Samuel Fuller (1912-1997)

Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller

Samuel Fuller was a journalist, a novelist, an actor and a screenwriter as well as an innovative film director. He became well known for low-budget movies and a reluctance to use star names, exploring controversial themes in a variety of genres including Westerns, war films, thrillers, and dramas. He was the ultimate independent filmmaker, turning down big money from the Hollywood studios to make their commercial blockbusters, in order to make movies in his own inimitable style.

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He was born Samuel Michael Fuller on August 12, 1912, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a Russian immigrant father and a Polish immigrant mother. His father, Benjamin, changed the family surname to "Fuller" from "Rabinovitch" shortly after arriving in America.

In 1922 his father died and Samuel moved with his mother and three brothers and three sisters to New York where he developed a fascination for newspapers and newspaper reporting. He dropped out of High School in 1925, aged 13, and began working for the New York Journal as a copyboy.

Within 4 years he had begun work as a full time journalist on the New York Evening Graphic and he quickly gained a reputation as a top-class crime reporter. In 1929 he was the first reporter to break the news of the sudden death of of Twenties film and stage star Jeanne Eagels.

In the early 1930's Fuller travelled through the southern half of America, seeing at first hand the effects of the Depression, as well as the serious social and racial problems.

By 1935 he had settled in California where he worked again as a crime reporter, for the San Diego Sun. He published his debut novel, "Burn Baby Burn" at this time and also wrote his first screenplay, for the 1936 comedy 'Hats Off'. He continued writing screenplays both as a ghostwriter and credited for the next five years until he joined the Army.

Second World War

Fuller joined the Army as a volunteer in 1941 and served with the rank of corporal as a combat reporter with the 16th Infantry Regiment within the 1st Infantry Division. The Division was known throughout the army as "The Big Red One", which in 1980 became the title of one of his movies. He did not have an easy time and was twice wounded during some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in North Africa and Europe. He earned the Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star for bravery. He was present at the liberation of the Faulkenau concentration camp in 1945. He filmed it and it left a huge impression on him, changing his world view. In 1988 he made and narrated a documentary about the camp's liberation, incorporating some of his original footage.

Hollywood Director

Fuller was discharged from the Army in 1945 and he resumed his career at Warner brothers, writing the screenplay for 'Gangs of the Waterfront'. Another of his screenplays, originally called 'The Lovers', was filmed as 'Shockproof' in 1949 by director Douglas Sirk. The script was re-written by co-producer, Helen Deutsch, and Fuller's original ending was changed, much to Fuller's chagrin.

Because of this he became anxious to begin directing his own scripts and when he was contracted by independent film maker, Robert L. Lipper to write three films, Fuller agreed to do it with the proviso that he be allowed to direct them as well, for no money but just the directing credit. His first two films, 'I Shot Jesse James' in 1949 and 'The Baron of Arizona' the following year fared poorly at the box office but the third, 'The Steel Helmet', shot in only 10 days in 1951, and one of very few films of the time to address the internment of Japanese Americans during the war, was a great success, and established Fuller's directorial reputation.

Hollywood Fame

Fuller was now in demand by the major studios and he signed up to a seven picture contract with Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox, still maintaining his elegantly minimalist style with successful movies such as 'Fixed Bayonets!' in 1951, 'Pickup on South Street' in 1953 and the noir 'House of Bamboo' in 1955.

During this period he self-financed 'Park Row' in 1952, a film about journalism. He always claimed it was his favorite movie but he lost all his money in making it.

In 1959 his Fox contract ended and he returned to independent film making with the critically praised 'Verboten!' and 'The Crimson Kimono' His fame increased further by his adoption by the French New Wave as a major stylistic influence.

In the 1960's Fuller directed two of his most memorable films, the thriller 'Shock Corridor' in 1963, set in a psychiatric hospital and the accomplished and disturbing 'The Naked Kiss' the following year, both biting satires of American culture.

In the Wilderness

'The Naked Kiss' was harshly criticised for its theme of sexual deviancy and Fuller suddenly found it difficult to find suitable work in Hollywood. He moved to France where his work was venerated by the New Wave of French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and for the next ten years Fuller directed only one film, 'Shark' in 1969. During filming a stuntman was killed by a shark which was supposed to be sedated. When the studio attempted to use the tragedy to promote the film, Fuller demanded, unsuccessfully, that his name be removed from the credits.

During this period Fuller turned to acting, rather than directing, in order to earn money. He was in 'The Last Movie' in 1971 and the following year appeared on television in Germany in the television detective series 'Tatort'. He was a gangster in 'The American Friend' in 1977 and in 1979 he appeared in '1941', directed by Steven Spielberg

Later Career

In 1980 Fuller resurrected his directorial career by making a war film, '"The Big Red One', based on his own WWII experiences. Originally 4 hours long it was trimmed to a more sensible 90 minutes and earned critical praise as well as success at the box office. It also brought him back into the limelight and in 1982 he was offered the chance to direct 'White Dog', an adaptation of Romain Gary's 1970 novel of the same name.

Its subject matter was provocative - a colored dog trainer who attempts to rehabilitate a white dog programmed to attack coloreds - and Paramount refused to release the film until a suitably inoffensive edited form was released in 1983. Fuller was disgusted by Paramount's attitude and he never directed another American film, choosing to live the remainder of his life in France.

Fuller's last directing ventures were two features in France, the thrillers 'Thieves After Dark' in 1984 and 'Street of No Return' in 1989.


Fuller married actress and author Christa Lang in 1967. They had one daughter, Samantha. Christa co-edited Fuller's autobiography 'A Third Face', published in 2002.

Samuel Fuller died on October 30th, 1997, after suffering a stroke.

Samuel Fuller Academy Awards

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Samuel Fuller Filmography

I Shot Jesse James
The Baron of Arizona
The Steel Helmet
Fixed Bayonets!
Park Row
Hell and High Water
House of Bamboo
China Gate
Run of the Arrow
Forty Guns
The Crimson Kimono
Underworld U.S.A.
Merrill's Marauders
Shock Corridor
The Naked Kiss