Arnold Schulman: Theater’s oldest comeback kid

Arnold Schulman has a new play at Theater for the New City.

BY CLAUDE SOLNIK | In the world of screenwriting, you might call Arnold Schulman a real-life Walter Mitty. The difference is he didn’t imagine his accomplishments.

Schulman worked with Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, Alan Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Sir Richard Attenborough. And that’s just a start.

Along the way, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Love With the Proper Stranger” and Best Adapted Screenplay for “Goodbye, Columbus.”

Arnold Schulman adapted the Philip Roth novel “Goodbye, Columbus” for the screen.

He also wrote the screenplay for the movie of “A Chorus Line” and “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” as well as the teleplay for “And The Band Played On,” an early depiction of AIDS.

Now Schulman, who also wrote for Broadway and live TV, is back, this time with a play opening in March.

At age 93, Schulman may become the oldest (or among them) comeback kid in New York City theater when his “Sign in the Six O’Clock Sky” opens at Theater for the New City on March 14. It will run through March 31.

“A screenplay is much easier. You can go from place to place and see it,” he said. “In theater, you have to talk about having gone to such a place. It’s harder to make the background not sound like exposition.”

Arnold Schulman on set with Anna Magnani and Anthony Quinn during the filming of “Wild Is the Wind.” Schulman adapted the screenplay from the Italian film “Fury.”

“Sign in the Six O’Clock Sky” is a homecoming of sorts for Schulman — because it’s both a return to the stage and to New York for him. It’s a show about sideshow performers set in a kind of timeless twilight.

“He’s 93 and he’s still writing plays,” said Shela Xoregos, who is directing. “It’s very different. That’s the interesting thing.”

In a career that spanned 50 years, Schulman worked with actors such as Steve McQueen, Mary Martin, Anna Magnani and Frank Sinatra, as well as directors who have stars — more like supernovas — on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“Each one was completely different,” he said of the directors, before mentioning one encounter on the set. “With ‘A Hole in the Head,’ my second picture, Frank Sinatra was notorious for improvising. Out of his respect for Capra, he said, ‘Can I say this line that way?’ Capra turned to me and said, ‘Is it O.K., Arnold?’ I said, ‘Of course.’”

Schulman started writing — and finding success with words — when he was young.

“I sold my first story when I was 9 to a boys’ magazine,” he said. “I sent it in, got published and got a Mickey Mouse watch. I thought I’d sit down and write things and get Mickey Mouse watches.”

He studied writing at the University of North Carolina and enlisted in the Navy.

“I was an aerial photographer at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Japan,” he said. “I see pictures taken of the war. Some of them could have been my shots.”

Arnold Schulman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Love With a Proper Stranger.”

When asked why he wanted to become a playwright, Schulman couldn’t pinpoint an event or reason.

“I was going through some old papers not long ago. I ran across my discharge papers from the Navy,” he recalled. “They said, ‘What do you plan to do?’ To my surprise, it said ‘playwright.’”

After the war, he took a course at the American Theatre Wing with Robert Anderson, the author of
“Tea and Sympathy,” “I Never Sang for My Father” and other plays.

“I was so lucky,” he said. “I wrote for radio before television. Then I wrote for TV and wrote a new play and had an audience every week.”

He went from radio to TV to Broadway, writing the book for “Jennie,” a musical starring Mary Martin.

He wrote “Wild is the Wind,” directed by George Kukor and produced by Hal Wallace, who produced “Casablanca.”

Schulman remembers Frank Capra as almost out of a Frank Capra movie.

“Frank Capra was what you’d expect him to be. Warm. The sweetest, lovely man,” Schulman said. “I expected him to have a mansion. I went to spend the weekend way down South with avocado trees. He had a small ranch house with a woman who was a cook. We sat down to dinner. She sat down with us. He lived a Frank Capra life.”

Schulman got hired to do adaptations, including Philip Roth’s classic “Goodbye, Columbus.”

Despite his successes, he found by the late 1990s, many people thought of him as part of the past.

“The whole multinational corporation business,” Schulman said. “They have certain ideas that we can’t write for young people.”

In his 90s, he seems to experience the joy of writing the way he always has.

“What comes out of their mouth surprises me,” Schulman said of characters. “I write every day.”

His latest work will see the light of stage at Theater for the New City, as he writes the next.

“I would prefer if they get done. If they don’t, I’m having fun with the process of doing it,” he said. “I love writing.”

“Sign in the Six O’Clock Sky,” March 14-31 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets $15 to $18. For more information, call 212-254-1109 or visit theaterforthenewcity.net . For a 2011 interview of Arnold Schulman, click here