Who Is Dalton Trumbo? 5 Facts About Bryan Cranston's Next Role

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Mitzi Trumbo/Samuel Goldwyn Films/AMC

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston has signed on to play blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. That name might not be familiar to everyone, but if you like classic movies, you probably know his work. Here's a look at the former American Communist Party member who wrote Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and a slew of other great films.

1. He Was a Bakery Pro

While Trumbo was trying to make it as a writer in Los Angeles, he got a job as a night wrapper at a bread bakery to help him make enough cash until he started selling his work. As it turned out, he held this bakery job for nearly a decade; from 1925 to 1934 he diligently wrapped bread at night and wrote during the day.

The only problem was that nobody seemed to like his writing much. Trumbo penned six novels and close to 90 short stories during his bakery years, and publishers rejected each one. His life wasn't boring, though. Trumbo also dabbled in some side rackets, including repossessing motorcycles, to supplement his bakery earnings. Another thing Trumbo tried was bootlegging, although he quickly got out of that business after rivals killed a pair of his competitors.

The brief stint running liquor actually ended up launching Trumbo's career, though. In 1932 he sold a piece about the bootlegging business to Vanity Fair, and the magazine liked the story so much it made Trumbo its new Hollywood correspondent, which finally enabled him to leave the bakery.

2. He Didn't Name Names

As an artistic, working-class pacifist, Trumbo was an ideal recruit for the 1940s-era Communist Party, and he did in fact join up in 1943. Unfortunately, this affiliation wasn't the wisest show business career move at the time. In 1947, Trumbo and nine other writers and directors had to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about the insidious threat of Communism in Hollywood.

When Trumbo and his fellow witnesses refused to testify or name names of other Hollywood communists, they were convicted of contempt of Congress and placed on the Hollywood blacklists. Not only did it seem like Trumbo's career as a screenwriter was probably over, but he also had to spend 11 months in a federal prison in Kentucky.

3. But He Didn't Stop Writing

Even though Trumbo went to jail and found his way onto the Hollywood blacklist, he didn't stop writing. On the contrary, he surreptitiously did some of his best work during the blacklist years. After getting out of jail, Trumbo decamped to Mexico and started cranking out scripts under a variety of pseudonyms, including Sally Stubblefield.

While on the blacklist Trumbo wrote films as varied as the John Dall noir classic Gun Crazy and Roman Holiday. On some movies Trumbo used a pseudonym, while on others he had another scriptwriter serve as a "front."

English writer Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for Trumbo on Roman Holiday and actually ended up winning an Oscar for his trouble.

Trumbo also wrote the 1956 film The Brave One under the pseudonym Robert Rich; this work also won an Oscar for its writing. Since Trumbo couldn't very well turn up to accept his statue, half a dozen impostor Robert Riches showed up to pick up "their" honor the next day.

Eventually the Academy rectified these injustices. In 1975, it presented Trumbo with his Oscar for The Brave One, and in 1993 his wife Cleo accepted a posthumous Oscar for the Roman Holiday script.

4. He Put Metallica on the Charts

In 1939, Trumbo published the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, a nightmarish look at the life of a World War I veteran who has lost his limbs, face, and voice after being hit by an artillery shell. The novel slips back and forth between fantasy and the protagonist's hellish reality, and although it's very well written, it's incredibly difficult to read due to the bleak, gruesome content. Nevertheless, the book was a big success in the years leading up to World War II, even winning the forerunner to the National Book Award.

What does that have to do with Metallica, though? James Hetfield thought it was so amazing that he wrote a song about it for the album And Justice For All. The song, "One," ended up being the fourth single released from the album in 1989, and it became Metallica's first song to crack the Top 40. What's more, the song earned Metallica its first Grammy, a 1990 win for Best Metal Performance. One music video for the song even features spliced footage from the film adaptation of the novel, which Trumbo directed himself.

5. He Had Some Interesting Work Habits

Writers often like to work in seemingly bizarre settings, but it must have been pretty amazing to walk in on Trumbo furiously working on a script. For starters, Trumbo liked to bang out his screenplays from the bathtub at night. Working from the tub isn't so strange, but Trumbo often had company when he wrote: a parrot that Spartacus star Kirk Douglas had given the writer as a gift.

Douglas later wrote of Trumbo in his autobiography The Ragman's Son, "He worked at night, often in the bathtub, the typewriter in front of him on a tray, a cigarette in his mouth (he smoked six packs a day). On his shoulder perched a parrot I had given him, pecking Dalton's ear while Dalton pecked at the keys."

Steve Martin dated Trumbo's daughter Mitzi and later recalled how Trumbo smoked pot to curb his drinking and exercised by walking laps around his swimming pool while smoking a cigarette.

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September 19, 2013 - 10:20am
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