In his biography of Elia Kazan, Richard Schickel describes how Kazan used a ploy to entice Marlon Brando to do the movie. He had Karl Malden direct a scene from the film with an up-and-coming fellow actor from the Actors Studio playing the Terry Malloy lead role. They figured the competitive Brando would not be eager to see such a major role handed to some new screen heartthrob. The ploy worked, especially since the competition had come in the form of a guy named Paul Newman.
As part of his contract, Marlon Brando only worked till 4 every day and then he would leave to go see his analyst. Brando's mother had recently died and the conflicted young actor was in therapy to resolve his issues with his parents. Interestingly, for the film's classic scene between Rod Steiger and Brando in the back of the cab, all of Steiger's close-ups were filmed after Brando had left for the day, so his lines were read by one of the crew members. Steiger remained very bitter about that for many years and often mentioned it in interviews.
The idea for the film began with an expose series written for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson. The 24 articles won him a Pulitzer Prize and were reinforced by the 1948 murder of a New York dock hiring boss which woke America to the killings, graft and extortion that were endemic on the New York waterfront. Budd Schulberg was captivated by the subject matter, devoting years of his life to absorbing everything he could about the milieu. He became a regular fixture on the waterfront, hanging out in West Side Manhattan and Long Island bars, interviewing longshore-union leaders and getting to know the outspoken priests from St Xavier's in Hell's Kitchen.
In 1955, screenwriter Budd Schulberg - who won an Oscar for his screenplay - published his novel "Waterfront", which focuses on the causes of waterfront corruption and elucidates the involvement of the shipping companies, the mayor's office, police, and the church.
Sam Spiegel sent the script to Marlon Brando and it came back with a refusal. Spiegel however had inserted small pieces of paper between the pages which were still in place when the script was returned to him, indicating that it hadn't been read. While Spiegel continued to work on Brando, Frank Sinatra agreed to take on the role.
The taxicab scene between Terry and Charlie, one of the most famous scenes in the cinema, was not improvised, as Marlon Brando claimed in his autobiography. When Brando did initially improvise during the shooting of the scene, and Rod Steiger followed his lead, Elia Kazan yelled, "Stop the shit, Buddy!" to Brando, using his nickname. The two actors stuck to Budd Schulberg's script after that.
Although the part of Edie Doyle properly is a lead, producer Sam Spiegel listed Eva Marie Saint as a Supporting Actress in the hopes of getting her a nomination. The ploy worked, and she won the Oscar.
On the Waterfront (1954) is widely known to be an act of expiation on the part of Elia Kazan for naming names to HUAC during the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. What is less widely reported is that Kazan intended it as a direct attack at his former close friend Arthur Miller who had been openly critical of Kazan's actions. Specifically, it was a direct response to Miller's play The Crucible.
Elia Kazan later remarked that the biggest problem he encountered with his actors was getting them on set on time (the weather was so severely cold, most of the actors didn't like to hang around the set for long).
Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and Abe Simon, who play Johnny Friendly's heavies, were all former professional boxers and opponents of Joe Louis for the heavyweight world title. Simon fought the Brown Bomber twice and was knocked out in Round 13 in the first fight and Round 6 in the second. Galento and Mauriello fought Louis once apiece and shared similar fates. Galento was kayoed in Round 4 and Mauriello in Round 1.
Most of the solo shots of Rod Steiger during the famous taxicab scene were done after Marlon Brando had left for the day. Steiger was deeply hurt and annoyed at Brando's apparent rudeness, but used these emotions to add to his performance.
The Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) line, "You don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody instead of a bum, which I am." was selected at No. 3 on American Film Institute's (AFI) 100 YEARS..100 QUOTES.
Elia Kazan was loath to do business with Darryl F. Zanuck who had insisted on multiple cuts on Man on a Tightrope (1953). Fortunately when Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg met with Zanuck, he started talking about widescreen Technicolor pictures. Zanuck eventually came clean and said he didn't like a single thing about it, stating "Who's going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?" This led Kazan and Schulberg to meet with independent producer Sam Spiegel who set up a deal with Columbia.
The scene where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove and Marlon Brando picks it up and puts it on his hand was unplanned. Saint dropped her glove accidentally in rehearsal and Brando improvised the rest. Elia Kazan loved the new business and asked them to repeat it for the take.
In 1955, Anthony "Tony Mike" de Vincenzo filed a lawsuit against Columbia Pictures because Terry Malloy (the character played by Marlon Brando) seemed to have been based on him, who was known as a whistle-blower against the corrupt International Longshoremen's Association union. He won a small out-of-court settlement.
The leading characters were based on real people: Terry Malloy was based on longshoreman and whistle-blower Anthony De Vincenzo; Father Barry was based on waterfront priest John M. Corridan; Johnny Friendly was based on mobster Albert Anastasia.
Elia Kazan, in his autobiography "A Life", says that the choice of an actress to play Edie Doyle was narrowed down to Elizabeth Montgomery and Eva Marie Saint. Although Montgomery was fine in her screen test, there was something well-bred about her that Kazan thought would not be becoming for Edie, who was raised on the waterfront in Hoboken, NJ. He gave the part to Saint, and she went on to win cinematic immortality, and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, in the part.
Roger Donoghue (born 11/20/30 Yonkers, NY - died 8/20/06 Greenport, NY) was the prizefighter who Budd Schulberg credited with partly inspiring the famous line of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), "I coulda been a contender". He was Brando's trainer for the film. He came up with the idea of putting little plastic tubes in Brando's nose to represent scar tissue.
Thomas Handley, (who played Terry Molloy's teenage friend Tommy, was hired by the production to feed the pigeons on set. His father, a longshoreman, had been blackballed for anti-union activities, and disappeared when Hanley was 4 months old. Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg had him audition for the role, and coaxed an angry response out of him by calling his father a rat. He was paid $500 for his role, but never really acted again. He went on to become a longshoreman, and in 2002 was elected recording secretary of his union after yet another corrupt leadership was ousted.
Marlon Brando would improvise several different lines while filming the famous "I coulda been a contender" scene such as asking Rod Steiger "How's mom?" or "Do you think the Yankees are going to win it this year?". At one point director Elia Kazan said, "Buddy, cut the crap."
Marlon Brando did not initially want the role of Terry Malloy after producer Sam Spiegel offered it to him because he was disgusted with Elia Kazan's friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Spiegel, who had originally offered the role to Hoboken native Frank Sinatra, who had enthusiastically accepted, then tried to interest Montgomery Clift in the part. Spiegel wanted a bigger box-office attraction than Sinatra, who eventually filed a lawsuit against Spiegel for breach of contract when Brando did sign for the part.
The DVD version of the film has a Special Features section which shows some of the original promotional posters which state that the film is about "the redemption of Terry Malone". Marlon Brando's character's name was changed to Terry Malloy by the final draft.
The role of Terry's brother Charley was originally offered to Lawrence Tierney. Tierney asked for too much money so the role went to Rod Steiger who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
While filming the scene in the back of the cab Marlon Brando would leave every day for a psychiatrist appointment before Rod Steiger could film his lines with a double standing in for Brando. Steiger was very hurt by Brando's apparent disregard to a fellow colleague and was not able to forgive him until many years later.
According to Richard Schickel in his biography of director Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra had "a handshake deal"--but no formally-signed contract--to play the character of Terry Malloy in 'On the Waterfront' after Marlon Brando's original refusal to play the role. Sinatra--who was producer Sam Spiegel's first choice for the Terry Malloy role--actually attended one wardrobe fitting to prepare his costumes for the film. But Elia Kazan still favored Brando for the role, partially because Brando's casting in the film would assure a larger budget for the picture. Kazan was actually contacted by Brando's agent, Jay Kanter, to assure the director of the agent's continuing efforts to persuade the actor to perform in the film. Kazan in the meantime enlisted actor Karl Malden--whom Kazan considered more suited to a career as a director than a career as an actor--to direct and film a screen test of a "more Brando-like" actor as Terry Malloy, in an effort to persuade Spiegel that "an actor like Marlon Brando" could perform the Terry Malloy role more forcefully than Frank Sinatra. To that end, Malden filmed a screen test of Actor's Studio members Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward--neither of whom had as yet appeared in a motion picture--performing the love scene between Terry and Edie. Finally persuaded of the point by the Newman/Woodward screen test, Spiegel agreed to reconsider Brando for the role, and shortly afterward Brando was persuaded by Kanter to reconsider his refusal. Within a week, Brando signed a contract to perform in the film. At that point, a furious Frank Sinatra demanded to be cast in the role of Father Barry, the waterfront priest. It was left to Spiegel to break the news to Sinatra that Karl Malden had already been signed for that role. Later that year, Paul Newman appeared in his first motion picture, 'The Silver Chalice,' which was a critical and commercial failure. Newman and Joanne Woodward married four years later.
According to Marlon Brando's friend, Carlo Fiore, and his reminiscences in his book "Bud: The Brando I Knew", it was Fiore who helped make some key decisions about the famous taxi cab scene. It wasn't working to Brando's satisfaction, and the actor was becoming increasingly frustrated at being unable to find the truth about the scene. Fiore told him that having a gun pulled on him by his brother would hit a bullshit note with Terry, and that shocked disbelief that his brother would do such a thing would be the most appropriate response. Brando then went into a stormy conference with Elia Kazan and Sam Spiegel before nailing the scene. Afterwards Kazan drew Fiore aside and said "Next time you get an idea about a scene, bring it to me, not Marlon, okay?" There is some doubt about the veracity of this story however as one look at the original script reveals that shocked surprise was Terry's reaction all along.
The film was shot by Elia Kazan at the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It was originally offered to 20th Century Fox by Kazan, but was turned down by Darryl F. Zanuck because the film was shot in black & white and in the academy ratio of 1.37. Fox at the time was big into Cinemascope wide screen pictures. The film may have been exhibited in a few theaters at 1.66 or even 1.85, but was shot, and exhibited, in 1954, at 1.37:1.
According to Arthur Miller in his autobiography "Timebends", he had written a screenplay dealing with corruption on the New York waterfront called "The Hook". Elia Kazan had agreed to direct it, and in 1951 they went to see Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures about making the picture. Cohn agreed in principle to make "The Hook", but his minions were troubled by the portrayal of corrupt union officials. When Cohn asked that the antagonists of the script be changed to Communists, Miller refused. Cohn sent Miller a letter telling him it was interesting that he had resisted Columbia's desire to make the movie pro-American. This film, which did include corrupt union officials, was based on articles by Malcolm Johnson. Kazan asked Miller to write the script, but he declined due to his disenchantment with Kazan's friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Budd Schulberg, a fellow HUAC informer, developed the story and wrote the script. The movie was produced by Sam Spiegel and distributed by Columbia, which had turned down "The Hook".
Marlon Brando objected to certain aspects in the famous taxicab scene. When filming began, Brando began to improvise some dialogue, surprising Rod Steiger. After a while, Elia Kazan told Brando to "knock it off". The problem Brando had with the scene, as he explained to screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Kazan, was that he felt he (as Terry Malloy) would have difficulty trying to talk reasonably with his brother (played by Steiger) with a gun at his ribs. At this, Kazan agreed and told Brando to improvise. Kazan maintained that he did not direct Brando nor Steiger in this scene, he simply stood back and let the two actors direct themselves.
The script was originally turned down by Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox on the grounds that the gritty drama didn't fit well with the policy at the time of creating lavish productions for the studio's Cinemascope format.
The real-life model for the film's Johnny Friendly character (played by Lee J. Cobb) was International Longshoremen's Association boss Michael Clemente (Johnny Friendly also has aspects of former Murder Inc. head Albert Anastasia, who was a top enforcer for the crime family that ran the Hoboken docks, the Luciano - later Genovese - family). In 1979 Clemente and other members of the Genovese family were indicted for corruption and racketeering on the New York waterfront.
When Elia Kazan and his original screenwriter Arthur Miller originally showed the script to Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, Columbia executives objected to the script as being "anti-union", as they feared union retaliation. Cohn recommended that union officials be changed to communists.
At the hearing, Slim gives his name as "Mladen Sekulovich", actor Karl Malden's real name. Malden always deeply regretted having had to change his real, very ethnic name for the sake of his movie career, and attempted to make amends over the years by making sure his real name always showed up in his movies, one way or another.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the scene where Terry (Marlon Brando) and Edie (Eva Marie Saint) are talking on the rooftop of Terry's apartment building, after he finds his pigeons killed, Terry looks off to his left, with the next shot (showing what he's looking at) of the Hudson River and Manhattan in the distance. In that shot, a large ocean liner is seen moving down the Hudson on its way out to sea. The ship is the then new Italian liner Andrea Doria, a little more than two years before it was sunk in a collision with the Swedish liner Stockholm off Martha's Vineyard.
Inside the Actors Studio (1994) host James Lipton considers the "I could've been a contender" scene to be one of the greatest moments ever put on film and refers in particular to the moment when Charlie (Rod Steiger) pulls the gun out on on Terry (Marlon Brando) who, instead of getting angry and defensive, slowly pushes the gun away greatly hurt by his brother's actions