Millard Kaufman Writes First Novel at 90 Millard Kaufman publishes his first book Bowl of Cherries at age 90. Before then he was a U.S. Marine in World War II, a test subject in a cobra venom experiment, a screenwriter, and the co-creator of one of the most enduring characters in cartoon history: Mr. Magoo.
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Millard Kaufman Writes First Novel at 90

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Millard Kaufman Writes First Novel at 90

Millard Kaufman Writes First Novel at 90

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Unlike a lot other first-time novelists, Millard Kaufman has been around. He was a U.S. Marine in Guam and Okinawa during the World War II. He once took cobra venom. He was arrested on Long Island for showing too much leg. He wrote a script for at least one classic film, "Bad Day at Black Rock" and was co-creator of one of the most enduring characters in cartoon history: "Mr. Magoo."

(Soundbite of movie, "Ragtime Bear")

Mr. JIM BACKUS (Actor): (As Mr. Quincy Magoo) Which way to Hotspots Lodge?

Unidentified Man #1: (As Character) Can't you read the sign?

Mr. BACKUS: (As Mr. Quincy Magoo) Well, certainly I can read the sign. What does it say?

SIMON: It's a scene from the very first "Mr. Magoo" called "Ragtime Bear." It was written by Millard Kaufman almost 60 years ago. As you may have gathered, Millard Kaufman isn't one of these young writers who works as a bike messenger for six months then writes a novel about being a bike messenger. No.

Millard Kaufman is 90 years old and has just published his very first novel, "Bowl of Cherries," a book that bounces around the globe and bounces words off each other with delight.

Millard Kaufman joins us from our studios at NPR West.

Mr. Kaufman, thanks so much for being here.

Mr. MILLARD KAUFMAN (Novelist, "Bowl of Cherries"): Well, thank you for having me. I enjoy being here.

SIMON: I have to ask you, have you been waiting to write a novel for 70 years or just - this was the last thing left for you to do?

Mr. KAUFMAN: That's one good way of putting it. It was the last thing until a next thing shows up. I had spent most of my life writing pictures. And I was 88, and I remembered having heard Somerset Maugham speaking at UCLA one night. Maugham said, well, there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAUFMAN: So I thought if no rules exist, I might as well try it.

SIMON: The book concerns a frightfully intelligent young man - 14 when the book opens - named Judd Breslau. I can't explain every plot point, but he falls in love with the daughter of a very prominent Egyptologist, and the story moves from Colorado to corn studio under the Brooklyn Bridge, ultimately, a jail cell in Iraq. When you bring him through all those different locations and all those different experiences, I'm wondering, were you hoping that he would grow up?

Mr. KAUFMAN: He grows up enough. He is — I think I try to make him, if nothing more despite his age one way or the other, essentially human.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KAUFMAN: And I think he (unintelligible). But in terms of growing up, I don't know, I'm 90. I have high hopes of growing up someday, but I sure in hell haven't reached it yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: A Washington Post critic, by the way, who loved your book, says that he's never read another novel that you have to keep the dictionary open quite so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, I love fooling around with words assuming that, if I overdo it some relatively bright editor — in this case Eli Horowitz of McSweeney's — would suggest that I change it. He didn't and for a very good reason, the reason I had actually used those words. And that is here is a 14-year-old kid who's a bit of a smart ass, and as he expresses himself, he can't help flexing his muscles, showing off, and he uses all this highfalutin, multi-syllable words. And I think it has the effect of being funny.

SIMON: How did you invent Mr. Magoo? Is he somebody you knew?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Yes. Cartoons at that time were made up of what are called hurt gags in which you take in a protagonist like Bugs Bunny, for example, and somebody is constantly beating on him and in the last 15 seconds he emerges triumphant and it says the end.

There was a director named John Hubley, who is an enormously competent man. So one day I said to him, we could in six minutes have a beginning, a middle and an end, we could tell a story. And so I came up with the idea of Magoo, who was my uncle. My uncle had no problem with his eyes. He simply interpreted everything that came across his way in his own particular manner, and he could at times be a little bit difficult, but he would only see things the way they existed highly subjectively to him.

SIMON: And he's become a real signature character in the culture. I mean, somebody bumps into a wall and they say who are you? Mr. Magoo?

Mr. KAUFMAN: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. We made a big mistake, John and I, in giving Magoo eyeglasses. His inability to see was entirely symbolic - that is his insistence on his own way. But by giving him glasses, we were accused, between 20 and 40 years later, of being terribly, viciously, politically incorrect, making fun of people who couldn't see. That wasn't the idea at all.

SIMON: Yeah, because it was metaphorical blindness.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Exactly.

SIMON: Yeah. You've written so many films but certainly we mentioned "Bad Day at Black Rock" for which you were nominated for an Academy Award.

Let's play a clip. Spencer Tracy is the World War II veteran who takes a train to a western town searching for the father of a boy who saved his life, but locals aren't exactly warm.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bad Day at Black Rock")

Mr. SPENCER TRACY (Actor): (As John J. Macreedy) All I want from you is a little information. I have to go to a place called Adobe Flat.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) This ain't no information bureau.

Mr. TRACY: (As John J. Macreedy) There's one thing about Black Rock - everybody is polite. That makes for a very gracious living.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Character) Nobody asked you here.

Mr. TRACY: (As John J. Macreedy) How do you know?

Mr. KAUFMAN: I did all kinds of work at MGM including handling pictures which were not yet pictures. They were screenplays which fell into a deep hole. They were not done well enough to have been shot and made into movies, and they were not done poorly enough to be simply burned. So they asked me to take a look at it, and that's what I did for a while.

SIMON: Well, I happened to be - the Web is a wonderful instrument - I happened to be looking at a newspaper photo of you. It must have been in 1941…

Mr. KAUFMAN: Oh, god.

SIMON: …walking in a punishingly tight shorts on a street somewhere in Long Island, and I guess you're being arrested for baring too much leg in Long Island. You were a Newsday reporter.

Mr. KAUFMAN: That's right. They decided that a certain posh, rather chic town on Long Island should be reprimanded because there was a city ordinance that said that no one could enter the city boundaries wearing shorts. So Newsday sent me and a very pretty girl reporter inside the town with shorts. They notified the cops. And of course, as soon as we crossed the line, we were arrested and the paper bailed us out.

SIMON: Well, I…

Mr. KAUFMAN: I didn't even notice anything about that that existed anymore, much less a picture.

SIMON: While I have the chance, I have never before spoken with somebody, who has at least willingly had cobra venom, and I've been able to ask about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAUFMAN: Yeah. What happened was I went to school with a young man whose father was head of Hynson, Westcott laboratories in Baltimore. This was at Hopkins. Buddy's(ph) father was experimenting with some analgesic other than aspirin, something that was much stronger, and he had come up with cobra venom. He had tested it successfully as I remember with rats and rabbits and then he wanted human beings.

So Bud was in charge of asking certain schoolmates to volunteer to take this stuff. My wife volunteered, and that is how I met her. I volunteered, only I said, if they'd give me $5. And at first they raised hell then they gave me $5 and I took the stuff. Its effect on me was peculiar and I don't remember anything about it. But about two hours later, I was on the golf course in this wonderfully refreshing summer rain and all of us were absolutely naked.

Now, how the hell this happened, I don't know, but that's precisely the result - the only result I ever knew of cobra venom.

SIMON: Wow. It induces nudity, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAUFMAN: One of things it induced, which was very great, was an introduction to my wife…

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KAUFMAN: …and a couple of years later, we were married.

SIMON: Mr. Kaufman, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

Mr. KAUFMAN: Well, it's very enjoyable talking with you.

SIMON: Millard Kaufman, the author of a new novel, "Bowl of Cherries."

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Magoo, You've Done It Again")

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Oh, Magoo, you've done it again.

SIMON: I hope we have. WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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