Bruce Jay Friedman, hailed by many critics as a comic genius, was born in New York City in 1930 and started his versatile career as an editor and magazine and short story writer. Over the years, Friedman has published eight novels and four story collections, as well as writing a half dozen plays and receiving several screenwriting credits, including Stir Crazy (1980), Doctor Detroit (1982)), and Splash (1984), which won an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Friedman attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and then went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Following college, he served for two years as an officer in the United States Air Force. He then became editorial director of four men’s action magazines.
Friedman’s novels include The Current Climate (2001), A Father’s Kisses (1996), Tokyo Woes (1985), About Harry Townes (1972), The Dick (1970), A Mother’s Kisses (1964), and Stern (1962). His story collections are Let’s Hear it for a Beautiful Guy (1980), Black Angels (1967), Far From the City of Class (1963), and Black Humor: Anthology (1963).
His plays include Scuba Duba (1968), Steambath (1970, and Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately? (1997) He is also the author of the non-fiction book,The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life (1982), which provided the basis for Steve Martin’s film The Lonely Guy (1984), and the follow-up book, The Slightly Older Guy (1995).
The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman, published in 1997, contains 57 of his stories, and Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos, a collection of Friedman’s best non-fiction, was published in 2000.
Derek Alger: How did a nice boy from the Bronx end up studying journalism at the University of Missouri?
Bruce Jay Friedman: The question is usually phrased: “How did a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx end up studying journalism at the University of Missouri? In high school, I had the misguided idea that I wanted to become a doctor. I sent out a single application — for pre-med — to Columbia. It never crossed my mind that Columbia would reject me — and that I might need a back-up. The admissions dean called me in and said that all the pre-med spots were taken by returning WW II vets. He felt I had some writing ability. Why not apply for Arts and Sciences? Once I was admitted, I could switch to pre-med, if I still wanted to. I said I couldn’t do that. It would be misrepresenting. He patiently explained it to me again. I said I’m sorry, sir, I can’t apply for one degree when I really want another. He shrugged. A month later, I received a letter of rejection and had no college to attend. At summer camp, I met a young woman on the volleyball court who told me about Missouri Journalism, implying that just about anyone could be admitted. So, off I went.
DA: Your experience at college in the midwest led to one of your early novels.
BJF: I used an hallucinated version of my college experience in my second novel, “A Mother’s Kisses” and in a few short stories.
DA: You joined the Air Force after college and that’s where you really got your literary start.
BJF: I had an experience in the Air Force that was upsetting. I didn’t know how to handle it — so I wrote a short story about it, “The Man They Threw Out of Jets.” I sent it to The New Yorker which rejected it, and asked me to try another. I didn’t have another story, so I wrote on in my mother’s kitchen, “Wonderful Golden Rules Days” and they bought that one. The Antioch Review bought “The Jets” story. There is another story of mine in the current A.R., “The Convert” which is being published fifty years later to the day. That’s one in the A.R. every fifty years. As I told the editors, I think it’s time I picked up the pace.
DA: I believe your basic introductory to literature course took place over a weekend.
BJF: My commanding officer in the Air Force was George B. Leonard, who later became famous in the world of California counter-culture, He thought I had some promise as a writer and suggested I read three novels — over a weekend: Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River; James Jones’ From Here to Eternity; and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I decided, after reading the three novels, that it would be wonderful to try to become a writer — not that I could ever scale those heights.
DA: It’s heartening to know The New Yorker was receptive to the slush pile.
BJF: At the time, The New Yorker had assigned Hollis Alpert to the “slush pile” or more politely, the “unsolicited manuscripts.” It was his job to fish two writers out of the pile each month and to work with them. I was one. John Sack, who was to have an interesting career, was another. Several years ago, I met Alpert in Sarasota. He said: “Friedman, I discovered you. Discover me back.”
DA: One of your first jobs was as editor of several men’s adult magazines. What was that like?
BJF: For roughly a decade in the fifties and early sixties, I was editor of four men’s adventure magazines, Male, Men, Man’s World, and my favorite, True Action (as opposed to False Action.) I had to buy forty to sixty stories a a month from free-lance writers. I had three small children at the time and a long commute (three to four hours) from Glen Cove to Manhattan. I didn’t do any writing for the the magazine, just supervised. Oddly enough, I got more “serious” writing done at that time (working at night, on the train) than I do now — when I have the entire day yawning ahead of me.
DA: You hired an assistant editor who turned out to be a well known writer in his own right.
BJF: One of my better “hires” was Mario Puzo, in 1960. He wrote literally a million words or so for the magazine — moonlighted “The Godfather” at night. Everyone in our little group was moonlighting something. In my case, it was my first two novels, “Stern” and “A Mother’s Kisses.” We gave our all for the magazines, but we were young and must have had all that extra energy. (There is a good account of those years in a non-fiction work I wrote called “Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos”). Puzo and I, incidentally, became lifelong friends.
DA: You credit Puzo with possibly saving your life with some useful words of advice.
BJF: Joey Gallo (nicknamed `Crazy Joe’ Gallo in the press) was released from prison in the sixties. He and his “colleagues” began to give weekly Sunday night soirees at the home of actor Jerry Orbach who was starring in a play I wrote called Scuba Duba. The parties were quite elegant and were attended by notables such as Ben Gazzara, Edsel Ford, etc. When I told Puzo I was attending them with my family, he said three words: “That’s not intelligent.” Gallo was famously shot at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. Had I not spoken to Puzo, I might have joined the group for dinner that night.
DA: Puzo claimed reading your short fiction was “Like a Twilight Zone with Charles Chaplin.” High praise, but also an interesting combination.
BJF: Puzo was generous with his quotes, although I never did understand that one.
DA: How did the idea to try your hand at writing a play come about?
BJF: I published “A Mother’s Kisses” in 1964 and it was quite successful. I decided to leave my job and take my family to France for the summer. The cost of renting a villa (with maid service) in Juan les Pins was $2,500 for the ten weeks. I didn’t know much of the language at the time, felt kind of isolated. My wife took the boys off somewhere for a few days. I was alone in this villa, four walls, no family, foreign country, it felt like a play, and I wrote it quickly — or at least the first draft.
DA: Were you surprised at the success of Scuba Duba?
BJF: Totally. It was my first play. There were disasters along the way. Director leaving at the last minute. The final preview might as well have taken place at a funeral parlor. Predictions of doom. And then `viola’, it all came together on opening night. I was completely inexperienced about the way of actors and the theatre, didn’t realize they were all “saving it” for the only performance that counted.
DA: Many have called the concept for Steambath absolutely brilliant. How did you come up with the idea of God as a towel attendant?
BJF: I’d had a bad experience with the food at a Chinese restaurant, thought that was it for me. That got me thinking about death and mortality. Also I was working out at a gym, using the steambath. There is a certain kind of talk that goes on between men in this situation, and I must have been listening. Additionally, I vacationed now and then in Puerto Rico, became conscious of the Puerto Rican/New York accent, so to speak. It all came together. What if a man had a bad dining experience, wandered into a steambath, which turned out to be a way station between life and death — and God turned out to be (provably) a Puerto Rican towel attendant?
DA: The stage is one thing, but how did you end up in the Hollywood world of screenwriting?
BJF: There seemed to be a natural progression at the time. You write a novel, perhaps a play, get some attention, and someone decides you’d be a good fit as a screenwriter. I was brought out to Hollywood to write the Lenny Bruce story, along with James Baldwin who was hired to do the Malcolm X film. I was told by the producer that he needed someone who was essentially crazy, but wore suits so that he could be presented at meetings. I had never seen Bruce, but I knew he was an icon and didn’t want to be the one to fuck up the Lenny Bruce story. So I enjoyed the room service and went home. But I returned now and then and had some movies made.
DA: You have said that a lot of people in Hollywood are paid a great deal of money to think “writerly” thoughts. Have you ever figured out what that means, because, I must admit, I’m having trouble?
BJF: My only connection with your question is that the word “writerly” makes me cringe.
DA: I think you summed up name-dropping in Hollywood quite succinctly. Now I can say I know someone who knows someone who talked on the phone to an actor who said he caught Pierce Brosnan’s cold.
BJF: It’s fairly prevalent everywhere. Yes, it’s true that an actor friend said he’d worked as an extra in a film and “caught Pierce Brosnan’s cold.” But when I brought my computer in for a check-up, the technician told me to forgive him for being a little shaky. “Wallace Shawn was just in for a new hard-drive.”
DA: You’ve continuously written fiction throughout your career. Has it been difficult switching back and forth from narrative to dramatic writing, or from non-fiction to fiction.
BJF: Essentially, I think of it as story-telling. Act one, two and three. As someone smarter than me said, Chase a cat up a tree, throw stones at it, then bring it down. I’m making it sound easy, but my first attempts at each form were on the shaky side. There was a seven-year period — in my twenties — of trying to write a novel that wasn’t any good. But I learned to write a good one by writing a bad one. I presented the first 100 pages or so of a first screenplay to the director Alan Pakula. He pointed to a line on pg. 100 and said, “Let’s begin here.” Annoying, but he was right. I’d spent all that time clearing my throat. And I learned that Hollywood wasn’t interested in the alleged unique quality of my voice. Movies were pictures. If I have any strength, it’s in the short story . . . probably because I don’t have quite as much patience as others.
DA: Over the years, you have known many writers, some great, others good. Which writers stand out for you most as writers or friends, or both?
BJF: Mario Puzo was a close friend — the wisest man I ever knew. After a fractious early period (he wanted me to go out and meet wholesalers) Joseph Heller and I became friends in his late years. The playwright Jack Richardson, Nelson Algren, Irwin Shaw (again in his late years), James Salter and Dan Wakefield, and John Bowers, to name just a few. The novelist Anthony Powell, through one of his characters, suggested that “writers coexist uneasily.” I haven’t found that to be the case.
DA: Since you like to ask writers which moment in their careers they found the most satisfying, I guess I’ll ask the same of you.
BJF: So many of them. Letter of acceptance from the fabled New Yorker, saying they were buying my first story. My first play, Scuba Duba, a surprise hit. Popular success of Stir Crazy. Still get an adrenaline rush when I find out I’m going to have my work published. And of course, the acquisition of my papers (50 cartons dating back to 1951) by the Berg Collection (NYPL) was a particular thrill. Teaching, which I do in short bursts, is especially gratifying.