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Connecticut Lawyer Writes of an Old Wrong

Michael Koskoff’s screenplay about a Thurgood Marshall case from 1940s is being made into a film

Michael Koskoff, a civil-rights and personal-injury attorney, is also a screenwriter.
Michael Koskoff, a civil-rights and personal-injury attorney, is also a screenwriter. PHOTO: MICHELLE MCLOUGHLIN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

March 4, 2016 8:09 p.m. ET

At the age of 60, Michael Koskoff, a Connecticut civil-rights and personal-injury attorney, decided to take up a side project: screenwriting.

His screenwriter daughter Sarah Koskoff had given him a book on writing movies as a birthday gift and encouraged him to write.

“I read it and said all right, ‘I’ll give it a try,'” said Mr. Koskoff, now 73 years old.

His story, set in the early 1940s, is about a racially charged case in Connecticut handled by Thurgood Marshall, who later would become the first black Supreme Court justice.

Now that script is being made into a feature film called “Marshall” starring Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in “42.” Reginald Hudlin, a producer of “Django Unchained” and this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, is directing.

Thurgood Marshall, center, with other lawyers in 1945.
Thurgood Marshall, center, with other lawyers in 1945. PHOTO: CHARLES

The NAACP hired Mr. Marshall to represent Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused of kidnapping and raping a wealthy white woman from Greenwich. The 1941 trial case drew heavy national press coverage, and it exposed racism in the North at a time when the South drew the most attention, Mr. Koskoff said.

“I was interested in showing the dynamics of a real trial,” said Mr. Koskoff, who lives in Westport.

Mr. Koskoff, who graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1966, had experience working on racially charged trials. In one of his earliest cases, he and his father, attorney Theodore Koskoff, defended members of the Black Panthers in a 1970 trial in New Haven. He also represented black police officers and firefighters in Connecticut who sought to have more minorities on the police force and working in fire stations during the 1970s and ’80s.

Mr. Koskoff described the film as a courtroom thriller that examines one case handled by Mr. Marshall, rather than a broader biopic. Marshall took the Spell case when he was in his 30s, about a decade before Brown v. Board of Education, his most famous case.

“Thurgood Marshall has always been a hero of mine,” Mr. Hudlin said. “To get a script this good about, to me, one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, was a dream come true.”

Mr. Koskoff worked on the script for seven years. Mr. Hudlin said a few scenes were shot in 2015 and production will resume this month.

John Marshall, a son of Mr. Marshall, read the script and approved of his father’s depiction. “It was very much the way that I would have imagined my dad during those earlier days,” Mr. Marshall said. “They hit it spot on.”

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall PHOTO: CORBIS
Samuel Friedman

Mr. Marshall represented Mr. Spell in the case along with Samuel Friedman, a Jewish lawyer, who will be portrayed in the film by Josh Gadof the original cast of “The Book of Mormon.”

“The odds were really against these two attorneys…due to the times they were in and the anti-Semitism and the racism that was going on,” Mr. Marshall said.

Mr. Friedman’s family played an important role in getting the screenplay produced. Mr. Koskoff asked Mr. Friedman’s daughter, Lauren Friedman, to read his script about five years ago. She read it and passed it to a producer friend in Hollywood, Mr. Koskoff said.

That producer was Paula Wagner, producer of the first three “Mission Impossible” films and former chief executive of United Artists. She credited Mr. Koskoff for having a gift for writing compelling courtroom scenes. “Getting a screenplay, what is basically a spec script, produced is nearly impossible for anyone,” she said.

Other parts of the story, however, needed work. So Mr. Koskoff asked his son Jacob Koskoff for help.

The younger Mr. Koskoff, a screenwriter on the 2015 film adaptation of “Macbeth,” said he was initially wary because collaborating on a script could be challenging, especially with a family member. He also thought it would be tough for a period film targeted at adults with a black protagonist to get made in Hollywood.

“I thought he was fairly naive about it. This is not the kind of project that gets made in the current climate,” he said about his father. “He’s incredibly optimistic and ambitious and has the ability to push through resistance in a way that I can only envy.”

Jacob Koskoff said he helped with the structure of the script, the dialogue and character development. The final version will be a collaboration between him and his father.

The elder Mr. Koskoff, who studied acting before going to law school, said he isn’t planning on giving up law to pursue a Hollywood career.

“I absolutely love practicing law, which is why I’m still doing it,” he said. “If I didn’t I would have retired 10 years ago.”

The Weekend Profile | Michael Koskoff

Write to Joseph De Avila at [email protected]