Robert Bolt, British screenwriter and playwright who won Academy Awards for “Doctor Zhivago” and “A Man for All Seasons,” plus a nomination for “Lawrence of Arabia,” died Feb. 20 at his home near Petersfield, Hampshire, southwest of London. He was 70.
Bolt, whose actress wife Sarah Miles was present when he died, had suffered a heart attack and stroke in 1979 that left him partially disabled and with a speech impediment. However, he continued working, both for longtime colleagues including the late David Lean and for others.
At the time of death, Bolt had just completed a film about the young Richard Nixon for HBO and was adapting “Wild Swans,” Jung Chang’s bestselling Chinese family memoir, for BBC Television.
Bolt got his start in the movie industry thanks to Lean and producer Sam Spiegel, who hired him initially for dialogue rewrites on “Lawrence.”
Robert Oxton Bolt was born Aug. 15,1924, in Manchester, northern England, and, after air force service during World War II, graduated from Manchester U. in 1949. He began writing plays – first for radio and then full-length stage works – while an English teacher at the exclusive Millfield School, in Somerset, where he worked from 1950 to 1958.
Bolt’s first recognition came in 1957 with the play “Flowering Cherry,” starring Ralph Richardson, which ran for 435 performances. This was followed by “The Tiger and the Horse,” and the acclaimed “A Man for All Seasons,” which opened in London in July ’60 and made names of him and actor Paul Scofield. Latter took the piece to Broadway, where it earned 1962 Tonys for Best Play and Best Dramatic Actor.
The London success of “Man,” which ran for 320 performances at the Globe Theatre, brought him to the attention of producer Sam Spiegel, urgently looking for a new writer on “Lawrence” after original hiree, Hollywood exile Michael Wilson, had left the production in early 1961 after delivering his third draft screenplay.
Bolt, then working on a new play, “Gentle Jack,” initially agreed to seven weeks’ dialogue work, later extended to 20 weeks. He labored for more than a year and received solo scriptwriting credit, despite efforts by Wilson to secure a joint credit on the basis that the finished movie basically adhered to his original structure.
A Communist sympathizer during his younger years, Bolt was briefly imprisoned in September 1961 on a charge of “civil disobedience” for attending a nuclear disarmament demonstration in London. Production on “Lawrence” was shut down for 10 weeks to allow Bolt to finish the second half of the script.
Spiegel and his lawyers succeeded in extricating Bolt from jail after two weeks, on condition he sign an agreement not to attend any more protests. The episode traumatized Bolt, and finds an echo in the second half of “Lawrence,” in which the character also betrays his political ideals.
Bolt reteamed with Lean for an adaptation of Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), for which he won his first Oscar. He won his second Academy Award the following year for the adaptation of his own play, “A Man for All Seasons,” directed by Fred Zinnemann.
Bolt next collaborated with Lean on his first original script, “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), starring his wife Sarah Miles, whom he had married in 1967. The big-budget pic was a critical and financial flop.
Bolt returned to the stage with the successful “Vivat! Vivat Regina!” (1970), with Miles as Mary Queen of Scots, and subsequently wrote and directed the costumer “Lady Caroline Lamb” (1972), toplining Miles with Richard Chamberlain and Jon Finch.
In 1976, Bolt started work with Lean on an ambitious two-script version of the famous Bounty mutiny, initially entitled “The Law Breakers” and “The Long Arm,” funded by Dino De Laurentiis and Paramount Pictures. However, when Bolt suffered a massive heart attack on April 12, 1979, followed by a stroke two days later, he had still not completed the second script, and the project finally collapsed.
The first of the two scripts was later directed by Roger Donaldson and released in 1984 under the title “The Bounty.”
Bolt’s last screen credit was on the 1986 Robert De Niro starrer, “The Mission.”
Bolt’s first marriage, to Celia Ann Roberts, was dissolved in 1966. The following year, he married Miles, divorcing in 1975. After a third marriage, to Ann Zane, Bolt remarried Miles in 1988.
Survived also by two sons and two daughters.