July 06, 2005

"North by Northwest" Writer Dies

Troublemakers didn't have anything on Ernest Lehman. He put Cary Grant into harm's way on Mount Rushmore, helped Audrey Hepburn bewitch Humphrey Bogart and gave the Sharks and the Jets something to fight about in their big-screen face off.

But Lehman was no ordinary troublemaker; he was a screenwriter.

The celebrated scribe, whose résumé included Oscar nominations for endangering Grant in North by Northwest, matching up Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina, engaging street gangs in West Side Story and heaping on the domestic turmoil in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, died Saturday at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles following a lengthy illness, the Writers Guild of America announced Tuesday. He was 89.

In a statement, writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the Writers Guild of America, West, praised Lehman as a "creative giant among writers and within the industry.

A three-time cowriter of the Academy Awards telecast, Lehman never won a competitive Oscar as either a writer or a producer, a title he held on two Best Picture hopefuls, Hello, Dolly! and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

The Academy made it up to Lehman in 2001, presenting him with an honorary Oscar in appreciation of "a body of varied and enduring work."

"I accept this rarest of honors on behalf of screenwriters everywhere," Lehman told the black-tie audience. "We have suffered anonymity far too often."

If Lehman wasn't a household name like Grant and Hepburn, then he was a familiar name to the right people--the people who got pictures made.

In little more than 20 years, Lehman earned screenplay credits on 15 films, three of which (North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music) would go on to be named by the American Film Institute as among the 20th century's 100 greatest U.S. movies.

True to the spiel that went along with the honorary Oscar, Lehman was versatile. He wrote big, showy prestige pictures, specializing in the stage-to-screen transformations of The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly!. He wrote stark black-and-white dramas, chiefly, Sweet Smell of Success, the arguable signature work, cowritten with Clifford Odets, that exposed the very dark underbelly of the publicity trade, Somebody Up There Likes Me, the biopic about boxer Rocky Graziano, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet another play adaptation. And he wrote North by Northwest, the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

As a writer-director hyphenate, Lehman brought Philip Roth's comic novel Portnoy's Complaint to the screen in 1972.

Born Dec. 8, 1915 in New York City, Lehman wrote for radio, a theater publicist and the literary world before breaking into Hollywood in 1948 with the story for the comedy, The Inside Story. His past work provided him and Hollywood with a wealth of material--his novella, The Comedian, begat a celebrated 1957 TV production; his former life as a lackey for a publicist provided the inspiration for J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco, the slicksters of Sweet Smell of Success.

"Sweet Smell of Success is one of those rare films where you remember the names of the characters because you remember them," critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1997, "as people, as types, as benchmarks."

Lehman, who became a father for the third time in his late 80s, is survived by his children and wife Laurie. A private memorial service is scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles, the WGA said.

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