Walter Bernstein, Still Kicking

by Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern

Okay, admittedly, we can put a headline like that our post because we know Walter Bernstein, and chances are, so do you. Remember “You Were There?” (Probably not, you’re too young). Remember “Fail Safe?” “The Magnificent Seven?” Bernstein, who just turned 95, wrote the screenplays for all of them. How old is 95 in film years? Movies were just starting to talk when he would ditch school in Brooklyn to watch them.

Bernstein’s best known, though, for not working, at least under his own name: he was one of the many in Hollywood blacklisted during the 1950s for supposed communist ties. According to a remarkable encomium in Variety (the kind of thing that for once was published before someone dies, not after), his crimes included “supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and advocating for the Russian War Relief Fund.” He spent those years trying to find work under pseudonyms, and he later wrote a memoir (“Inside Out”) and a great screenplay for “The Front”–which starred a then little known Brooklyn movie buff that other Brooklynite, Woody Allen.

He’s writing still: in addition to a biopic about the crusading lawyer William Kunstler, he’s finishing a project started by his late friend Sidney Lumet, working as an advisor at Sundance and teaching at the Tisch School, and on and on. And remains politically engaged, and unrepentant:

“If you want to attack someone in this country, you’re always safe to call them a socialist. It’s a word that’s been successfully demonized,” he says, noting the prevalence of the term in much anti-Obama rhetoric. And getting a script from page to screen? That remains as tricky as ever. “One of my sons has been a location manager and is now dipping his feet into producing,” he says. “So he’s on the phone talking to agents and people like that. The thing I keep trying to knock into his head, which is so hard, is that nothing is real until it’s real.”