THE WRITER WHO TURNED HIS LOVE OF LANGUAGE INTO OSCAR GOLD
Hollywood Writer and Director Robert Pirosh
By Bob Vickrey
Writer Robert Pirosh wrote what is likely the gold standard of resumes in 1934 when he penned a letter to Hollywood directors, producers and studio executives.
The well-paid 24 year-old copy editor who was living in New York City decided he wanted a career as a screenwriter and wrote this playful letter that would hopefully catch someone’s attention at the studios. Not surprisingly, this lively and exuberant romp immediately opened doors for him.
April 23, 1934
I like words. I like fat buttery words such as ooze,
turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular,
creaky words such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious,
valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words such
as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like
suave V-words such as Svengali, svelte bravura, verve.
I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words such as splinter,
grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling
words such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Good-
Heavens-my-gracious-land’s-sake words, such as tricksy,
tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, glowery words
such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like
wormy, squirmy, mealy words such as crawl, blubber, squeal,
drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words such as cowlick,
gurgle, bubble and burp. I like the word screenwriter
better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a
New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood,
but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of
study, contemplation and horsing around. I have just returned
and I still like words. May I have a few with you?
Pirosh was hired as a junior script writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and within a year of his hiring, he co-wrote the comedy “The Winning Ticket” with colleague George Seaton. The two continued their collaboration and soon found themselves writing two Marx Brothers’ comedies, “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races”—that eventually gained cult status in the film world.
Pirosh went on the road with the Marx Brothers during those early years as they performed and tested their new material in front of live audiences. The crowds roared when Groucho uttered lines like, “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped,” and that reaction became the barometer as to whether the material was kept in the script.
The accomplished writer, who had once studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Berlin, went on to enjoy a three-decade career as a writer, director and producer, including his Academy Award winning “Battleground,” the WWII drama about the Battle of the Bulge, which was based upon the writer’s own experience. Among his many other films, Pirosh also wrote ‘Up in Arms,” “Hell is for Heroes,” “A Gathering of Eagles,” and “Go for Broke,” in which he was nominated for yet another Oscar. He also directed five feature films.
He later began writing television series, including pilots for “Laramie” and “Combat,” as well as numerous other scripts for shows as diverse as “Bonanza” and “The Waltons.”
I first met Bob Pirosh after his retirement from show business when he was teaching in the writing program at the University of Southern California. We were introduced by his fellow professor and mutual friend Ben Masselink at one of the many dinner parties Ben and his wife Dee hosted at their Pacific Palisades home overlooking Temescal Canyon.
The Masselink’s were cordial hosts who always managed to attract a lively group of writers and raconteurs at these casual soirees. But the best occasions were the ones in which Bob Pirosh was at the dinner table telling his marvelous stories.
During one particular birthday celebration for him, I wore a black top-hat and black-rimmed glasses with bushy eyebrows attached, and proceeded to do the worst Groucho imitation in history. Nevertheless, Bob seemed to have appreciated my silliness. I’m not even sure I delivered my line properly: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, and how he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
During our many visits, he undoubtedly began to sense my aspirations of eventually returning to the writing life. In the last year of his life, he presented me with a copy of the resume he had written that had launched his mercurial career. And shortly before his death on Christmas Day in 1989, he left me his copy of the shooting script of the Oscar-winning screenplay of “Battleground.”
I’ve been thinking of Bob recently in this era of 140-character tweets and the use of communication shortcuts in today’s nonstop texting madness. I’m convinced this trend would not have pleased a man who loved words as much as Bob Pirosh did. So, this is simply a nod of appreciation for those writers and readers among us who still place a high premium on words and language. Go back and read that remarkable letter once again and it should help us all keep the faith in our quest to sustain a literate future.
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and a regular contributor to the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.