Director Sydney Lumet‘s 1973 undercover police drama Serpico earned Al Pacino his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. While it was another in a long-running streak of Oscar nominations for Pacino that resulted in no wins until 1992’s Scent of a Woman, Serpico‘s other Oscar nomination was for Best Adapted Screenplay for screenwriters Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive). Although Serpico proved to be the last Oscar-worthy project of Wexler’s, Waldo Salt had a much longer, and much darker story in Hollywood screenwriting history.
Waldo Salt was born on October 18, 1914 and grew up in Chicago an accomplished academic. He was so accomplished, in fact, that he graduated from Stanford University at the same time his friends were graduating from high school. Shortly thereafter, Salt was in Hollywood working as a screenwriter for MGM. There he worked on and assisted with various writing projects, but his first solo writing adaptation was with a 1937 film called The Bride Wore Red. The next year, Salt joined the American Communist Party, putting himself on the radar for the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare/McCarthy era 12 years later.
Having continued with his work throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Salt’s Communist affiliations were eventually realized by the House Committee, who called him to testify before them in 1951. Salt, however, refused to testify, and as a result was blacklisted and not permitted to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Being blacklisted, however, was not enough to make Salt stop working. Like other blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters, including Dalton Trumbo, Salt continued to write under a number of various pseudonyms. He worked on various television projects throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s under names like Arthur Behrstock and Mel Davenport.
As the 1960s went on, blacklisted screenwriters began once again putting their own names on their work, and Salt returned to the scene with renewed determination. His triumphant return was marked by 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Salt not only won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but the film also became the first X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Despite the gears spinning off the success of Midnight Cowboy, Salt would only write a further four screenplays owing to his deteriorating health. 1971’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight went pretty much ignored, but Serpico proved another victory for the rebellious screenwriter. The Day of the Locust earned Oscar nods for Burgess Meredith (Best Supporting Actor) and Conrad L. Hall (Best Cinematographer), but the screenplay received no recognition. Salt’s last project, however, would send him into retirement with yet another Oscar win. Coming Home not only won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, but also for Best Actor (Jon Voight) and Best Actress (Jane Fonda).
After Coming Home was complete, Salt stepped away from the film industry. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986 and died the following year in Los Angeles. In 1992, the Sundance Film Festival awarded the first Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award to Neal Jimenez’s drama The Waterdance. The creation of the award solidified Waldo Salt’s legacy and continues to celebrate his contributions to film as both an art and an industry.