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Walter Bernstein Dies: Blacklisted Writer In 1950s Who Returned With ‘Fail Safe’ & ‘The Front’ Was 101

Bruce Haring
·5-min read

Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s but returned to writing on many films, including the Oscar-nominated script for The Front, has died at 101.

Bernstein died Friday night, according to former WGA West president Howard Rodman, who reported it on Twitter.

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Bernstein’s credits included the films Fail-Safe (1964), Semi-Tough (1977), Yanks (1979) and The Front, (1976), the latter which starring Woody Allen as Howard Prince, who was hired by three blacklisted TV writers to become the face of their work. It was a ruse Bernstein knew well, having employed the tactic himself when he was blacklisted.

The Brooklyn, NY-born Bernstein joined the Communist Party while attending Dartmouth College, then served in the US Army during World War II.

In the 1950’s during the early days of the Cold War, Bernstein was blacklisted after he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on claims that his work was subversive and injected Communist propaganda into films. Like many blacklisted writers, he continued writing under pseudonyms or “fronts”.

After he was blacklisted in 1950, Bernstein was not credited with any work until 1958, but used pseudonyms and hired fronts who passed off the work as their own to help Bernstein.

Bernstein finally restored his real identity for the 1959 Sophia Loren film That Kind of Woman, directed by Sidney Lumet, who vouched for his integrity to film producer Carlo Ponto, Loren’s husband. Bernstein eventually wrote three films for Loren. including Michael Curtiz’s A Breath of Scandal and George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights, both released in 1960.

In his later career, Bernstein taught screenwriting at Columbia University, NYU and City College, and received an Emmy nomination for writing the 1997 HBO telefilm Miss Evers’ Boys.

Bernstein published Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist, in 1996.

Bernstein was a longtime member of the WGA East’s Council, and was the recipient of its Ian McLellan Hunter Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Writing in 1994, and the Evelyn F. Burkey Award in 2008. Named in his honor, the guild’s Walter Bernstein Award honors writers “who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity.”

Bernstein served on the Council of the Writers Guild of America, East for decades. In 1994, he received the Guild’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Writing, and in 2008 he was presented with the Guild’s Evelyn F. Burkey Award for bringing honor and dignity to writers.

In 2017, the Guild introduced the Walter Bernstein Award to honor one of the union’s most distinguished and courageous members. The Walter Bernstein Award is presented to honor writers who have demonstrated with creativity, grace and bravery a willingness to confront social injustice in the face of adversity.

Beau Willimon, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, noted “The labor movement was built on courage, perseverance and an unwavering sense of duty to one’s sisters and brothers. Walter exemplified all three as a fierce and generous union advocate since the earliest days of the Guild. I was very lucky to have begun my tenure in leadership when Walter was, in his nineties, an elected Council-member advocating on behalf of writers. He has given generations of Guild members a role model for how to make a true difference and leave the union better than you found it. As we grieve his loss we also celebrate his long and meaningful life, and share deep gratitude for the thousands of writers whose lives he improved along the way.”

Michael Winship, immediate past President of the Writers Guild of America, East, said, “Walter not only was a brilliant writer and committed activist, he was my friend, colleague, role model and confidante. He was the one I’d call whenever we were in a fix and I needed his special brand of sage advice. His innate wisdom and lifetime of experience always pointed the way toward a decision that was just and fair, even if it rankled those few who would place self-interest above the greater good of the writers we represent. We will deeply miss his courage, wit and guidance.”

Jeremy Pikser, former VP of the Writers Guild of America, East, wrote, “Walter got every award the Writers Guild had to give him. One of them was for “bringing honor and dignity to writers,” and when Walter accepted it, at the age of 88, after spending freezing winter hours on the picket line several times a week during the strike of 2007, he said “two things a writer should never have are honor and dignity” That was Walter. Humble, self-effacing, funny. Sharp as a razor and as sweet as honey, kind as a saint, and tough as nails. His commitment to the welfare of humanity, his belief in justice, his compassion for others were as integral to his life as the air he breathed. I’ll miss him every day for the rest of my life.”

“Walter would reject the characterization that he was the conscience of the union and he would do it with sly humor. We will miss him so much, especially the way he would let us all have our say about weighty and complex matters, sometimes at bewildering length, and then with a few words bring the clarity and coherence that had eluded us,” remembered Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East. “Walter was on the committee interviewing me for this job. We met for lunch and we ended up talking for hours. I knew that working at a place with smart, funny, sardonic, committed writers and activists like him would be a dream.”

Bernstein is survived by his son, Andrew Bernstein, and his widow, literary agent Gloria Loomis.

No information about a memorial was immediately available.

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