Mar 19, 2009, 10:10AM

Millard Kaufman 1917-2009

The screenwriter, comic creator, and novelist was a great talent and an even greater mensch.

He co-created the character Mr. Magoo, wrote dozens of screenplays, and, at age 90, published his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, in 2007. And now Millard Kaufman is reported dead, at age 92.

Bowl of Cherries received a good bit of praise and press due to the author’s peripatetic life story and its publication by McSweeney’s, but it should have received more. It’s a lark, for sure, but a beautifully written one, concerning a young man’s coming-of-age amidst a background of higher academia, Iraqi terrorists, and a city made from dried human feces. The plot is unbelievably silly, but Kaufman wrote better as a nonagenarian than most “serious” writers can muster in their prime. We’d be lucky to have ten major books a year with its verve and humor. Luckily, McSweeney’s will be publishing Kaufman’s second novel, already finished at his death, later this fall.

He also wrote a number of screenplays, including the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Raintree County and the great 1950 western Bad Day at Black Rock. Very much in the stranger-comes-to-town genre mold, Black Rock addressed postwar racial anxiety with surprising candor; it concerned the cover-up of a Japanese-American’s death in a small mining town, and earned Kaufman one of his two Oscar nominations for screenwriting. It’s a perfect example of genre entertainment with a social conscious; no thematic browbeating in sight, it manages to make a subtle, poignant point and still retain its gunfight thrills. (Kaufman also fronted for Dalton Trumbo during the blacklist, including for the tremendous film noir Gun Crazy, which, although only a footnote in his career, every fan of the genre should know.)

Kaufman grew up in a suburb outside of Baltimore and attended Johns Hopkins University, which was the basis of my pitch to the Baltimore Citypaper when I asked to cover Bowl of Cherries’ publication two years ago. McSweeney’s gave me his phone number and told me to just call him up. I reached him at around 3:30 in the afternoon, L.A. time, and expected to schedule an interview during a more convenient time. Instead, his lovely wife Loraine answered the phone and was thrilled to hear I was calling from Baltimore. “He’ll love this,” she told me, and called him to the phone.

We talked for an hour, about Bowl of Cherries and Dickens, his experience at Guadalcanal, the Hollywood golden age and his friendship with Francis Coppola. He obviously loved telling stories (I would hear a number of the same ones as he talked with Terry Gross and others) and loved writing them even more. Bowl of Cherries is full of scabrous satire, but in conversation Kaufman was a genial, warm presence without bad word to say about anyone. The resulting article was a total puff piece, but it was worth it to have that talk. I mailed him a copy of the paper and he called me back instantly to say that if I ever found myself in L.A. he’d buy me lunch. I never made it out there, but I’ll savor his forthcoming book as the last effort by a generous, thoughtful man whose every word sounded celebratory.

After all, his death resulted from complications with open-heart surgery. This 92 year-old was an optimist to the end, apparently.

  • A poignant and uplifting tribute to a man who seemed to have lived a rich life. I think anyone who creates a character like Mr. Magoo has left a fine legacy.

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