Baltimore's gift to Hollywood

The Baltimore Sun

I didn't know that Millard Kaufman, a celebrated Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter and late-blooming novelist, grew up within a stone's throw of Druid Hill Park, and was a City College (1934) and Johns Hopkins University (1939) graduate, until I read his New York Times obituary several weeks ago.

He was 92 when he died of complications from open-heart surgery March 14.

I was also unaware that he teamed with animator John Hubley to create Mr. Magoo, the nearly blind, cane-carrying cartoon character who spoke through his nose in a voice that sounded like a Nantucket foghorn, and dressed in a long overcoat that was worn with an ascot and stylish homburg.

Any kid alive during the 1950s couldn't help but love Mr. Magoo, that quirky cantankerous gent who sprang to life from Kaufman's typewriter when he wrote the screenplay for Ragtime Bear in 1949.

And that distinctive voice, which gave rise to a million imitations by kids of that era that drove parents crazy, belonged to actor Jim Backus, who later starred in I Married Joan and Gilligan's Island, hit TV series of the 1950s and 1960s.

"His uncle 'Bub,' who was really B. Leonard Liepman, was the model for Mr. Magoo," said his son, Frederick Kaufman, an author and a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine, who also teaches journalism at City University of New York.

"Uncle Bub, who lived in Baltimore, was the inventor of the aluminum horseshoe and owner of the Victory Racing Co. that manufactured them. And he made lots of money," Kaufman said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan apartment the other day. "He was a huge barrel-chested man who was quite deaf and saw the world only one way."

Millard Kaufman was born in Baltimore and grew up in a home at 2468 Lakeview Ave.

His father, Fred Kaufman, was something of a n'er-do-well who as a young man headed out West and worked as a cowboy before returning home to Baltimore, where a friend helped him land a job as a haberdasher.

"He was the first Jewish cowboy and, when he returned to Baltimore, was dirty and broke," Frederick Kaufman said. "My father's mother was a terrible cook who loved to read and insisted on doing this when cooking, so consequently everything was burned."

Millard Kaufman enrolled at City College, where he was a champion wrestler, ran track and picked up the nickname of "Boots."

"Until the day he died, one of his favorite songs was City's fight song," his son said. "He was always walking around singing it. He just loved it."

City Forever! We'll praise her to the sky.

We'll fight for old City, Until we do or die.

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Dear Alma mater, your sons we'll always be.

City forever! And for victory.

Rah! Rah! Rah!

After high school, Kaufman worked as a merchant seaman and enjoyed roaming the world.

"I loved it to the degree that I thought unless I get 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 earned," Kaufman told the Johns Hopkins Magazine in a 2007 interview.

"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," he said.

Finally, he left the ship in Boston and hurried over to Cambridge, where he was told by Harvard officials that the semester had started three weeks earlier and he'd have to wait until next year.

When he returned to Baltimore, Hopkins told him the same thing, so he went to College Park and enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he studied for a year before transferring to Hopkins in 1936.

"In those days, Maryland would take anybody," he said.

"Actually, he had to give his college money to his father so he could pay the mortgage, and it was Uncle Bub who sent him to Hopkins," his son said.

While not a particularly stellar student, Kaufman managed to graduate. He then headed to New York, where he took a job as a copy boy for the Daily News and later as a reporter for Newsday.

"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," Millard Kaufman told Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Reflecting on his newspaper days, he told the magazine, "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."

He added: "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."

And then the dark days of the war came when he left newspapering and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942. He saw heavy action at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa, and was decorated with a Bronze Star for bravery.

"I considered myself something of a pacifist. But I'm Jewish and I wanted to get that S.O.B. Hitler. But who the hell knew all the Marines would be sent the opposite direction?" he told T he Washington Post in 2008.

After being discharged, Kaufman stayed on the West Coast, and began his screenwriting career at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His first Oscar nomination came in 1953 for T ake The High Ground, starring Karl Malden and Richard Widmark.

Two years later, came another for B ad Day at Black Rock, the acclaimed film starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan and a young Lee Marvin.

Part western and part film noir, the film has been credited with changing how Hollywood depicted Asians.

"My father always felt that Ryan was underrated as an actor, and he loved Lee Marvin. They hung out together because both were knife collectors," Frederick Kaufman said.

Millard Kaufman wrote scripts for some of the biggest stars of the era, continued working in pictures and later wrote for TV.

Kaufman lent his name to a screenwriting credit for Gun Crazy, which actually belonged to Dalton Trumbo, a writer who had been blacklisted in 1950.

"My father was a real radical and a Red until the day he died," his son said.

He was 90 when his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, a wacky, delightful, satiric comedy, was published by McSweeney's in 2007.

"Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of Cherries, who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete," according to a 2007 New Yorker profile.

In explaining the novel's plot to the New Yorker, Kaufman said, "People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste? So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?"

Kaufman's son recalled his father's joy at watching Hairspray with a grandchild, especially the opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore."

"He thought that really made the movie," said Kaufman, who is as funny as his father. He is the author of the recently published A Short History of the American Stomach.

"We're all nuts, and in his case it's Millard-mania, and he liked being loose in the world," he said, laughing.

"From his hospital bed he was making notes for his next novel and commenting on the current economic crisis," his son said. "He kept saying, "See, capitalism doesn't work!'"

He said his father "took a lot of pride in being a Southern writer" and being from Baltimore, even though "he didn't particularly like its parochial nature when he was growing up there."

"Like the war, he was lucky even in death. He only had two bad hours in his life, and those were before he died," Kaufman said.

His second novel, Misadventure, will be published by McSweeney's this fall.

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