Ed here: This is a note in front of this great two-fer which you need to read. One thing to keep in mind about Burnett; a few of his westerns are as hardboiled and noirish as his crime novels.
In 1981, our own David Laurence Wilson interviewed Burnett upon the publication of Goodbye, Chicago. He's agreed to let us publish much of that interview here,
DLW: After Little Caesar you left Chicago.
WRB: Yes. Money was falling out of my ears and my first wife and I came to California as tourists. I had absolutely no desire to write for pictures but people kept calling me from the studios. I thought they were crazy and I told them so. Then I got a call from Graham Baker, the story editor at Warner Brothers. He told me they were making a picture that might interest me and I told him I wasn’t interested. Then he and John Monk Saunders, who wrote WINGS, was writing “The Finger Points,” a story about Chicago gangsters. Could I just come in and talk, to sit in as an adviser? He asked me how much I’d want to do that. I didn’t care if I got the job or not so I thought of the highest thing I could imagine, a thousand a week. Baker said, “Go to work Monday!” I called my father in Chicago, told him what I was getting and he said, “You’re a liar! Nobody gets a thousand a week!” So I sent him a copy of the first check. Later Baker told me I’d been a sucker. He would have paid me twenty-five hundred.
DLW: So you talked.
WRB: For a thousand a week, we talked about everything. One week passed, then a second. Saunders spoke about Hemingway — he knew him. After three weeks we got a call from the front office. They wanted us to come in that afternoon, to tell them what we’d done. I thought the gig was up but Saunders told me not to worry. He told me to sit and nod my head, to agree with him no matter what he said. I was scared, but then, when we got there, he ad libbed the entire story. They sat there and said, “Wow! You guys are doing fine!” But as far as I was concerned, we hadn’t done a goddamn thing.
DLW: So did he write the story after the conference?
WRB: Well, no, I did the writing. I had to do it. That’s the climax of the story. It wasn’t the same story he had told them but it had some of the same elements. But after all, it was my first screenplay, and writing it, it wasn’t too good.
DLW: After that you did SCARFACE, for Howard Hughes?
WRB: Yes. United Artists called me so I went in to talk to Hughes and even then, when he was a kid, he was deaf in one ear, so to speak with him, you had to stand at his side. He was in all kinds of trouble so he said, “Will you see what you can do? Whatever you can do, I’d appreciate it.” So now I was getting twenty-five hundred a week.
DLW: Were you the first writer on the picture?
WRB: Oh no! I went up to my office and that afternoon they started bringing in the scripts. They had about fifteen of them. Well, of course, I was new and to be frank, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I began to read the scripts and oh, they were terrible. I sort of put together a bunch of scenes which I thought were pertinent and rewrote it.
DLW: What about those fifteen scripts? Were they all the same story?
WRB: Oh no, they were all screwed up. It was made from a pulp book, you know, and it was awful — junk, but Hughes had paid twenty-five thousand dollars for it. Hughes liked what I did and when I left, I thought they had a pretty good script. Finally they called in Ben Hecht. Ben read it and told them he’d get it ready for a thousand a day, and that’s what he did. It became a very successful picture.
DLW: Then you stayed in Hollywood, writing scripts.
WRB: Yes, but I never stopped writing the books. I never went seriously into writing for pictures until nineteen thirty-eight, when I went broke. In spite of all the money I made, with practically no taxes, I went broke gambling, horses and dogs. I owned eighty dogs, at one time, on a farm, and racing. On top of that I was betting on horses. For a while I was making more money racing dogs than I was writing, because I had the National Champion race dog, and they’d pay me fifteen hundred dollars a week just to bring him to a track. Then he’d race against time. But they they knocked greyhound racing out of California and I had to ship to Boston and Florida. Pretty soon it became too expensive. So I went broke. I owed everybody. Then I wrote High Sierra. I had another big seller, I sold it to Warner Brothers for a good price, and that got me started all over again. Fine timing. Just right. I’m lucky, I tell you, I’m a lucky bastard! I quit the races, however. One day I was at Santa Anita, I won two races but both times the horses were disqualified. I never went back after that.
DLW: You haven’t had a new book out in the U.S. for twelve years.
WRB: The last one was The Cool Man, in ‘68. After several incidents I said, the hell with it so I kept writing and I just put them away. I sent two books to New York in eleven years. Fortunately, I can live without them. They’re all sorts of novels, and most of them aren’t even copies. There’s one that I love that everybody else hates. It’s called The Limelight, about a famous Hollywood actor who goes downhill and ends up owning a supper club in the Midwest. He’s deserted his family and his son is searching for him. My trouble, you see, is that I’m basically a comic writer. It’s something I’ve always had to restrain. I see the world through a funny angle.