Although Hollywood has changed plenty since Budd Schulberg’s fictionalized exposé “What Makes Sammy Run?” first hit stands in 1941, the novel’s pioneering take on the lure of money and power remains timeless. The story’s inimitable antihero, Sammy Glick, reacts against his lower-class Jewish upbringing to become an amoral hustler who cons his way into running a major studio. Initially, the industry denounced the book as a gross caricature of success, while some claimed it was antisemitic, but this hardly affected its popularity. As years passed, the myth of the movie business solidified and Sammy Glick became inextricably bound to it.
Indeed, it has been the basis for a television serial and a Broadway play, while permutations of Glick’s hustler personality have materialized everywhere — from Robert Altman’s “The Player” to the slick agent portrayed by Jeremy Piven on HBO’s “Entourage.” Still, the book has never been directly adapted into a movie — and now, with the most recent attempt seemingly hitting the skids, many suspect its prospects are unpromising.
Over the past few decades, numerous boldface actors, from Frank Sinatra to Tom Cruise, have been attached to a tentative motion picture version of the book. And yet nobody came closer to getting the deed done than Ben Stiller. In the mid-1990s, Stiller — the son of show-business royalty Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara — felt that he was ideal for the role of Sammy Glick. Stiller approached Bill Gerber, vice president of theatrical production at Warner Bros., which owned the rights to the novel. Gerber had already commissioned Schulberg to write a script for an adaptation, hoping to court director Sidney Lumet. When Stiller began discussing ways to update Schulberg’s draft, Gerber proposed that Stiller assume the director’s chair.
“I thought his work for HBO was great,” Gerber said, referring to the short-lived “The Ben Stiller Show.” Gerber, who currently works as an independent producer, added, “Ben knows the character perfectly.”
Stiller started working on the script with author Jerry Stahl, whose memoir “Permanent Midnight” became a movie in 1998 with Stiller in the lead. According to sources close to the production of “What Makes Sammy Run?” the team discussed several strategies for giving the movie a contemporary slant, including transplanting the entire scenario to the music business and introducing drug abuse.
“It’s really the story of any business at any time in any society,” Stahl said. “It’s what some people are willing to do when all they have to fill the void inside them is success. I think Ben could’ve really gone to town with it.”
Just when the project looked promising, Stiller’s career skyrocketed. His role as the hopeless romantic in “There’s Something About Mary” collected more money at the box office than the cumulative domestic gross of all his prior performances combined. The popular comedic actor suddenly became a megastar.
Nevertheless, Stiller remained tethered to the idea of an adaptation. In 2001, DreamWorks SKG purchased the rights to the novel from Warner Bros. and signed a $2.6 million deal with Stiller’s Red Hour Films to produce it, but the project was stagnant. Stiller’s primary involvement in such broad comedies as “Night at the Museum” and the freshly announced grown-up comedic take on “The Hardy Boys” titled, aptly enough, “The Hardy Men,” suggests that Sammy Glick has left the building.
Meanwhile, last year’s landmark purchase of DreamWorks by Paramount Pictures brought a delicate irony to the saga: Schulberg’s father, B.P. Schulberg, once ran the studio that now owns the rights to his son’s creation. The project has been subsumed by the very force that helped give rise to its existence.
It’s enough to make Schulberg envision retaining ownership of the novel. “I wish I could. I really wish I could,” the author, reasonably hale for a 92-year-old, said from his home in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. “Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a possibility that anybody will be able to buy it back from them.” Despite his disappointment, Schulberg doesn’t display any hostility toward Stiller, just skepticism. “Ben still talks about how he would like to do it,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath.”
More relevant than the failure to adapt “What Makes Sammy Run?” is how close the production came to fruition. Unlike the dyspeptic reaction in the wake of the novel’s publication, this time the story’s Jewish characters were never cited as hindrances. If anything, Schulberg’s novel may deter producers because manifestations of its themes in existing works turn it into a de facto redundancy. “It’s not that Hollywood isn’t willing to portray itself in that light,” said Kim Masters, an entertainment journalist for National Public Radio. “It’s that they don’t think it will work that well commercially.”
Schulberg, however, tells a different story. The New York Post recently quoted him accusing Steven Spielberg of delaying the project and attributing the DreamWorks co-founder’s hesitations to the novel’s negative presentation of studio moguls. “A lot of people deny it,” Schulberg said of the assertion. “I still think there’s a sense that it’s too anti-industry.”
Even if the movie never gets made, the tragedy of the story will remain infinitely bound to the powerful elements that dictate popular culture. “By the end of the book, I was starting to feel sorry for him,” Schulberg said about Sammy Glick. “He’s a victim of the system.” A fate, it seems, that is shared by his story’s thin chances of a movie life.
Eric Kohn is a film critic for the New York Press.