Discovering Murray Salem: A Journey Into the 'Kindergarten Cop' Screenwriter's Life

click to enlarge Murray Salem, second from left, during the Kindergarten Cop shoot. - Courtesy of Diane Malin
Courtesy of Diane Malin
Murray Salem, second from left, during the Kindergarten Cop shoot.
David J. Gary is the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale University Library. In June, he will be taking the position of Curator of Printed Materials at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

I discovered Murray Salem in a moment of quiet desperation.

In February 2015, around 2,700 horror and exploitation movies on VHS arrived at the loading dock of Sterling Memorial Library, the central library of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. As the American history librarian at Yale, I purchased these tapes from a private collector in Dayton through a Facebook group of VHS collectors. We acquired the tapes in an effort to facilitate research on the history of home video in the 1970s-1980s. As I looked at the sea of boxes that day, I wondered, "How am I going to wrap my head around all of this?" Salem, an actor and screenwriter, and a Brooklyn, Ohio, native like myself, became part of the answer.

My initial strategy was to find an actor or director I could put at the center of a metaphorical solar system. If I could place someone at the hub, the movies in their orbit would be as good place as any to start managing the bounty of low-budget brashness. I struck on the idea of finding someone from my hometown, which, after a few Internet searches, led me to Salem, who sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1997 at the age of 47.

Salem acted in two British exploitation movies – he had a small part as a “heavy” in the sexploitation classic Let’s Get Laid (1979) and a larger supporting role in Hussy (1980), a gritty tale of a prostitute in 1970s London starring Helen Mirren – but he never had a big break. He had roles in a number of film and television productions, including memorable turns in the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Holocaust (1978), and Riding High (1981), a film built around a motorcycle stunt competition, but it was his writing that provided both financial stability and a modicum of fame. After a bit part as an Arab gold dealer in the pilot of Magnum P.I., Salem gave up being in front of the camera and dedicated his time to screenwriting, eventually crafting Kindergarten Cop in 1988-1989.

When I was growing up, I had heard the screenwriter of the Arnold Schwarzenegger fish-out-of-water comedy was from Brooklyn, but I didn’t think much of it. In light of my VHS project at Yale I wanted to know more, and the upcoming release of Kindergarten Cop 2 on May 17 gave me the stimulus to write it down. Despite the “2” in its title, the new movie, which is being released straight-to-video, is not a sequel. The Screen Writer’s Guild in Los Angeles classified the movie, which will star Dolph Lundgren in Schwarzenegger’s old role, as a remake after an appeal from the Murray Salem Trust. This means Salem will be credited as a writer on the new release. It’s a tribute to the resilience Salem demonstrated in his struggle to build a life as an artist.

When I first pitched this essay to Cleveland Scene, I imagined I could write an overview of Salem’s career, analyze his movies, and make a few pithy remarks about the importance of VHS in perpetuating the memory of films. When I found out more about him, the more compelling and personal his story became to me. On the surface, this might not seem obvious – I’m a straight, relatively introverted WASP academic librarian living on the east coast, and Salem was an extroverted gay artist of Syrian-Lebanese background who spent the formative years of his life in the United Kingdom and California. What could we have in common?

At the level of identity our differences are stark, but at the philosophical level we converge. Ambition, a desire to see the world, and make a mark in it creates a universal citizenry not only across identities, but also time. Salem grew up in the 1960s, began his career in the 1970s, and found success in the 1980s-1990s. To understand why his story resonated with me, we need to come to grips with the current nostalgia for life in the 1970s and 1980s. Why is our culture glorifying an era that was admittedly difficult and sordid and what does that have to do with me today? 

Salem’s artistic journey was part of the same cultural trajectory that is mostly lost to post-Great Recession millennials living in this new Gilded Age.

Salem’s irrepressible desire to succeed took him to London and Glasgow where he began acting on the stage before moving to the screen. After attending the Drama Studio London for two years, and staying in an apartment where he slept in the washroom to save money, he received an offer to join the Glasgow Citizen’s Company in 1972, winning one of five slots among a pool of 300 actors. He remained with the Scottish troupe for two years, performing in productions like Eva Peron and Arden of Feversham. He received critical praise from the Financial Times as a “large and graceful man who, astonishingly, emits both the sultry masculinity of a Joe Dallesandro and the petulant transvestism of another Warhol star, Holly Woodlawn,” for his turn as Eva Peron. From 1975-1977 he acted with the New Shakespeare Company in London where he played roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Love’s Labour Lost, before his connections led him to the film world of London.

click to enlarge Discovering Murray Salem: A Journey Into the 'Kindergarten Cop' Screenwriter's Life
Courtesy of Diane Malin
His roles were generally small and didn’t fulfill his ambitions of being a leading man. He was typecast as a foreboding and generally menacing Middle Eastern character in many of his parts. At times he was able to transcend that, especially in Hussy, the John Shea and Helen Mirren film of 1980. Salem plays a scheming drug runner in the movie, but his ebullience provides much needed color and energy to a generally depressing and grinding film. His character is introduced in a crowded bar where he bounds onto the dance floor and commands the attention of the entire audience with over-the-top humor. He single-handedly jolts the production to life in its third act. Salem performed similar service in Riding High, the motorcycle stunt movie of 1981. As the manager of an American stuntman, his excessive arrogance and comedic performance provides much needed brightness to a generally washed-out film. According to his family, Salem did take pride in his involvement with Holocaust and Jesus of Nazareth, but, as is common with most film and television productions, he had plenty of free time between shots and he used it to jumpstart the next phase of his career – screenwriting.

His experiences in the London theatre and film world steeled him for the brutal politics of writing and selling scripts in Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, he had a leg up on his fellow screenwriters because of the profile his acting career provided. While Salem started understanding his talents between takes in London, when he moved to Los Angeles in 1981 he buckled down and taught himself proper screenwriting form, technique, and style from do-it-yourself writing manuals and by sitting in the back of theatres and reverse engineering the outline of movies. “If he was determined to do something, he did it,” his sister, Diana Malin, an abstract painter living in Dallas, tells Scene.

In all, Salem wrote nine scripts over 15 years and sold all of them except one. The studios mothballed all the screenplays they purchased, except Kindergarten Cop, for one reason or another. He started auspiciously in 1982, selling an option on a screenplay titled Barrack Boys, a story about teenagers in prison, to Paramount for $10,000. In this scenario, the studio pays a fee to own the rights to the script for six months and attempts to develop it by sending it to other writers, actors, and creditors. The studio paid him another $25,000 for revisions, but when Bad Boys, a film with a similar premise starring Sean Penn, flopped in 1983, the project was scrapped. In 1984, he optioned his next project, Sonship Past, a father-son story about Central American refugees during the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, twice, making $160,000 after rewrites, enough to buy a house in Los Angeles. When the studios couldn’t find a Latino star with a big enough name, they abandoned the picture. These were just the first of many times Salem would come close to having a script made, only to fall short because of industry, political, or economic forces outside his control.

At the time he was working in the 1980s and 1990s, studios purchased 3,000 screenplays a year, generally shelling out $75,000 to $200,000 to begin developing each of them, but only 300 appeared on the marquee in a given year. It is a form of research and development, and studios want to have a backlog of scripts to draw upon in order to meet the fickle demands of the public.

It was in this environment that Salem wrote Kindergarten Cop – a spec script he started working on after his 20th high school reunion. He became inspired when he heard a kindergarten teacher discuss how humorous her new students could be when they first started school. He was making money optioning his serious scripts and working on assignments from the studios, but he needed more clout to get across the finish line, so he made a strategic decision to write a script that the studios would clamor to make – and that was Kindergarten Cop. Salem’s nephew, Justus Harris, an artist and technologist in Oakland, California, said his earlier screenplays, “were more direct about the things he experienced, but were the least commercially viable. But as an artist you need success and you aren’t compromising when you put a good idea out there. You don’t have to be any one way to be a moviemaker.”

He found a winning formula by writing with Schwarzenegger in mind and melding two successful movies of 1987 – Baby Boom and Lethal Weapon with a dash of Beverly Hills Cop (1984) thrown in for good measure. David Salem, Murray’s brother and the owner of a interior design business in Dallas, said, “He was proud of it, but it was 180 degrees from his training and what he had done before and he wrote it with the intention of getting it made to change his status in Hollywood.”

It wasn’t easy though. Ron Howard’s production company, Imagine Pictures, bought the script right away and got Schwarzenegger onboard, but Ivan Reitman, the director, put Salem through the wringer, bringing in other screenwriters to punch up the script and add humorous dialogue at an early stage of the process. Salem wasn’t happy about this and, in the 1991 documentary Naked Hollywood, said he couldn’t fight back: “It was a little like Napoleon asking Luxembourg if he could invade. I had to say yes.” Reitman was probably right though – some of the most memorable lines (“It’s not a tumor!” and “Our mom says our dad is a real sex machine.”) came from the pens of Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris.

On the surface, it’s a strange movie for Salem to have written. It seems like a rejection of the citizenship of ambition that requires its members to struggle for success in the most competitive arenas. Kindergarten Cop, at its core, is a story of hetero-normative, suburban love. Where did this story of a jaded cop who ultimately decides to give up his life in the rough-and-tumble city for children and small-town bliss come from? I couldn’t understand how someone who had left Brooklyn behind long before and was coping with HIV in the repressive Reagan years could write it. But Malin, Salem’s sister, spoke of a different universality that I didn’t take into account – family. She told me that he “wanted out of Brooklyn and did well in big cities and could compete with anyone, but he realized what was important in life when you get sick and you’re in your 40s and you know aren’t going to live. You realize the important things. It isn’t just ambition.” She noted that Schwarzenegger’s character, John Kimble, was hollow and didn’t know how to love and that was something Salem wanted to frame as a problem in the world.

Salem made around $1 million for his work on Kindergarten Cop. He continued to write after this and his follow up screenplay, Lucifer, A Love Story, about the devil’s desire to experience human love, was optioned, but not made. It was likely purchased in order to clear the market for another movie with a devil character, The Devil’s Advocate (1997). He also optioned scripts to Michael Douglas, the husband-and-wife team of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and Goldie Hawn. The movie Hawn bought, The Detective School (a.k.a. One of the Girls), a story about a group of wives with unfaithful husbands who band together to help women in similar circumstances, met the same fate as Lucifer, A Love Story. She went on to make The First Wives Club (1996), a movie with a similar theme to The Detective School, but based on a successful book, and Salem’s script became stuck in “development hell.” While most of his scripts never had a life on the screen, the financial security from them allowed Salem to live a stable life and manage his HIV better than most.

Salem was part of the last major wave of people to die from complications from AIDS before antiviral cocktails emerged in the mid-1990s. He tested positive for HIV in 1984 or 1985 at a time when this was a death sentence, but ate healthy, followed his doctor’s orders religiously, and kept to a regimented work schedule to remain as stress-free as possible. He wanted to direct films and write collaboratively, but he was often tired, meaning he had to mostly write alone in his quiet house, whose garden was his sanctuary from life’s pressures.

But he wasn’t one to sit back in the face of adversity. Sleeping in a bathroom while trying to build a career in London wasn’t (and isn’t) fun, but it’s the type of experience that fostered tenacity, perseverance and empathy in Salem. His brother David noted that he had an activist streak and worked to get information on the underground world of vitamin and medicine exchanges to the gay community in Los Angeles, a movement popularized by 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. “Murray was very aware of that and worked to get that information out and attended weekly meetings in rec halls and prayer groups and told people about pill exchanges and medicine exchanges and talked about what worked and what didn’t,” he recalled. “He was networking all of that and he fought the fight until his last breath.”

Furthermore, he was a leader at the famous Hay Rides, named for their organizer, the underappreciated Louise Hay, a new age spiritual leader and current self-help publisher. Hay gathered six men with HIV for a meeting in 1985 and the group eventually grew to around 600 men and their supporters. Meeting in West Hollywood on Wednesdays, they listened to Hay promote the optimistic aspects of their lives and controversially argue that an HIV positive status was a symptom of a lack of self-love. Positive thinking was important, said one of Salem’s friends, who wished to remain anonymous because of his HIV status, “We would start by saying ‘doors opening, doors closing’ and always end with ‘I love myself the way I am.’” It might not be off base to say Salem wrote Schwarzenegger’s self-loathing character John Kimble as if he was attending a Hay Ride meeting full of kindergarten students who metaphysically heal him.

The search for, as well as the refinement and preservation of community was one of the overarching themes of Salem’s life. In Kindergarten Cop, Kimble let his community deteriorate because of his obsession with work, but had it revitalized during his stay in Oregon. When he traveled to the UK he found shelter in the theatre and film worlds. In Los Angeles, he publicized information on pill exchanges in an attempt to create a more welcoming place in the world for the gay community. He even perpetuated community after his death, writing a series of letters to his young niece and nephew that they were to open once a year from 1998-2015. Each letter contains a video he wanted them to watch so they could understand his love of cinema (Funny Girl, Sound of Music, Some Like it Hot, Cabaret, Ghost, Ben Hur, West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Dr. Zhivago, Silence of the Lambs, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Camille). One of his last gestures in life was to use material artifacts – a set of VHS cassettes – to have an impact on future communities.

Ultimately, I couldn’t understand the massiveness of the Yale VHS Horror and Exploitation Collection through Salem, but his story helped me understand the considerable impact that the physical technology of movies can have. The collection emerged from the world of private collectors and Yale’s intervention hopes to create new scholarly communities around these movies. That’s something Salem would have supported.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.