Sackler, Howard Oliver

views updated

SACKLER, Howard Oliver

(b. 19 December 1929 in New York City; d. 14 October 1982 in Ibiza, Spain), dramatist, director, and screenwriter whose play and film The Great White Hope became a classic commentary on the uneasy interpenetration of race, society, and boxing within American society.

Sackler was the son of real estate salesman Martin Sackler and Ida Rapaport. He spent his teenage years in Florida before returning to New York. He graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.A. degree in 1950.

While at college he wrote his first screenplay and had the good fortune to have another, Desert Padre, filmed by another young craftsman just beginning his career, the incomparable Stanley Kubrick. Sackler and Kubrick had much in common. They were born just one year apart, they both felt sustained by the energy and animation of New York, especially the Bronx, and they were desperate to succeed. With a Sackler script, Kubrick virtually single-handedly made Fear and Desire (1953). He financed the project with monies he borrowed, and he was the one-man crew—he directed, shot the camera, edited, and produced. With similar passion and focus between 1950 and 1953, Sackler committed himself to his vision of being a full-time writer. Thanks to writing grants from the Rockefeller and Littauer Foundations, he succeeded.

In 1953 Sackler founded Caedmon Records. Although today the company is all but forgotten, at the time it was a leader in the recording industry. Based in London, Sackler worked as Caedmon's production director for the next fifteen years. London was especially attractive to Sackler for three reasons: much of the most innovative recording work in the 1950s was being done there; the political climate was relatively liberal and devoid of the anticommunist witch-hunting that tarnished Hollywood's reputation; and, for a young man captivated by the theater, London was an inspiring base. Sackler produced more than two hundred recordings for Caedmon. His forte was full-length treatments of Shakespeare, and during his tenure a "Who's Who" of luminary British actors recorded at his studio. During this time he continued to write, winning the Maxwell Anderson Award for verse drama in 1954 with Uriel Acosta, a one-act play. His next short work, The Yellow Loves (1959), received the Sergel Award. Sackler married Greta Lynn Lungren in 1963; they had two children.

In the mid-1960s Sackler's career blossomed with the production of an anthology of four one-act plays titled A Few Enquiries (1965) as well as the staging of The Pastime of Monsieur Robert (1966). In an interview Sackler explained how his work at the recording studio helped to shape his rare ability to listen to voices and then to get those voices to be listened to by a theater audience: "One can't learn about plays by reading them nearly as well as one can by getting inside them, conducting them, directing them."

Sackler's crowning glory, and the work that both defines him and sets him apart from his contemporaries, is The Great White Hope, which reached out to many constituencies. It was a popular box office hit; normally curmudgeonly critics were generous in their praise; social historians relished its realism; and black activists of the 1960s saw in the script, and especially in the character of boxer Jack Jefferson, an individual whose angst resonated with the discontent and discomfort of the civil rights movement and of more extreme black militant groups.

The Great White Hope not only ran for 556 performances on Broadway, beginning in 1968, but in the 1968–1969 drama season swept the New York Drama Critics Award, the Tony Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The play is based on Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Sackler's title nicely captures an agitated white community, desperately seeking a challenger to tame, thump, and destroy the "uppity" boxer. The antihero Jack Jefferson is a brooding, enigmatic figure who struts around the stage but is ever mindful of the perils that surround him.

The real Jack Johnson, as a boxer, was seen to be a threat to the dominant white culture. Civic leaders, boxing authorities, and white supremacists saw him as a figure of Armageddon. Jackson was railed against because he had a penchant for taunting his opponents and then because he married a much younger white woman just months after his first wife committed suicide. Convicted of transporting a woman across state borders for "immoral purposes," Jackson was sentenced to a year in prison. In Jack Johnson, therefore, Sackler had a remarkable individual to chronicle. Although on one level a powerful analysis of tensions between black and white, The Great White Hope is, more profoundly, a singular psychological thriller about a man trapped and made impotent by social forces. Sackler said about the play: "What interested me was not the topicality but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world."

Although Sackler played down the view of The Great White Hope as a thesis on racial conflict, some critics disagreed. The essayist Julius Novick, writing in 1968, wondered if Sackler was catering to what he termed "Negro paranoia," but added, "the play demands of us, in urgently, dramatic terms, that we examine the whole question [of racism] and our stake in it." James Earl Jones starred in the stage play and in the 1970 Twentieth Century–Fox film, for which Sackler wrote the screenplay. Sackler's other plays were S emmelweiss (1977) and Goodbye Fidel (1980). He collaborated on several screenplays for several films, among which were Bugsy (1973), Jaws II (1976), Gray Lady Down (1978), and Saint Jack (1979). Sackler was found dead at the age of fifty-two in his studio in Ibiza, Spain; the cause of death was pulmonary thrombosis.

Sackler's leadership role at Caedmon—during his tenure he mentored such luminaries as the actors Rex Harrison, Albert Finney, and Paul Scofield—marks his considerable cultural contribution to the history of the spoken word. A good case can be made that the launch of The Great White Hope at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (1967), was a pivotal point in American drama. The themes of racism, African-American sexuality, and justice gone wrong shocked theater-going audiences.

Douglas T. Putman, Controversies of the Sports (1999), gives a thorough review of Johnson's troubled and controversial boxing career. Obituaries are in the New York Times (15 Oct. 1982), Washington Post (16 Oct. 1982), and (London) Times (18 Oct. 1982).

Scott A. G. M. Crawford