The Other Waldo – Midnight Cowboy and Serpico screenwriter, Waldo Salt

Someday I’ll commission a salt & pepper shaker set, one a bust of Midnight Cowboy and Serpico screenwriter Waldo Salt, the other of Robert Redford’s barnstorming pilot Waldo Pepper. Waldo Salt, 1914 – 1987, wrote some of the greatest screenplays ever produced. He was, without a doubt, one of the finest screenwriters ever to live.

He wasn’t an immigrant from the theatre like Paddy Chayefsky or Robert Bolt. He wasn’t a behind-the-scenes repairman of faltering scripts like Robert Towne, famous “doctor” of The Godfather, Bonnie & Clyde, Marathon Man and more. He wasn’t a novelist turning to the pictures for a quick buck like James Salter or William Faulkner. Waldo Salt began in the cinema, under the tutelage of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and remained there until his death, only once nearly broken by the Communist-paranoid Hollywood Blacklist.

At the time of the Blacklist, Waldo Salt was rising fast. He’d had a hit with The Flame and the Arrow and had enjoyed plenty of critical acclaim ever since his first produced original, the Shopworn Angel, released when he was just 24. He was on the verge of a directing career when the Blacklist finally caught up with him, and for the next ten years he’d have his name taken from him.

He assumed that of his then wife “M. L. Davenport”. It didn’t work. Only one film written during his time on the Blacklist would ever see the light of day, and that was something he only contributed narration for. That was 1961’s Blast of Silence. When the Blacklist broke, and Waldo Salt was at last able to attach his own name to his work, he discovered more damage had been done than was immediately apparent.

Salt wasn’t finally reclaiming his career as if it had been put on ice for a decade. He was getting his name back just to discover he didn’t have a career anymore. The first three films he wrote after not being able to use his own name for near a decade were films he’d later refer to as “Perhaps the three worst pictures I think I’ve ever seen.” He’s not wrong. Taras Bulba, Flight from Ashiya and Wild & Wonderful are three spectacularly bad films.

He’d had, in 1951 when his name was placed on the Blacklist, lost the vocation he’d been using to support his family. The weight of that burden made sure writing couldn’t possibly mean anything other than a way to make a living. By the mid-60’s, he was living alone in a tiny apartment in the dingy Paris Hotel stricken with pneumonia. It was there, watching her father cough his lungs out whilst sitting on a bed barely wide enough to sleep on, that Waldo’s daughter told him: “You know, none of us would really mind if you were writing something you really cared about.”

He’d forgotten why he started writing in the first place. He began to take his time. He purposefully built a reputation as a slow writer, willing to take the time to get his work just as he thought it needed to be. He would become known as the writer who’d sooner deliver you a 400-page screenplay three months late, than something you could go out tomorrow and shoot. But those 400 pages would be the best 400 pages you’d ever read.

What made Waldo Salt so singular and important was the way he approached stories. While his path wasn’t unique, he was undoubtedly the best at his game. Instead of approaching material the way the Paddy Chayefskys of the world did, by way of the “idea” or “theme, Waldo would approach it through the characters and their deepest, almost sub-conscious needs. Joe Buck’s need for physical affection. Ratso Rizzo’s need for a friend. Bob Hyde’s need for purpose.

He was a hugely empathetic writer. In Serpico he infused just as much of his own experience and emotions into the characters that Frank Serpico found himself battling against as Frank himself. Whether it was Joe Buck, Ratso Rizzo, Frank Serpico, Luke Martin or Bob Hyde, Waldo Salt studied outcasts. His writing was always, from the very beginning, not primarily concerned with introspection, but instead with desperately trying to understand the people around him.

When asked in a Q&A “What is the fundamental need of the character Waldo Salt?” Waldo isn’t sure how to answer. He pauses, um’s and ah’s. Finally he replied: “That’s quite fascinating… I’ve never thought of this…”

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.