PAUL D. ZIMMERMAN was Newsweek's witty and perceptive film critic from 1967 to 1975, author of the hugely entertaining The Marx Brothers at the Movies (1968) and of many screenplays, only one of which was actually produced; but that one is arguably a masterpiece - The King of Comedy (1982), directed by Martin Scorsese.
Commercially unsuccessful on its first release, The Kinghas a growing reputation and is more and more being seen as one of the key American movies of its decade. Robert de Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an ambulatory American nightmare: a man so desperate to achieve showbiz fame that he engineers the kidnapping of a chatshow host, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), as a bizarre - and effective - way of getting himself on to 'Jerry's' late-night television programme. Zimmerman's script, completed nearly 10 years before the picture was finally made, brilliantly dissected the mind of an obsessive treading a thin line between stand-up comic and psychopath.
This was too dark a vision for a country wallowing in the warm bath of Reaganite feelgoodism. The King of Comedy found a far more appreciative audience in Britain, where Zimmerman won a Bafta award for his original screenplay. This gave him the most enormous pleasure, not just because all writers love awards but because it was a British award and Zimmerman was a cultural Anglophile: in his acceptance speech he thanked every living person in Britain. Even more important to him than his Bafta was the praise of Michael Palin and Terry Jones when he met them at the Cannes film festival. Zimmerman revered the the Monty Python team and could perform almost any of their sketches verbatim when requested - and sometimes when not requested. All young British comics seemed to love the film and one of the happiest phone calls I ever made was to tell Paul that an act named The Rupert Pupkin Collective had appeared on the alternative comedy circuit.
After King, Zimmerman wrote an even more daring script, Back Again, in which a perfectly preserved Adolf Hitler is taken to America's bosom when he writes a book saying he's really sorry for all the suffering he caused. It is blindingly funny but as yet unrealised. Jon Amiel (director of The Singing Detective) worked with Zimmerman on a second draft so perhaps it will one day hit the screen at last. I was always amazed that although he could be scathingly funny about Hollywood decision makers - 'they think the script is so perfect they don't want to spoil it by making it' - he never lost his optimism or relish for writing, producing countless scripts both alone and in collaboration with his great friend Peter Benchley.
The Zimmerman energy was famously awe-inspiring and occasionally draining - as family and friends who were awed and drained will enthusiastically testify. His passions ranged from movies and music to family life and political activism - for five years he was president of one of America's Nuclear Freeze movements. In 1984, Zimmerman somehow manoeuvered himself into becoming a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the 1984 Republican Convention simply so he could be the only person at the convention to vote against Ronald Reagan.
We spoke transatlantic at least once a month and after Paul patiently (or impatiently) listened to what I was up to, he would reel off his new film ideas, ploys for peace, his wife Barbara's latest achievement in pottery, political organisation or Russian studies, what his son Ian was painting these days, his daughter Kirsten's most recent writing or acting coup at school . . . he always put 100 per cent of his awesome energy into being a writer, political strategist, husband, son, father, tennis player and travelling bon vivant. His energy was never more amazing than during his long fight against the cancer that was finally to defeat him. All those who loved him wanted to see him released from his grotesque pain. But we wanted the pain to go, not the person . . . and the silence he leaves behind is as unsettling as his energy was uplifting.
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