News today that Karl Malden died at the age of 97 (I liked him best in "The Streets of San Francisco," where he played the gruff-but- unflappable cop to Michael Douglas's hotheaded rookie), reminded me of his seminal role as Fr. Pete Barry, the priest in the film "On the Waterfront." The person upon whom that character was based was the Jesuit priest John Corridan. Fordham University professor James Fisher is hard at work on a book on the life and work of this astonishing man. Below is a short piece by Fisher that was published in Company in 2003. (I'll link to the original piece "Waterfront Priest" here, but reprint most of it below, with a tip of the hat to Company, the magazine for Jesuits and their friends, since the original site has some photos missing.) Also, here's another piece about the man in The Irish Echo. Finally, believe it or not, Mr. Malden died on the 25th anniversary of Fr. Corridan's death, July 1, 1984.
--THE CLASSIC 1954 film, On the Waterfront, is renowned among film buffs for the legendary performance of Marlon Brando as longshoreman Terry Malloy, the gritty Hoboken, N.J., locations, and the brilliant direction of Elia Kazan. Far less well known–even among dedicated fans of the Academy Award-winning film–is that the inspiration for the film, Fr. John Corridan, was a Jesuit who graduated from Regis High School in New York in 1928.
"Pete" Corridan, as he was known in the Society [of Jesus, aka the Jesuits], was a labor priest and associate director of the Xavier Institute of Industrial Relations, housed in St. Francis Xavier Parish on 16th Street in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Shortly after Fr. Corridan arrived at Xavier in 1946, the labor school's director, Fr. Philip Carey, SJ, assigned him to work with longshoremen from the nearby Chelsea piers. Corridan quickly became the leading authority on the labor situation in the Port of New York and a passionate advocate of democratic reforms in the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), a union with an overwhelmingly Catholic membership.
Fr. Corridan compiled voluminous records on the politics and economics of the waterfront. When investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson of the old New York Sun launched an investigation of corruption in the docks in the autumn of 1948, he came to Corridan for help. The resulting series of articles, "Crime on the Waterfront," was a sensation that earned Johnson a Pulitzer. Johnson showed that the piers of New York Harbor were a racket-ridden jungle in which gangsters operated with the cooperation of union officials.
"Crime on the Waterfront" was followed up by another Sun series that targeted Joseph Ryan, the "life president" of the ILA. In February 1949 Fr. Corridan confided to a San Francisco Jesuit: "the material for this second series was submitted to the reporter [by Corridan] and was published under his name with very little change. This, of course, is top secret." The articles for the Sun cracked open the waterfront's "code of silence" for the first time and instigated a growing demand for reform. By the time novelist Budd Schulberg was commissioned to write a screenplay based on Johnson's articles in 1950, Fr. Corridan was known throughout the Port of New York as the "Waterfront Priest." He wrote fiery articles for America and other publications condemning the "shape-up" system of waterfront hiring, testified before congressional committees investigating union corruption, and sparred with Joe Ryan in televised debates. Malcolm Johnson urged Schulberg to "go down to Xavier and meet Fr. John. He really knows the score."
Schulberg was soon treated to a tour of the waterfront by one of Corridan's longshoreman disciples, Arthur "Brownie" Brown. One lengthy pub crawl turned into an obsession for Schulberg, who became a tireless advocate of waterfront reform and a great admirer of Corridan, whom he considers the greatest individual he has ever known.
Between 1951 and 1953 Schulberg produced numerous versions of a Waterfront screenplay while deals for the film project were made, then broken. The renowned director Elia Kazan came on board in 1952. After meeting the street-smart, earthy Corridan at Xavier, Kazan grilled Schulberg: "Are you sure he's a priest? Maybe he's working there for the waterfront rebels in disguise." Schulberg viewed Corridan as "the antidote to the stereotyped Barry Fitzgerald-Bing Crosby" portrayal of the priesthood "so dear to Hollywood hearts." Corridan agreed and exhorted Kazan and Schulberg to "make a Going My Way with substance."
The project was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood before finally being rescued by independent producer Sam Spiegel. Corridan served as adviser on the film and helped secure clearances from the Port Authority for the use of piers in Hoboken, where the film was shot in late autumn 1953. He also provided the filmmakers with his speeches and writings on waterfront conditions, including the famous "Christ is on the waterfront" speech he had first presented at a Jersey City chapter of the Knights of Columbus in 1948. In On the Waterfront, Fr. Pete Barry (Karl Malden) provides a stirring rendition of the speech over the body of a slain longshoreman. Kazan and Schulberg refused repeated demands by the producers to shorten the scene, which is the moral core of the film since it persuades longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to follow his conscience and testify against waterfront criminals.
On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. Corridan had hoped that the film would help persuade longshoremen to overthrow the ILA, but he was bitterly disappointed when the rank and file voted to recertify the ILA rather than join a new reformist union ardently backed by the Jesuit. Budd Schulberg, for his part, felt that On the Waterfront did not adequately capture the magnitude of Corridan's work on behalf of longshoremen and their families. In 1955 he published Waterfront, a novel featuring Fr. Pete Barry as the main character.
Pete Corridan left the waterfront in 1957 and later taught at Le Moyne and Saint Peter's colleges before embarking on a rewarding career as a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn. He died in 1984. A courageous, driven individual who endured personal struggles while battling waterfront evils, he was a deeply committed Jesuit who honored his vocation. -- James Fisher, Company Magazine
James Martin, SJ