son, Christopher Trumbo, to do the job. He was betting that the Guild would find the sense of human drama and the symmetry of a son taking over from a father quite irresistible. And quite right. There were no objections to Christopher Trumbo replacing his father to finish up the Papillon project. And none from Richmond or Schaffner, for by this time Christopher had credits in both television and films and was quite capable of completing what his father had begun. The production company signed with the Guild. He left for Jamaica after Trumbo's surgery.

The lung and the lymph nodes were removed. Tests that followed showed that the cancer in his lymph system was not as far advanced as they had feared; so there was some cause to feel relief at that. It was bad, in other words, but could have been worse—or could it? For as is fairly common when a lung is removed, the strain put on his heart in adjusting proved too much: less than a week after surgery, there in the hospital, he had a coronary attack. With that, a lesser man might have succumbed—but not Trumbo.

Not even the brutal cobalt treatments to which he was introduced following his release from the hospital succeeded in laying him low, though they came closer, certainly, than either surgery or his heart attack had done. They proved a shock to his entire system, disorienting him physiologically, upsetting any possibility at the time of achieving metabolic equilibrium. The enormous physical impact of the cobalt upon his already weakened body was such that during the course of this treatment, he had little strength for anything except simply being with his family, traveling to and from the hospital where he was bombarded three times a week with radioactive rays, and sitting down with me in his study, where he would talk for a few hours each day into my tape recorder.

For this is where I come in. I intrude myself into this account as something less than the magistrate of my own court and something more than mere reporter of the proceedings. Prosecutor? Definitely not. Advocate? Perhaps. I had come specifically intending to write a book about him and in that extended act there is implied, as we both well knew, a reserve of sympathy for the subject, any subject—if not always a perfect understanding of it. I would not have been there then, nor would I be writing this now, if I didn't think that Dalton Trumbo were a man whose life—and to a slightly lesser degree, whose work—mattered enough to us all to be talked about in detail. He knew that. He knew the tiny microphone I had propped up before him was, in fact, a sympathetic ear. But I think he must have known, too, (or suspected) that no matter what was implied, he would be taking his chances in consigning himself to me—or, for that matter, to any other writer. When you give yourself up to a biographer, the question is, finally, whether you yourself give sanction to your own life. He did. And the feeling I had as I listened to him through those summer days in 1973—when all anybody else was talking about was Watergate—was that Trumbo was speaking for the record. It accounts, I think, for the valedictory tone of much he had to say; not that all of it was pleasant, and generous, and forgiving, though that is how a lot of people suppose men speak at such times in their lives. No, what he was interested in doing was setting the record straight; maybe, in a few instances, closing out some old accounts, debit or credit.

One way or another, he surprised a lot of people that summer.

On one of the few afternoons he had escaped the cobalt torture, Trumbo had gone to the doctor in Beverly Hills who had prescribed it and was mildly curious whether the treatment was doing any good. There were some tests that might tell.

Just getting around—in and out of cars, up elevators, and through the waiting rooms—was a problem for him then. His legs were weak, and breathing was hard for him, but he wouldn't ride in the wheelchair which everybody said would have made it easier. His wife, Cleo, served as his chauffeur, driving him to and from wherever he needed to go in her Jaguar sedan. He was dependent upon her physically for the first time, though he had been so in every other way for as long as they had been married.

It hadn't taken long in the doctor's office. It was just the trouble of getting there and now the same strain in getting back home. Trumbo was waiting in a parking garage in the basement of a Wilshire office building for Cleo to bring around the car. A couple emerged from the elevator and came toward him, a woman and an older man. Only the man was not nearly as old as he looked. Trumbo looked at them closely, immediately recognized Betty Garrett, and realized that the white-haired, white-bearded man leaning on her arm must be her husband, Larry Parks.

Larry Parks died in 1975, having lived a sentence in purgatory of over twenty years' duration. None of those called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities was more cruelly used than the actor with the sunny smile who used to play Al Jolson. In 1951, under great pressure, he cooperated with the Committee, giving a few names of Hollywood Communists—but only of those already well known as Party members. He tried, in other words, to say as little as possible and quite literally begged not to be compelled to give them even that:

I think to force me to do something like this is not benefitting this Committee. I don't think the Committee would benefit from it, and I don't think this is American justice to make me choose one or the other or be in contempt of this Committee, which is a Committee of my Government, or crawl through the mud for no purpose. Because you know who these people are. This is what I beg you not to do.

No, he didn't give the name of Dalton Trumbo, but he gave names of Trumbo's friends, one of whom was then in jail serving time with him for contempt of Congress.

Larry Parks emerged from the Committee room a pariah to both right and left. His career was ended. He dropped out of sight. And now, at close range, though he was less than sixty, he looked to be an old man. Trumbo had not set eyes on him in all those years, and he was shocked to see him now. If ever there were one who was only a victim of the Committee and the blacklist, it was certainly Larry Parks.

"Hello, Larry." He put out his hand.

Larry Parks took it and, looking grateful, shook it slowly. "Hello, Dalton. I'm glad to see you. You look the same, only older."

"We're both a lot older now."

They stood apart for a moment, not knowing what more to say. Then Cleo pulled up in the car and, with a nod goodbye, Trumbo got into the front seat beside her. They drove away.

"I could no more have turned my back on Larry Parks," Trumbo told me later, "than I could on some of the men I went to prison with."

Just such encounters as that one—embarrassed, apologetic, sometimes furtive—were taking place ever since the blacklist ended. Hostesses, in all innocence, gaily introducing the betrayed to his betrayer; agents pairing the wrong people in pictures; and of course innumerable chance meetings on street corners, in post offices, and—who knows?—perhaps even in the lines to register for unemployment compensation.

I had wondered about this. I asked myself how a man who had weathered the blacklist, remaining in Hollywood all those years of the McCarthy period, eking out a kind of shadow life on the movie black market—how such a man might feel today, as he looked back on it all. Was he bitter? Would he take vengeance if he could? Did he keep a list? Such questions led me, inevitably, to Dalton Trumbo. In the course of researching an article on the blacklist and its aftermath, I had first met him a few years before. To say that I fell under his spell at that time seems excessive, though it is true enough in a way. Worse, it might undermine your faith in my ability to deal objectively with the material that follows. But let it stand because it communicates something essential about Trumbo. There was something larger than life about the man. Not physically—he would have had to stand on his tiptoes to hit five feet eight—but personally, according to his very nature. (The truest remark ever said of him was made by a journalist who once interviewed him, a woman. "He has," she said, "a very seductive personality." She didn't mean that in a sexual way.) There is a certain charismatic quality that I think would have been perceived even by one who didn't know who Trumbo was or what he had done.

But who was he? What had he done? He was a writer, of course. Yet one of the difficulties in giving any sort of serious literary consideration to Dalton Trumbo is trying to decide just what sort of writer he was. A novelist? He wrote four novels (and left one unfinished that was published posthumously), and one of them—Johnny Got His Gun—is one of the finest by an American in the thirties. Of the remaining three complete novels, two are of negligible quality and the other has never even been published in this country. A playwright? The only play he had produced, The Biggest Thief in Town, was good enough to have a run in London, though not really the sort of work with which one would advance serious claims for him as a dramatist. As a screenwriter then? Here, of course, he was enormously successful. Trumbo had what I reckon to be the longest continuous career of any writer in American films. Early in his career he got an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of Christopher Morley's Kitty Foyle. When he was blacklisted in 1947, he was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Even during the blacklist period he continued to work in the so-called black market, writing screenplays at cut-rate prices. But he never gave cut-rate quality: in fact, one of those black-market scripts, The Brave One, which he wrote under a pseudonym, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story. He was the man who broke the blacklist. He was the first of a couple of hundred writers, directors, producers, and actors, who had been deprived of the opportunity to work in the motion picture industry from 1947 to 1960, to see his name back up on the screen. When that happened, it was for his work on Exodus, one of that year's biggest movies. And after that he worked almost exclusively on the biggest productions (though not always the most artistically distinguished ones), and he received fees to match.

But is a screenwriter a writer like any other? All the best of them can do is to provide the director with a good, comprehensive plan for a film. Even Trumbo considered his screenwriting craftsman's work. So we are left, as you can see, with the problem of evaluating an immensely talented writer, a very able and prolific writer, who has demonstrated tellingly on a number of occasions that he was capable of real art; yet at the same time one who has not much more than a single novel and a handful of screenplays to point to as the artistic achievement of his lifetime.

Trumbo didn't plan it that way. He started out, as young writers did in the twenties and thirties, to be a novelist. He backed into screenwriting thinking of it as temporary. Would he even have found his way into the motion picture industry if it were not for the fact that he was right there on the spot in Los Angeles? Probably not. But at a time in his life when he might have given up writing for films and concentrated on fiction, history intervened. Whether he wished it or not, Dalton Trumbo became deeply involved in politics. I suspect, frankly, that he did wish it—that being a political figure was almost as attractive to him as being known as a novelist. For once on stage he played his role with such relish and style that it is clear that the man did have a talent for politics. Dig into his background, and you see that he showed it as early as high school. He was by nature combative and thrived on controversy. Had he undertaken a political career in the usual way, under the conventional labels—Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative—he would probably have been immensely successful.

But he was a radical and had been more or less consistent in that since he had found out, as a young man, what it was like to be poor. He came out of Colorado in the twenties a vague sort of populist. His outlook was altered by personal experience. As the Depression deepened, he broke into movies and his personal fortunes took a turn for the better. But he did not cultivate that peculiar functional myopia that made it possible for so many there to ignore the awful poverty that lay just outside the studio gates. He indulged himself, "went Hollywood" as they say, but he never forgot who he was or what he had been. The looming prospect of war disturbed him profoundly. And when war came, he saw his choices limited, and became a Communist.

There was a whole generation of them in Hollywood—writers, directors, actors, and even a few producers, who, like Trumbo, followed their commitment as far left as it would lead them. They were, of course, infamously well off—"swimming pool Communists," they would later be called—but this was so because the group included some of the best and most talented people in motion pictures and the only real recognition Hollywood can give excellence is expressed in dollar signs, numbers, commas, and decimals. What is remarkable is not that so many were radical but that the overwhelming majority of them, the hundreds who were subsequently blacklisted, were willing to give up those swimming pools rather than inform on the rest. It would have been easy for them to keep what they had; a few names was all the House Committee on Un-American Activities was asking, a gesture to the Committee of good will, of cooperation. But only a few of them did cooperate, and to be fair, not all of those did so out of some base desire to keep what they had. There were as many reasons for giving names to the Committee as there were men who gave them. But for those who refused, who had everything to lose and only their self-respect to retain, there was only one justification and that was a moral one.


  • "Let me end by again stressing how wonderful this book is. If you have any interest in Hollywood history, the postwar communist witch hunts, screenwriting or the art of biography, you should grab this new paperback of TRUMBO."—The Washington Post
  • "TRUMBO the biography, is fascinating... The book, first published in 1977, is a great example of how a biographer can take readers by the hand and lead them on a journey through the subject's life."—The Oregonian
  • "One of the great strengths of this biography is its sense of immediacy... I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to shine a light onto a dark period of American history."—Huffington Post

On Sale
Sep 8, 2015
Page Count
352 pages

Bruce Cook

About the Author

Bruce Cook (1932-2003), veteran critic, journalist, and author, wrote this biography with Dalton Trumbo’s full cooperation in 1976. Under the name Bruce Alexander, Cook wrote eleven mystery novels featuring the real-life historical figure Sir John Fielding, magistrate of the Bow Street court during the latter half of the eighteenth Century.

Under both names Cook wrote a total of 23 books, both fiction and nonfiction; they include a crime fiction series featuring Los Angeles private detective Chico Cervantes. Cook’s last completed novel, Young Will: The Confessions of William Shakespeare, was published posthumously. Born in Chicago, Bruce Cook lived in Los Angeles and Paris with his wife, the violinist Judith Aller.

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