Did a Famous Lawyer Who Represented Blacklisted Movie Creators Miss Out on a Financial Windfall When it Came to Representing Harold Hecht?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Edward Bennett Williams turned down 10% of the production company that made box office smashes Vera Cruz and Marty.

Edward Bennett Williams was one of the most prominent trial lawyers of the latter half of the 20th Century.

Based in Washington D.C. (he originally wanted to be a politician), he not only was a brilliant attorney, but he was also quite a businessman. His strategy when it came to taking clients was basically that he would give ANYone a defense, provided, of course, that they paid him (in HIS defense, his retort would be that he simply was a dedicated follower of the 6th Amendment right to a fair trial).

He was able to purchase both the Washington Redskins AND the Baltimore Orioles, so the guy was extremely wealthy.

Williams was close to both Democrats and Republicans, making for some interesting mixes when it came time for him to represent folks. For instance, he defended Senator Joseph McCarthy during the latter’s censure hearing (plus later trials over tax issues and claims of libel). But at least partially due to his close relationship with McCarthy and his people, Williams was in prime position to help those called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

He drove very tough bargains, but he almost always kept his client from being blacklisted. He almost represented Carl Foreman (writer of High Noon), but his demands (which included $50,000 and 10% of Foreman’s next picture) were not met. Foreman ended up getting blacklisted.

Williams’ main strategy in these cases were to insist his client name whatever names it took to get him off the blacklist. Interestingly enough, on at least one occasion, Williams played “hardball” and got Howard Koch (co-author of Casablanca) off of the blacklist without naming names, but rather through the threat of libel prosecution. Williams knew enough of what went on during the collection of the blacklist that his threats were imposing, so Koch was off of the list the next day. However, while Williams knew he COULD use leverage if need be, he seemed happier to not alienate HUAC and almost always went with counseling people to name names (assisting Koch might have actually been a personal favor on Williams’ part, hence the different strategy).

Anyhow, this was how Williams met Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster.

Hecht was an agent and producer who had recently made a bold gamble by forming his own independent production company along with Lancaster (who Hecht had “discovered” after the War and introduced to Hollywood). The pair used Lancaster’s box office appeal (as well as Hecht’s connections) to secure financing for their own films in exchange for Lancaster working for studios on THEIR films.

Remember what I said about how Williams counseled his clients to name names? An (for Williams’ sake, let’s say “unintentional”) unintentional consequence of this strategy was that Williams would soon gain NEW clients as his OLD clients would name names and then Williams would represent the people who got named!

This is what happened when one of Williams’ clients named Hecht’s name.

Hecht hired Williams, who successfully got Hecht off of the blacklist. During the course of his representation, Williams became good friends with Lancaster (who had some issues of his own with HUAC, although never to the point of being threatened with blacklisting).

As I mentioned earlier, Williams would often ask for percentage points of people’s films as part of their fees.

When he got Hecht off the blacklist (Hecht named names, naturally), Hecht offered Williams 10 percent of his and Lancaster’s production company in lieu of his fee. Williams turned them down.

The next two films Hecht and Lancaster made were the MASSIVE box office success, Vera Cruz…

which made over $11 million at the box office (a TON of money in 1954)

and then a little film that was adapted from a TV movie by
Paddy Chayefsky (who Hecht gave a sweetheart deal on agreeing to do the movie version – Chayefsky got total script approval, if he didn’t want them to change a single line, they couldn’t do so) called… Marty.

Marty, of course, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Film and for Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine) as well as being the last American film to win both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival AND the Academy Award for Best Film.

Naturally, Williams could not have known that this small production company would have such big hits coming (especially Marty – did ANYone predict a box office success there?) but it made Williams even more insistent in the future on getting a percentage of the gross of the films of his clients.

So when he then represented director/producer Robert Rossen in front of HUAC (the second time in front of the committee for Rossen – the first time he ended up sort of blacklisted), he got Rossen off of the blacklist (Rossen named over FIFTY names), but he also got 10% of Rossen’s next epic film, Alexander the Great…

which, of course, promptly flopped.

Thanks to Evan Thomas’ brilliant biography of Williams, The Man to See, Edward Bennet Williams for the great insight into the legendary lawyer.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

3 Responses to “Did a Famous Lawyer Who Represented Blacklisted Movie Creators Miss Out on a Financial Windfall When it Came to Representing Harold Hecht?”

  1. Did you do to legends today or something because I notice that to Rose Parks one and this one both say June 6

  2. Huh, odd. I scheduled them both at the same time, but I thought I scheduled them to come out a day apart.

  3. Harold Hecht produced the 1963 prison flick “Birdman of Alcatraz”. Burt Lancaster and (I assume Hecht) were quite liberal in their politics, and this was reflected in Lancaster’s portrayal of “Birdman” Robert Stroud. Lancaster played him as a sympathetic character. In real life, Stroud was a violent sociopath. (I’ve never read Tom Gaddis’ book, on which the screenplay was based, so I can’t say how Stroud was portrayed in the book.)

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