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Mr. Magoo Creator Millard Kaufman on Being a First-Time Novelist at 90

Millard KaufmanCourtesy of McSweeney’s

By the time Mr. Magoo co-creator Millard Kaufman reached middle age, he’d already earned two Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground!), helped create one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time (based on his uncle), and served as a marine in World War II. Now, at 90, he’s written his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, about a 14-year-old prodigy on an intercontinental trip that takes him from the Yale campus to a porn studio under the Brooklyn Bridge and finally to a Iraqi prison cell. Kaufman spoke with Vulture about writing, meeting Lyndon Johnson, and turning down Sophia Loren.

So you just shot up one morning and said, “I’m going to write a novel”!?
Well, I don’t know whether writers shoot up in the morning and do anything besides go back to sleep. One day the thought crossed my mind — what the hell happened with human excrement when people stopped being nomads? They knew what to do when they were nomads — they’d just take off. But if you settled in a city and you had this stuff around you constantly, what do you do about it? Somerset Maughaum once said, “Find your subject and stick to it like grim death.” I always thought that made sense, it certainly made sense in pictures. But I got about four different subjects here that I stick to [in the novel].

Plus the espionage stuff, with the president sending characters to Iraq…
I’ve only met one president in my life and that was Johnson. I didn’t recognize him when I walked into his office. He was so goddamn handsome! Much more than in the newspapers. Plus he was enormously bright. I tried to get him to talk about Truman and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and instead he kept telling me about the pains and aches of his wife. So I didn’t get very far there.

Some might consider Bowl of Cherries vulgar, particularly the parts involving pornography and horse genitals. Have you reached an age where you don’t care what people think?
If they don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves. Over so much of my life I’ve been limited by writing for pictures. There’s certain things you can’t say, certain things you can’t show. In the book I found I had much greater freedom than when I was writing for pictures.

Young writers like to talk about how grueling it was to write their first novels. But here you are at 90.
A lot of people do make a big deal out of writing, and while it’s not a little deal, it seems to me there’s a large issue at stake. If there’s so much pain and difficulty, I think they’d be much happier doing something else. There’s nothing romantic about writing, for Christ’s sake. It’s like how everybody seems to make a big deal about the glamour of being an actor. Christ, out here I was offered a job as a lead in a picture with Sophia Loren and I told them to shove it up their ass. I’m not interested in being an actor!

You were offered a lead opposite Sophia Loren and you turned it down?
There was a wonderful French director who did a picture called Le Diabolique. He called me from Paris and asked if I wanted to rewrite the thing. So he gets here and he’s at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I go over and we start talking. He wanted Lancaster, and I said, “If you want Lancaster, you have to make the character a little more sensible.” Now it’s hot as hell, hottest day of summer I could remember. And as I’m telling him what to do and how to do it, I’m walking up and down in his hotel suite and unconsciously, little by little, I’m unbuttoning my shirt. By the time I get done talking, my goddamn shirt is wide-open. There’s a key in the lock, and Loren’s husband comes in. He says in French, “Ah, so you’ve found the animal!” The director said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, if you write the picture, you can play the part with Loren.” It was going to be shot in the Greek islands. And like a goddamn fool, I said, “Nah, I don’t want to do it.”

What’s this I hear about you taking cobra venom?
Oh, my God! That was when I was in school. I had a friend whose name was Macht who became a doctor in Cincinnati later. He and I, as undergraduates, were friends and his father, Buddy, was head of a large experimental drug company, experimenting with cobra venom as an analgesic. Incidentally this was how I met my wife. Buddy asked us to take part in this procedure and my wife did it purely of science, which I thought was admirable. Except when they asked me, I said I’ll do it for $5. I got my $5 and took this stuff, and about five years later, I married her.

What did it do?
It didn’t do very much to her, but it sure as hell had an effect on me! I took this stuff with three other guys, one of whom’s father belonged to a very posh country club in Baltimore. And the next thing I knew — and this sounds goofy, but it’s true — the next thing I knew I was playing golf, which I had never done before in my life, on this course at this guy’s country club, and it’s raining and we’re all naked.

So the experiment was a success!
I’d like to blame that on the cobra venom, and if I can’t blame it on the cobra venom, that’s terrible! —Connor Kilpatrick

Mr. Magoo Creator Millard Kaufman on Being a First-Time Novelist at 90