Ernest Lehman Dead at 89

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of North By Northwest.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Ernest Lehman, 89; Wrote Screenplays for Many Movies Destined to Be
By Dennis McLellan, Times Staff Writer

Ernest Lehman, the acclaimed screenwriter and six-time Oscar nominee
whose credits included "North by Northwest," "Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?" and "The Sound of Music," has died. He was 89.

Lehman died Saturday at UCLA Medical Center after a lengthy illness,
the Writers Guild of America, West, said Tuesday.

In a screenwriting career that began with "Executive Suite" in 1954 and
spanned a variety of genres, Lehman received four Academy Award
nominations for screenwriting - for "Virginia Woolf," "West Side
Story," "North by Northwest" and 1954's "Sabrina."

Lehman also received two Oscar nominations as a producer - for
"Hello, Dolly!" and "Virginia Woolf."

"A creative giant among writers and within the industry, Ernest
possessed one of the most distinctive voices of the last half-century,"
Daniel Petrie Jr., president of Writers Guild of America, West, said
Tuesday. "Adept at tackling a wide range of genres, his unforgettable
contributions to the craft of screenwriting helped define what we've
come to know as American film."

Among Lehman's other screenwriting credits are "Sweet Smell of
Success," "The King and I," "From the Terrace," "The Prize," "Hello,
Dolly!," "Portnoy's Complaint" (which he also directed and produced)
and "Black Sunday."

Although his filmography consisted of adaptations of novels, plays and
other source material, one of his best-known credits was his original
screenplay for "North by Northwest," Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 romantic
thriller starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Saint told The Times on Tuesday that Lehman's death was a "big loss in
Hollywood. He was an incredible writer, very talented and very dear."

Martin Landau, who also appeared in "North by Northwest," told The
Times that "Hitchcock always spoke very highly of Ernie, and I liked
him as a guy. There was something very down to earth about him and very

The idea for "North by Northwest" came out of Lehman's relationship
with Hitchcock.

"I arrived at his house one day and told him I was quitting" another
project "and he said, 'Don't be silly. We get along so well. We'll just
do something else.' So we just kicked ideas around," Lehman told The
Times in 2001.

Lehman believed in experiencing what he wrote about, so he tried to
climb Mt. Rushmore, a key locale in the film, when he was writing
"North by Northwest,"

"That was a ridiculous procedure for a screenwriter. Halfway up, I
looked down and realized I could be killed if I slipped," he said.

In addition to "North by Northwest," Lehman wrote the screenplay for
Hitchcock's "Family Plot." He also worked with director Robert Wise on
four films: "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music," "Executive Suite"
and "Somebody Up There Likes Me."

Wise was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but through his wife,
Millicent, he said, "There was nobody as good as Ernie Lehman."

"He had a beautiful mind, a great mind," Millicent Wise told The Times.
"He was a very good friend of ours, and we're very sad he's gone."

In 2001, Hollywood acknowledged Lehman's long and distinguished career
when he became the first screenwriter to receive a lifetime achievement
award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"I think 'Sweet Smell of Success' may be his calling card for many
people, because it was so personal, so vivid and has stood up so well,"
film critic Leonard Maltin told The Times on Tuesday. "People keep
threatening to remake it, but I can't imagine anyone topping what they
did in 1957."

"Sweet Smell of Success," which was about a powerful and ruthless
newspaper columnist played by Burt Lancaster and an unscrupulous press
agent played by Tony Curtis, was adapted from Lehman's novella and
co-written by Clifford Odets.

Lehman considered Curtis' performance one of the best.

"It still gets me," he told The Times in 2001.

But, Maltin added: "When you look at his list of films, if he'd only
written the screenplay to 'The Sound of Music,' he'd have contributed
to one of the genuine [movie] phenomena of all time, because it was a
real adaptation; it was not the stage play. And he had more input than
simply screenwriter - as with 'Virginia Woolf,' which he also
produced. There again, 'Virginia Woolf' was a watershed movie."

Upon accepting his honorary Oscar in 2001, Lehman told the audience:

"I accept this rarest of honors on behalf of screenwriters everywhere,
but especially those in the Writers Guild of America. We have suffered
anonymity far too often. I appeal to all movie critics and feature
writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and
ends with a screenplay."

Born in New York City, Lehman grew up on Long Island and studied
creative writing at City College of New York before working as a
copywriter for a Broadway theater publicist, an experience he tapped in
writing his novella and the screenplay for "Sweet Smell of Success."

He sold his first story, "Double-Cross," to Liberty magazine in 1943
and spent the next 10 years as a freelancer, writing stories, novellas
and radio comedy, and editing a financial magazine.

After his short story "The Comedian" appeared in Collier's in 1953, he
was brought to Hollywood by Paramount.

"Paramount offered me this fabulous six-month contract and I had an
infant son and I accepted," Lehman told the Toronto Star in 1993. When
his option was dropped by Paramount, he moved to MGM to write
"Executive Suite."

"Can you imagine a skinny kid walking on to the MGM lot and seeing all
those stars?" he said. "And what a cast I was writing for: Barbara
Stanwyck, Bill Holden, June Allyson, Shelley Winters, Fredric March."

On working with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for "Sabrina," Lehman
told the Toronto Star: "We had to take the train to New York and Billy
stopped talking to me because I didn't like caviar. He was that kind of

On Hitchcock, he said: "Getting Hitch to work was always tough. He'd be
talking about wine lists and I'd be talking screenplay. Or he'd say
'Get the lovers trapped on Mt. Rushmore' and leave the writing to me.
Then he'd say, 'I want them on ice,' and I'd go off and finally tell
him it didn't fit."

Lehman, who received five Writers Guild of America awards and nine WGA
nominations, received the guild's prestigious Screen Laurel Award in

"Ernie Lehman was one of the last and greatest screenwriters of
Hollywood's Golden Age," writer and friend said Mel Shavelson, who
worked with Lehman as a co-writer of several Academy Award telecasts.
"The only special effects in his brilliant screenplays were human

Lehman was actively involved with the Writers Guild for several
decades, serving as president of the guild's Western branch from 1983
to 1985, in addition to serving on the guild's board and as vice
president of the screen branch. He also served on many guild committees
and had a long stint on the Writers Guild Foundation's board of

Lehman is survived by his wife, Laurie; their son, Jonathan; and his
sons Roger and Alan, from his late first wife, Jackie; and two

Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the
Writers Guild Foundation or the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

A private memorial service will be held Friday in Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Rob said...

One helluva screenwriter - "Sweet Smell of Success" is my favorite of his, but he wrote many wonderful films, with crackling dialogue. Did you catch Jeffrey Hayden and Eva Marie Saint on NPR today? Nice little homage, by two of his friends. Where are the future Lehmans now?