Richard Brooks Biography

Richard Brooks (May 18, 1912 – March 11, 1992) was an American screenwriter, film director, novelist and occasional film producer. His outstanding works as director are Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960) – for which he won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) – In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).

His parents, Hyman and Esther Sax, were Russian Jews. Married teenagers when they immigrated to the United States in 1908, they found employment in Philadelphia's textile and clothing industry. Their only child, son Reuben Sax, was born in 1912. He attended public achools Joseph Leidy Elementary, Mayer Sulzberger Junior High School and West Philadelphia High School, graduating from the latter in 1929. Reuben took classes at Temple University for two years, studying journalism and playing on the school's baseball team, but he dropped out and left home when he discovered that his parents were going into debt to pay for his tuition. He rode freight trains around the East and Midwest for a period of time but eventually returned to Philadelphia to seek work as a newspaper reporter. At some point in the 1930s Reuben began using the name Richard Brooks professionally. He changed his name legally in 1943.

Brooks wrote sports for the Philadelphia Record and later joined the staff of the Atlantic City Press-Union. He moved to New York to work for the World-Telegram but shortly afterward took a job with radio station WNEW for a larger paycheck. As a newsman for the station, he reported and read stories on the air and provided commentary. Brooks also began writing plays in 1938 and tried directing for Long Island's Mill Pond Theater in 1940. A falling out with his theater colleagues that summer led him to drive to Los Angeles on a whim, hoping to find work in the film industry. He also may have been trying to escape a marriage; a legal document indicates he was married at least part of the time he lived in New York.

He didn't find film work but was hired by the NBC affiliate to write original stories and read them for a daily fifteen-minute broadcast called Sidestreet Vignettes. His second marriage, in 1941, to an actress at Universal Studios, Jeanne Kelly, may have helped to open the door to writing for the studio. He contributed dialogue to a few films and wrote two screenplays for the popular actress Maria Montez, known as the "Queen of Technicolor." With no prospect of moving into more prestigious productions, he quit Universal and joined the Marine Corps in 1943.

Brooks never served overseas during World War II, instead working in the Marine Corps film unit at Quantico, Virginia, and at times at Camp Pendleton, California. In his two years in uniform he learned more about the basics of filmmaking, including writing and editing documentaries, and found time to write a novel, The Brick Foxhole, a searing portrait of stateside soldiers tainted by religious, racial and homophobic bigotry. He also divorced his wife, then known in films as Jean Brooks, in 1944, and later said he had been a self-centered husband and unsuitable for what she needed.

Published in 1945 to favorable reviews, The Brick Foxhole was made into the Oscar-nominated film Crossfire (1947), the first major Hollywood film to deal with anti-Semitism. The novel drew the attention of independent producer Mark Hellinger, who hired Brooks as a screenwriter after he left the Marines. Working for Hellinger brought Brooks back to the film industry and led to a long friendship with actor Humphrey Bogart, a close friend of the producer. Brooks provided an uncredited screen story for The Killers (1946), which introduced actor Burt Lancaster, and wrote the scripts for two other Hellinger films, notably Brute Force (1947), also starring Lancaster. After Hellinger's unexpected death in 1947, Brooks wrote screenplays for three Warner Brothers films, including Key Largo (1948), starring Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall and directed and co-written by John Huston, another Brooks mentor, who would be the only co-writer Brooks would ever have. Huston allowed Brooks to be on the Key Largo set during shooting so that he could learn more about directing a Hollywood film.

Brooks wrote two more novels shortly after the war, The Boiling Point (1948) and The Producer (1951), a thinly disguised portrait of Hellinger that may have had autobiographical elements for Brooks, too. He also married again, in 1946, to Harriette Levin, who had no apparent connection to the film industry. Their marriage lasted until 1957, when she sought a default divorce.