This is a story about a movie script.
But it reads like a movie script itself.
When he was 19, Mike Koskoff’s family moved to Westport. He’s 74 now, still here, working at his “day job”: trial lawyer. Clients have included the Black Panthers, black police officers and firefighters in Bridgeport, and Michael Jackson’s family.
His son Josh is a partner in the firm. Right now, he’s handling the Sandy Hook suit against gun manufacturers.
Seven years ago, before he died, Jack Zeldes — a Bridgeport attorney and legal historian — asked Mike if he knew there had a been a trial in that city involving Thurgood Marshall.
Mike did not. Apparently, no one else remembered it either.
Mike presented the idea to 2 of his other children, Jake and Sarah. Both are screenwriters. Neither had the time — or the interest.
But 7 years earlier, on Mike’s 60th birthday, Sarah had given him a book on screenwriting. Zeldes suggested Mike try writing something about Marshall himself.
Mike’s 1st draft focused on the courtroom drama. The case began in 1940. Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing was found near the Kensico Reservoir. She told a harrowing story of being raped by her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell.
Police quickly arrested the man. It was front-page news.
Frightened white people across the country began firing their domestic workers. The NAACP — despite its own dire financial straits — hired Bridgeport attorney Sam Friedman.
And they sent Thurgood Marshall to help.
“The image we have of Marshall today is chubby, jowly, good-natured,” Mike Koskoff says.
“But in 1941 he was 6-2, and extremely handsome. He drank bourbon at nightclubs, and hung out in Harlem with Langston Hughes and Joe Louis.”
Only 32, Marshall was a formidable attorney. He’d traveled around the South — alone — defending blacks in redneck towns. And he had already argued before the Supreme Court.
Koskoff’s script centered around the 2 men — Jewish Friedman, and black Marshall — joining forces to defend Spell. With the backdrop of the growing war in Europe, he had plenty of material.
The screenplay took a while to finish. Eventually Koskoff took it to his friend (and fellow attorney) Alan Neigher.
To Koskoff’s amazement, Neigher said that his father — a noted journalist named Harry — had covered that trial for the Bridgeport Herald.
And — after law school — Alan even shared office space with Friedman.
Neigher showed the script to Friedman’s family. Sam’s daughter Lauren — a therapist in New York, who had studied acting at Carnegie Mellon — passed it along to a producer friend in Los Angeles.
The friend liked it, and wanted to make it into a movie. Koskoff told his son Jake the news.
When Mike mentioned the producer’s name — Paula Wagner — Jake was stunned. “She’s the biggest female producer in Hollywood!” he said. She worked with Tom Cruise, producing the “Mission: Impossible” series, and Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”
Wagner loved the script. But, she said, it needed better character development.
Koskoff realized he was in over his head. He called Jake. This time, his son was ready to help.
For the past 4 years, father and son have collaborated on new drafts. They’ve been helped by one of Wagner’s friends: Reginald Hudlin. A Harvard grad, producer of this year’s Oscars show and an African American, he’s been a lifelong admirer of Thurgood Marshall.
He loved the script too. But, he said — there’s always a “but” — there was just one thing. The 1st biopic about the 1st black Supreme Court justice could not be a “buddy film” about 1 Jewish and 1 black lawyer collaborating. Marshall had to be front and center.
It turned out to be an easy rewrite. “Thurgood was always there,” Koskoff says. “He was just waiting to jump out.”
Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get On Up”) signed on as the star. Filming began before Christmas, but was interrupted by Hudlin’s Oscars gig. It resumes next month.
Koskoff hoped it would be shot in Bridgeport. But the Connecticut Film Office has a moratorium on tax credits, so shooting takes place in Buffalo.
“Marshall” is the right movie at the right time, Koskoff says.
“Five years ago, we were told no one would finance a ‘black’ movie because there were no overseas sales. But then came ‘The Butler,’ ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Selma.'”
Koskoff adds, “Now we’ve got Black Lives Matter, police abuses, and a focus on blacks and the criminal justice system — along with the Oscars controversy about black actors.”
Throw in, for good measure, the current national focus on a Supreme Court vacancy. The stars have aligned for “Marshall.”
Release is scheduled for the end of this year. That seems like a long way off. Odds are though — without a 9th justice — the Supreme Court will still be in the news.
(For a Jewish Ledger interview with Mike Koskoff, click here. Hat tips: David Roth and Darcy Hicks)