A SCREENWRITER FOR ALL SEASONS! Reuben Bercovitch’s Family Reflects on His Accomplished Life and Career!

Reuben Bercovitch in 2017. Photo © Stephen Bercovitch.

Reuben Bercovitch was a producer and screenwriter who worked with Henry G. Saperstein at United Productions of America (UPA) on various film productions throughout the 1960s. On UPA’s collaborations with Toho, Mr. Bercovitch’s credits include: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Monster Zero (1965), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), and Hell in the Pacific (1968). In this May 2021 interview, Mr. Bercovitch’s wife Blanche and his oldest son Stephen discuss Mr. Bercovitch’s life and career with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: Tell me about your early life and where you grew up.

Blanche Bercovitch: We grew up in Brooklyn. I guess I was 14; maybe I was 13. And Reuben was 14 [when we met]. We belonged to a left-wing Jewish scout organization. That’s where we met. I was 14; Mr. B was 15. We got married when he got out of the service.

BH: When you were young, around 14 years old, did you have any hobbies?

BB: My hobbies? My hobbies were eating! (laughs)

Stephen Bercovitch: Her mother owned a candy store.

BB: Right. I grew up in a Brooklyn candy store. (laughs) Reuben’s father originally owned a [clothes-]cleaning store. He was a tailor. Then we came out here [to Los Angeles] after Reuben graduated [from] the Columbia School of Business, so Reuben was a CPA [certified public accountant]. His uncle had a firm out here and offered him a job. That’s how we came to California.

SB: After the war, he went to Columbia University. He graduated [from] Columbia after the war. The G.I. Bill paid for that. Then he went to look for a job as an accountant in New York City. But his uncle, which is his father’s brother, was here in Beverly Hills, [and] had an accounting firm of his own. So he hired his nephew, and they came out on the train.

BB: We traveled the old-fashioned way.

SB: You cried the whole way.

BB: And, as an aside, we actually stopped in [the] Grand Canyon, and, believe it or not, we took a mule down the canyon! It was about eight mules go[ing] in a group. We went down the Canyon to the river and back. I was delaying coming out here. We raised four happy sons.

BH: Let’s go back to the very beginning. Could you tell me when Reuben was born and where he was born?

SB: He was born in Brooklyn [on] July 18, 1923.

BH: Do you know what kind of hobbies he had as a boy?

BB: Yes, the model airplanes and, you know, those model things. He had an Erector Set. They used to have these models — I don’t know if they still have them. He built model airplanes. But he loved to read. Reuben was a big reader.

BH: What kind of things did he like to read?

BB: Mostly history, not fiction. He didn’t like fiction. And he did like [Ernest] Hemingway; he did like the author Hemingway.

BH: Do you know where he went to high school?

SB: He went to Thomas Jefferson High School. Where did you go?

BB: I went to Tilden High School. In those days, there were districts; I don’t know now. My street went to Tilden High School. His street went to Jefferson High School. It’s good we didn’t go to the same school because I think we wouldn’t have studied! We would have been busy!  

BH: When did Reuben get drafted, and when did he join the war?

BB: [In] 1943, he went into the service. After high school, he came out here because the war was on.

SB: Oh, he was out here already when the war was on?

BB: Yeah, Reuben was drafted from here.

SB: He was working [at] Lockheed.

BB: Correct, correct. Daddy left New York in 1942, and he worked for Lockheed. And he was drafted in 1943. Then he spent three years in the service and got out in ‘46.

BH: What did he do at Lockheed?

BB: He was a riveter, believe it or not! (laughs) He was a riveter! Then he was drafted.

BH: Where did he serve?

BB: What happened was, he was drafted. The Army wasn’t stupid; they had very bright kids. They gave them schooling, so he was transferred to Indiana University. And he went to school there for a while. Then his whole unit was transferred to Camp Campbell, Kentucky. And then from there they went overseas. So they went overseas in January ‘45, I think. You’ll forgive me; I lose track of dates. I’m older than 14!

BH: Where did he serve when he went overseas?

SB: He was in the 20th Armored Division. He was a truck driver, and the 20th Armored Division was under who?

BB: [He was in the] 412th Armored Field Artillery [Battalion]. For a while, it was actually [under General George S.] Patton.

BH: So he served under Patton for a while.

BB: For a while, yes. If you want to go back to the war, his unit liberated one of the camps. They liberated Dachau, which I can tell you he never forgot — ever. That’s an experience you don’t forget.

SB: “He never forgot it,” is exactly right. Then he wrote the novel Hasen. I think that comes out of his memories. His novel Hasen was in 1979. This is about two boys who live in the woods outside of a concentration camp. This novel won the Hemingway Award for the best first novel published in 1979.

BH: What else could you tell me about his war experiences?

SB: I don’t think he liked the war. He made some friends there. And then you started going to the reunions. Remember, the 20th Armored Division.

BB: For a while, his division used to have reunions. So we’d go, meet everybody. But then they all got old, so little by little the membership shrank. I guess we all get older. In the war, Reuben was a truck driver. Believe it or not, they were driving gasoline [tank trucks] — you know those things, if you run out of gas, you go to the gas station? That’s what he had in the back of his truck, was all these tanks with gasoline. He was a truck driver.

But then, after the war, they put him in the office because they knew that he was basically not a truck driver. He organized the papers in the office so they could find who was absent, and who was on leave, and who’s sick. He was quite a guy.

BH: Do you have any other memories of the war? Did he share anything else about the war?

SB: After the war in Europe ended, they were preparing to invade Japan. He would have been part of the invasion of Japan.

BB: Actually, the atom bomb saved Reuben’s life because, when the war ended in Europe, it took a while, but then they came back to the States. It used to be that you had 10 days’ furlough. This time, they gave him three weeks, which seemed very odd. But they were scheduled to go to Japan, and actually the bomb saved Reuben’s life. They expected 90% casualties. Horrific. I don’t know if you’re familiar with New York, but the New York Times Building had a wraparound that said, “Japan surrenders!” They were dancing in the streets, and we knew that at least Reuben would live.

SB: It’s hard to imagine. You can’t say the atomic bomb was great, but it’s unbelievable. It saved his life when you look at it that way.

BB: It saved his life. They expected 90% casualties. And then the rest is history. We got married, raised a wonderful family. My husband said, “We raised a wonderful family — four happy, healthy, well-educated sons.” And they all had adventures.

BH: When he left the Army, what rank did he have?

BB: By the time he left, he was a technical sergeant.

BH: When did you and Reuben get married?

BB: We got married in January of 1947, way before you were born.

BH: (laughs) Could you tell me about how he proposed to you?

BB: We were taking a walk, and he said to me, “When can we get married?” Not, “Will you marry me?,” but, “When can we get married?” At that time, I was going to school at night, so I had to get home. We walked back to my house to check my school schedule, and that’s how we came up with the date. It was after my exams and before the term started.

BH: What were you studying at night school?

BB: I was working at Jewish Federation with returning veterans. At school, I was studying sociology; I was going to be a social worker.

BH: What school were you going to at the time?

BB: Brooklyn College, but I did graduate. Reuben graduated [from] Columbia. Interesting[ly], our graduations were the same week. His graduation was Monday, and mine was Thursday. His father brought me seven roses, long-stem roses, because I went at night, and it took me seven years!

BH: After you got married, talk about what happened next with you and Reuben. What did you do after you got married?

BB: We came here to L.A. in ‘48. When he graduated, he did not have a job. His uncle offered him the job in California, and that’s how we came here. We arrived here in Los Angeles [on] July 11, 1948.

BH: Reuben was a CPA?

BB: No, not yet. He had a degree, but not a CPA.  He graduated [from] the School of Business [at] Columbia. But then you had to take a special exam to become a certified public accountant.

What had happened was, his uncle gave him a job.  He was the accountant for a big theatrical agency, William Morris. And then William Morris hired Reuben away from his uncle because they liked him. He was a very efficient guy, you should know. (laughs) I don’t have to sell him. Quiet, but very bright. So William Morris got him, and the rest is history. He worked for William Morris for quite a while, and then he went to Hank [Saperstein]. I forgot why.

SB: In William Morris, he helped to set up the television department. That was the new media. So he came in 1948, then he worked a few years for Sam Berke, his uncle, and then he went to William Morris [in] 1952. In 1952, television was brand-new.

BB: He was in William Morris, and that’s when he worked with television, with Elvis, and that’s where he met Hank. Hank was doing [Mr.] Magoo.

SB: Hank Saperstein was doing Mr. Magoo, but if you google Hank Saperstein, he was like the originator of merchandising. Hank Saperstein was doing Elvis Presley tennis shoes in 1953 — Elvis watches, Elvis belts. I’ll give you my anecdote: I always had Elvis stuff. Dad would come home with all kinds. (laughs) I had an Elvis wallet, an Elvis belt, an Elvis shirt.

BB: But, before that, when Reuben did merchandising for The Rifleman, he would not merchandise anything without proving it worked. So he came home with four rifles to give each of his four kids.

SB: And he met Hank Saperstein, and I think between Hank Saperstein and a guy named Selig Seligman…

BB: Seligman was from ABC, and Daddy knew the attorney from ABC, Leon Morrell [note: the spelling of this name may not be correct]. Leon was the lawyer working for Seligman.

SB: How did he get connected to Toho Studios in Japan?

BB: He was working for another attorney — slipped my mind. Schreibman, Paul Schreibman was the attorney, and he was working with Toho. Reuben got to know Paul Schreibman and wanted to do something more legitimate. That’s how Hell in the Pacific came to be. In between, they did the monster pictures. Daddy did The War of the Gargantuas — the good brother and the bad brother.

SB: Paul Schreibman was the lawyer for Toho in the United States. He knew Schreibman through “networking.”

BB: And he wanted to do something more legitimate that made some sense.

SB: So Schreibman said, “Toho’s interested in the monster movies.” By then, he was writing a script.

BB: Correct. So he did The War of the Gargantuas.

SB: I thought he did Monster Zero.

BB: No, he did Mothra. None of us ever saw Mothra, but we did see The War of the Gargantuas. I don’t know if you ever saw it.

BH: Do you remember around what year Reuben met Paul Schreibman and when this connection happened?

BB: I don’t remember the year. He met Schreibman through Hank.

SB: When was Godzilla? It was 1965, wasn’t it?

BH: Monster Zero and Frankenstein Conquers the World were ‘65.

SB: Nineteen sixty-five. So he must have known Paul Schreibman then.

BH: Let’s also talk about Frankenstein Conquers the World and Monster Zero. What could you tell me about Reuben’s involvement in these productions?

SB: She was in the hotel in Japan with him.

BB: I traveled with Reuben.

SB: She was at the Okura the day the hotel was inaugurated.

BB: We stayed at the Okura. This was before Hell in the Pacific. We went to Japan.

SB: Did he travel to Japan for Godzilla?

BB: One of the monster pictures.

SB: Did you travel with him?

BB: Yes, Daddy never traveled alone. We were that kind of a couple.

BH: What were your experiences in Japan like? What do you remember?

BB: First of all, they were very, very polite. But the first thing I remember was, getting off the airplane, everyone in Tokyo was wearing a mask. I was so naive; I couldn’t imagine there were so many people who had a cold! In America, you only wear a mask if you have a cold. So here they were. But we stayed at a very nice hotel, the Okura. They were very polite. Until we went to dinner one night, and Hiroshima came up. These Japanese guys didn’t like that [the meal was] Kobe beef. The Okura was a lovely hotel, and the Japanese are very nice, very, very clean, and very polite. The streets are spotless.

BH: When Hiroshima came up in conversation, was that with Toho employees, or was that other people?

BB: We were out to dinner with some of the Toho employees, and Hiroshima came up. I thought they would kill us! Anyway, we sort of glided over that.

SB: But think about that, Brett. That was only 20 years after — 1965 was only 20 years after the end of the war. It’s like, if you look back at the year 2000, it’s not that long ago.

BB: Oh, it was very fresh with the Japanese. I don’t even know how Hiroshima came up. They were ready to kill Reuben! Like it’s his fault. When we went out to dinner then, I was very impressed because we had — stupid memories —  Kobe beef, and what they do is, they walk around with — what do you call them? — like a branding iron, and, as you order, each person has a different brand. “So you want your steak medium?,” and they brand it with your initials so you get the right [one]. They’re very polite, very clean, and very organized.

BH: What did Reuben think about writing these monster pictures at the time? Did he comment on what he thought about it?

BB: No, he didn’t make any comments. Reuben was a very soft-spoken guy; he didn’t like to brag. He had a lot of accomplishments. He has three books in the library.

SB: Hasen was the award winner.

BB: Right. He won an award.

BH: Do you have any other Japan memories that you could share — maybe from your own memories, or something Reuben might have told you?

BB: Just that they were, like I said, very polite, very gentle. What I do remember is, spotless, clean…

SB: He told me one story which is interesting. He said at one negotiation they had translators. So the Japanese were on one side, and the Americans were on the other, and everybody is translating in between. And then you’re thinking they don’t understand anything, so you’re kind of whispering to your colleague in English because you figure they don’t know anything. At the end of the negotiation, the guy stands up, and in perfectly fluently English he says, “Thanks very much. It was very nice doing business with you.” (laughs) He knew English perfectly all along, and they were feigning that they were illiterate in English. All the time, they were listening and eavesdropping on the other side of the negotiating table. (laughs) That was funny. That was a funny story; he told me that.

The Japanese guy stood up and said, “Thanks very much, Reuben. Very nice to meet you.” He says, “You speak English? What do you mean you speak English? Why [was] I talking through a translator for the last two hours?”

BB: Well, it’s like Daddy said. He used to go to these meetings. He never told them that he was a CPA so that, when they negotiated, he understood what was going on. But, if they knew he was a CPA, it might have gone differently. So he didn’t tell them that he’s a CPA. You would have liked to know him.

BH: Stephen, I’d like to bring you in now. What about your own memories about Japan and especially about any of the monster movies?

SB: You know, it’s funny, not really. I don’t know. He didn’t talk that much about the monster movies. He never talked to me about it.

BB: Well, he spoke to [your brother] Fred because Fred designed Gargantua.

SB: Well, you have to look up What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Hank Saperstein produced What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which was Woody Allen writing dialogue to a Japanese movie. So, somehow, I don’t know how he got Woody Allen involved, but that was his earliest production, I think, that was American, that was not a monster movie. He’s the executive producer of that one, but Woody Allen wrote the dialogue.

[on the subject of sending things home from Japan]

BB: We brought home a few things, not many, no. We weren’t shoppers. Everyone says, “We did get to Hong Kong,” and everyone says, “When you get to Hong Kong, you have to buy this, you have to buy that.” I’m not a shopper; Reuben definitely was not a shopper. So we did not come home loaded, no.

BH: Speaking of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, is there anything else you could tell me about Reuben’s involvement in that film?

BB: Details? No, I don’t have [any]. All I know is, he worked with Woody Allen. I think Woody Allen did the dialogue. Dad was one of the producers for What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

BH: Did he ever have any stories about Woody Allen, or did he ever talk about what it was like to work with Woody Allen back then?

BB: I’m not going to tell you any stories! (laughs) He was a nice guy. I don’t give gossip out. (laughs) Reuben didn’t like to gossip.

BH: Well, how about Hell in the Pacific? I think there might be a little bit more to talk about there, so let’s talk about Hell in the Pacific.

SB: They lived on a boat in Palau.

BB: Hell in the Pacific was in 1967. There was no housing in Palau, so we lived on a — it’s not really a boat; it’s like an ocean liner. It was a big cruise ship. You had to walk up a gangplank. But we lived on the ship. There was a Japanese side and an American side on the ship. When we had breakfast in the dining room, one side was Japanese, and one side was American. That’s how we did Hell in the Pacific.

BH: How long was filming?

BB: We were out there from January to April. It was about four months.

BH: What else could you tell me about being out there for Hell in the Pacific?

BB: I’ll tell you, it was a great experience. That was Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. There were only two people in the film. Reuben produced that one, Hell in the Pacific.

BH: What can you tell me about Lee Marvin?

BB: A really, really nice guy, but he did like to drink. But he was always on time, and he never missed a line. He always knew what he was doing. So, you know, he didn’t get stinkin’ drunk, but he did like to drink.

SB: I have a story about Mifune. Reuben told us once, before they went to shooting, he had a trip to Tokyo. He went to the hotel, and they told him, “I’m sorry, we’re booked.” He’s at the front desk at the Okura, and they say, “I’m sorry, we’re all booked.” He says, looming up behind him, is Toshiro Mifune, who leans over to the clerk at the desk at the Okura, and says, “Excuse me, what do you mean you’re all booked?” Toshiro Mifune is like the John Wayne of Japan. Reuben got a room that night!

BB: Well, we sure did. I should tell you, thanks to Mifune, we got a cute little dog from Japan, a little puppy.

That time, I wasn’t with him, and he promised the kids he’ll bring back a dog. Well, who knows. Anyway, I get a call from the L.A. Airport to come and pick up the dog. Reuben was still in Japan, and I went. It was a little Akita, a baby. It was maybe six weeks old.

SB: This was a royal dog. I think it was the first Akita dog in America. He had a red wax seal on his AKC papers. The dog came with a red wax seal. I think it was an Imperial dog or something. He was a pure-bred, and then the Akitas became popular much later.

BB: And what do you think we named him? Saki [named after the Japanese alcoholic beverage sake]! What else do you name him? We did drink a lot in Japan! (laughs)

SB: Also, in college, in 1967, I went up to [UC] Berkeley; I had a Toyota. I think I had the first Toyota in America.

BB: Yeah, you did.

SB: I had a 1967 Toyota. So that was our Japan connection — Saki and my Toyota.

BH: So was the Akita dog from Toshiro Mifune himself?

BB: No, it wasn’t his dog. He went to the pet shop with Reuben, and Reuben had promised the kids to bring home a dog. So Mifune went with his chauffeur and Reuben to the pet shop to make sure that they gave Reuben a good dog. So that’s how we got Saki. But he was a puppy then.

BH: Speaking generally about Hank Saperstein, is there anything you could tell us about the connection with Hank Saperstein?

SB: Hank started him out, really.

BB: Well, for a while, Reuben was working for Hank. That’s how he met Paul Schreibman, who was the attorney for Toho. Somehow, Reuben met Schreibman, and they got involved with all these films.

SB: He went to Lorimar [Productions]. He went from Hank Saperstein to work for Lorimar. Lorimar was doing The Waltons, and they wanted to get into movies. It was a guy named Merv Adelson at Lorimar. He went in there to work at Lorimar.

BH: Which productions did he work on at Lorimar?

SB: In 1975, he did Out of Season. That was with Vanessa Redgrave.

BB: In Britain. [about the cleanliness of Japan] That’s the first thing I noticed, having come from Brooklyn, New York, where the streets are not clean. And the first thing I noticed was, everyone had this mask, which now they need because of this COVID. But, anyway, the streets were spotless, and they were very polite to us, very polite.

BH: So what about Out of Season? Is there anything you could tell us about Out of Season?

BB: Out of Season was in London. That was a while back.

BH: Could you just generally tell me what Reuben did in the years after that?

SB: After that, he went to work for Tom Laughlin. Then he came back, and then after Out of Season [was the movie] Billy Jack. [Actor-director] Tom Laughlin hired him to be an executive producer. He had a ton of money because Billy Jack was a very big hit. Reuben went to Laughlin, and the dispute there was, Laughlin didn’t want anyone else distributing his films. He wanted to be in control, so he wanted to build out his own distribution network nationwide.

The way I got it from Reuben was, he tried to advise against it because it’s so expensive. Once you have a distribution network, you have to feed it with a pipeline of films. Otherwise, you just have tremendous overhead with no income. So I think he had his disputes with Laughlin, and then he ended up leaving Laughlin after a couple of years.

BB: He ended up self-employed, or self-unemployed, if that’s what you want to call it.

SB: Tom Laughlin wanted to produce Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), and Reuben said, “Look, Billy Jack is a guy out west. He doesn’t go to Washington. He’s not Jimmy Stewart.” And Laughlin wanted to do Billy Jack Goes to Washington, so they had a falling-out. I think Reuben turned out to be correct because I think Billy Jack Goes to Washington was a flop.

BB: Reuben was always right! (laughs) He was a very quiet man with a lot of accomplishments, and his wife was there for him, always.

SB: [After] Billy Jack, he became semi-retired.

BB: After Billy Jack, he didn’t work for anybody. He just was on his own.

SB: By then, he was in his mid-60s, so that was it. He just retired.

BH: What are the other two books that he wrote?

SB: One was called Odette, [which was published in] 1973, I think. The other one is called The Snow Pit. That was about World War II. The Snow Pit is somewhat autobiographical.

BB: He has three books in the library. One is called Odette. That’s a love story between an Indian and an American. He won the Hemingway Award for Hasen, which is German for “rabbit.” The third one is called [The] Snow Pit, and that’s basically Reuben’s memory of World War II.  His typist was his wife.

BH: Did you type his books?

SB: She typed with carbon paper. She didn’t even have an electric typewriter.

BB: No electric typewriter.

SB: [She had] carbon paper and Wite-Out [correction fluid]. He never got into a computer. He never had a laptop or a desktop.

BB: So old-fashioned.

SB: In the ‘80s, when he ended up semi-retired, he didn’t migrate to computers.

BB: No, we never had a computer.

SB: Then they were traveling. They went to Italy…

BB: Italy, a couple of times!

SB: You went to France, England, you went to the South of France, I went with you to San Francisco.

BB: New York, a couple of times.

SB: Right, at least four or five times, just to Manhattan. They liked to come to New York City.

BB: That was our old hangout.

BH: What else did he like to do later in life?

SB: Just read and travel.

BB: We used to read a lot. No hobbies. Just reading.

SB: He doesn’t do golfing. He was never into golf.

BB: No, he didn’t like golf at all, no. Basically, I think he just enjoyed his family, and he did a lot of reading — history, no fiction. He didn’t like fiction. We had a house full of books.

BH: Of course I know Stephen, but who are the other children?

SB: My brother Fred is next, and then Saul, and then Marc.

BH: Do you have any comments to wrap it up, any finals things that you’d like to share?

BB: Reuben was very quiet, not a braggadocio, but he was a man with lots and lots of accomplishments who loved his family very much. Before he passed away, those were the last words he said to me, my dear. He said, “You know, we raised a wonderful family.” But then he looked at me and said, “But you are my life.” And that’s it. I was his life, and he was my life.

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