Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, the son of Maud (née Tillery) and Orus Bonham Trumbo. His family moved to Grand Junction in 1908. He was proud of his paternal immigrant ancestor, a Protestant Swiss man named Jacob Trumbo, who settled in the colony of Virginia in 1736. Trumbo graduated from Grand Junction High School. While still in high school, he worked for Walter Walker as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, covering courts, the high school, the mortuary and civic organizations. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for two years, working as a reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera and contributing to the campus humor magazine, the yearbook, and the campus newspaper. He was also a member of Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity.
For nine years after his father died, Trumbo worked the night shift wrapping bread at a Los Angeles bakery, and attended the University of Southern California. At the same time, he wrote movie reviews, 88 short stories and six novels, all of which were rejected for publication.
Trumbo began his professional writing career in the early 1930s, when several of his articles and stories were published in mainstream magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, McCall's Magazine, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood Spectator. In 1934 Trumbo was hired as managing editor of the Hollywood Spectator. Later he left the magazine to become a reader in the story department at Warner Bros. studio.
His first published novel was Eclipse (1935), released during the Great Depression. Writing in the social realist style, Trumbo drew on his years in Grand Junction to portray a town and its people. The book was controversial in his home town, where many people took issue with his fictional portrayal. But years after his death, Trumbo was honored by installation of a statue of him in front of the Avalon Theater on Main Street, where he was depicted writing a screenplay in a bathtub. Trumbo started working in movies in 1937 but continued writing prose. His anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun won one of the early National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1939. It was inspired by an article Trumbo had read several years earlier, an account of a hospital visit by the Prince of Wales to a Canadian soldier who had lost all his limbs in World War I.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Trumbo became one of Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriters, at about $4000 per week while on assignment, and earning as much as $80,000 in one year. He worked on such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), and Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.
Trumbo aligned with the Communist Party in the United States before the 1940s, although he did not join the party until 1943. He was an isolationist. His novel The Remarkable Andrew featured the ghost of President Andrew Jackson appearing to caution the United States against getting involved in World War II. In a review of the book, Time Magazine wise-cracked, "General Jackson's opinions need surprise no one who has observed George Washington and Abraham Lincoln zealously following the Communist Party Line in recent years."
Shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Trumbo and his publisher decided to suspend reprinting Johnny Got His Gun until the end of the war. During the war, Trumbo received letters from individuals "denouncing Jews" and using Johnny to support their arguments for "an immediate negotiated peace" with Nazi Germany; Trumbo reported these correspondents to the FBI. Trumbo regretted this decision, which he called "foolish." After two FBI agents showed up at his home, he understood that "their interest lay not in the letters but in me."
In a 1946 article titled "The Russian Menace" published in Rob Wagner's Script Magazine, Trumbo wrote from the perspective of a post-World War II Russian citizen. He argued that Russians were likely fearful of the mass of U.S. military power that surrounded them, at a time when any sympathetic view toward communist countries was viewed with suspicion. He ended the article by stating, "If I were a Russian...I would be alarmed, and I would petition my government to take measures at once against what would seem an almost certain blow aimed at my existence. This is how it must appear in Russia today". He argued that the U.S. was a "menace" to Russia, rather than the more popular American view of Russia as the "red menace". According to anti-communist author Kenneth Billingsley in 2000, Trumbo had written in The Daily Worker that communist influence in Hollywood had prevented films from being made from anti-communist books, such as Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar.
On July 29, 1946, William R. Wilkerson, publisher and founder of The Hollywood Reporter, published a "TradeView" column entitled "A Vote For Joe Stalin". It named Trumbo and several others as Communist sympathizers, the first persons identified on what became known as "Billy's Blacklist". In October 1947, drawing upon these names, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) summoned Trumbo and nine others to testify for their investigation as to whether Communist agents and sympathizers had surreptitiously planted propaganda in U.S. films. The writers refused to give information about their own or any other person's involvement and were convicted for contempt of Congress. They appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds and lost. In 1950, Trumbo served eleven months in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. In the 1976 documentary Hollywood On Trial, Trumbo said "As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. And on the basis of guilt or innocence, I could never really complain very much. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint."
Meanwhile, the MPAA had issued a statement that Trumbo and his compatriots would not be permitted to work in the industry, unless they disavowed Communism under oath. After completing his sentence, Trumbo sold his ranch and moved with his family to Mexico City with Hugo Butler and his wife Jean Rouverol, who had also been blacklisted. In Mexico Trumbo wrote 30 scripts under pseudonyms, for B-movie studios such as King Brothers Productions. In the case of Gun Crazy (1950), adapted from a short story by MacKinlay Kantor, Kantor agreed to be the front for Trumbo's screenplay. Trumbo's role in the screenplay was not revealed until 1992.
During this blacklist period, Trumbo also wrote The Brave One (1956) for the King Brothers; it received an Academy Award for Best Story credited to Robert Rich, a name borrowed from a nephew of the producers. Trumbo recalled earning an average fee of $1,750 per film for 18 screenplays written in two years and said, "None was very good".
In 1956 he published The Devil in the Book, an analysis of the conviction of 14 California Smith Act defendants. The statute set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government.
Gradually the blacklist weakened; with the support of director Otto Preminger, Trumbo was credited for his screenplay for the 1960 film Exodus, which he adapted from the novel of the same name by Leon Uris. Shortly thereafter, actor Kirk Douglas announced that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus (1960) starring Douglas. With this action, Douglas helped end the power of the blacklist. Trumbo was reinstated into the Writers Guild of America, West and was credited on all subsequent scripts. Eventually in 2011, the Guild gave him full credit for the script of Roman Holiday. In 1971, Trumbo directed the film adaptation of his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which starred Timothy Bottoms, Diane Varsi, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland. One of the last films Trumbo wrote, Executive Action (1973), was based on the Kennedy assassination. In 1975, the Academy officially recognized Trumbo as the winner of the Oscar for The Brave One and presented him with a statuette.
In 1938, Trumbo married Cleo Fincher. She was born in Fresno on July 17, 1916, and moved with her divorced mother and her brother and sister to Los Angeles. Cleo Trumbo died of natural causes at the age of 93 on October 9, 2009, in Los Altos. At the time she was living with her younger daughter Mitzi. The Trumbos had three children: the filmmaker and screenwriter Christopher Trumbo, who became an expert on the Hollywood blacklist; Melissa, known as Mitzi, a photographer; and Nikola Trumbo, a psychotherapist. His daughter Mitzi dated comedian Steve Martin when they were both in their early 20s, which is recounted in Martin's 2007 book Born Standing Up. Martin wrote of her, "Mitzi became my official photographer, and she snapped dozens of rolls of film, all to find the perfect publicity photo."
Trumbo died in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of 70 on September 10, 1976. He donated his body to scientific research.
In 1993, Trumbo was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for writing Roman Holiday (1953). The screen credit and award were previously given to Ian McLellan Hunter, who had been a front for Trumbo. A new statue was made for this award because Hunter's son refused to hand over the one his father had received.
In 2003, Christopher Trumbo mounted an Off-Broadway play based on his father's letters called Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, in which a wide variety of actors played his father during the run, including Nathan Lane, Tim Robbins, Brian Dennehy, Ed Harris, Chris Cooper and Gore Vidal. He adapted it as the film Trumbo (2007), which added documentary footage and new interviews.
A dramatization of Trumbo's life, also called Trumbo, was released in November 2015. It starred Bryan Cranston as the screenwriter and was directed by Jay Roach. For his portrayal of Trumbo, Cranston was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 88th Academy Awards, but lost to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant.
The moving image collection of Trumbo is held at the Academy Film Archive and consists primarily of extensive 35mm production materials relating to the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun.Selected film works
Road Gang, 1936
Love Begins at 20, 1936
Devil's Playground, 1937
Fugitives for a Night, 1938
A Man to Remember, 1938
Five Came Back, 1939 (with Nathanael West and J. Cody)
Curtain Call, 1940
A Bill of Divorcement, 1940
Kitty Foyle, 1940
The Lone Wolf Strikes, 1940
You Belong to Me, 1941 (story by)
The Remarkable Andrew, 1942
Tender Comrade, 1944
A Guy Named Joe, 1944
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, 1944
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, 1945
Gun Crazy, 1950 (co-writer, front: Millard Kaufman)
He Ran All the Way, 1951 (co-writer, front: Guy Endore)
The Prowler, 1951 (uncredited with Hugo Butler)
Roman Holiday, 1953 (front: Ian McLellan Hunter)
They Were So Young 1954, (under pseudonym Felix Lutzkendorf)
The Boss, 1956 (front: Ben L. Perry)
The Brave One, 1956 (under pseudonym Robert Rich)
The Green-Eyed Blonde, 1957 (front: Sally Stubblefield)
From the Earth to the Moon, 1958 (co-writer, front: James Leicester)
Cowboy, 1958 (front: Edmund H. North)
Spartacus, 1960, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (based on Howard Fast's 1951 novel of the same name)
Exodus, 1960, dir. by Otto Preminger (based on Leon Uris' 1958 novel of the same name)
The Last Sunset, 1961
Town Without Pity, 1961
Lonely are the Brave, 1962
The Sandpiper, 1965
Hawaii, 1966 (based on the novel by James Michener, 1959)
The Fixer, 1968
Johnny Got His Gun, 1971 (also directed)
The Horsemen, 1971
Executive Action, 1973
Papillon, 1973 (based on the novel by Henri Charrière, 1969)
Novels, plays and essays
Washington Jitters, 1936
Johnny Got His Gun, 1939
The Remarkable Andrew, 1940 (also known as Chronicle of a Literal Man)
The Biggest Thief in Town, 1949 (play)
The Time Out of the Toad, 1972 (essays)
Night of the Aurochs, 1979 (unfinished, ed. R. Kirsch)
Harry Bridges, 1941
The Time of the Toad, 1949
The Devil in the Book, 1956
Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942–62, 1970 (ed. by H. Manfull)