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Truth, Justice, and Artistic Vision

Paul Bernbaum '79 turns his passion for Superman into a successful film about the man who became famous for playing him on TV.

Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum at the Hollywoodland premiere

Every kid needs a hero, and for Paul Bernbaum ’79, screenwriter of the recent Focus Features release Hollywoodland, his was a perennial favorite: Superman. Paul grew up with the comics and the television show starring George Reeves. “I watched it every day on Channel 11,” he says. “I even wore a towel to school, as a cape—in case I had to kick somebody’s ass.”

As an adult Paul began collecting Superman memorabilia and once bought an original costume at auction. “It was bordering on the obsessive, I guess,” he admits. As a screenwriter, he became even more fascinated with the life story of Reeves, whose mysterious death in June 1959 became the center of Paul’s eventual screenplay, a Rashomon-like detective drama.

“Reeves was a giant star worldwide, someone who’d wanted to be a famous actor,” Paul says. “He got that wish tenfold—but not the way he wanted. He was always uncomfortable in the Superman role, and in the suit. Yet he never let kids down; he played the role. Something about that was great, tragic but great. That’s what hooked me into writing the story—what he meant to a whole generation of kids. I was one of them.”

In 2001 Paul wrote the script, titled Truth, Justice, and the American Way after the Adventures of Superman series motto. The film was in development for several years as various directors and actors were proposed. “Any time a movie gets made it’s a miracle,” Paul says, “and this one doesn’t have a more checkered history than most.”

Paul negotiated a rare “no rewrite” clause: “Usually the studio can chop your head off and there’s nothing to be done about it.” Though Paul eventually ceded this right, the film stayed very close to his vision. He’s ecstatic about every aspect: the direction by Allen Coulter (of The Sopranos and Sex and the City) and the cast, which includes Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody, Bob Hoskins, Diane Lane, and Robin Tunney. 

A TV-R major/writing minor at IC, Paul headed right after graduation to Los Angeles, where he spent “five years just writing and trying to get in the door.” Doing temp work and writing nonstop, Paul landed his first staff job in 1984 on Riptide. He went on to write for The A-Team, Hardcastle, Hunter, and 21 Jump Street, among other shows. At Viacom for several years, he created and executive produced Deadly Games and wrote a number of Showtime cable and family movies. Hollywoodland is his first major film release. He’s happy to make the transition from television after a long career in the medium as a writer, producer, and executive producer, with credits at every network. The buzz about Hollywoodland has led to screenwriting gigs for five other film projects, including Universal’s upcoming Counter-Clockwise with Jennifer Aniston.

Paul lives near Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Gina Horne ’79, and their five children. Four have show business aspirations, and the youngest, at 9, wants to work for Lego. “He’ll have the only decent steady job,” Paul says.

Paul, who began his IC career as a sportscaster (“I just wanted to do the Knicks games”), recalls the enormous creative freedom and fun he had writing soap operas, comedy, and “really ‘out-there’ novels.” He advises younger writers to persist: “Too many bail out too soon. If you’ve got the passion to write, it’s almost more important than the talent.”

Having a superhero as role model might be helpful as well.

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