'Woman,' 'MASH' scribe focused on novels in later years

Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., a two-time Oscar winner who had been the last surviving member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, died of cancer Tuesday night at his Manhattan apartment. He was 85.

Lardner won Oscars in 1941 for original screenplay with Michael Kanin for “Woman of the Year” and in 1970 for material based on another medium for “MASH.” He was also the last surviving of the four sons of well-known writer Ring Lardner.

He served nine months in federal prison in 1950 after being convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party.

Lardner was indeed a Communist but refused in 1947 to answer on grounds that the government had no business asking such a question.

“I could answer the question exactly the way you want, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning,” Lardner said from the witness stand before being removed. Fox’s Darryl Zanuck responded by terminating Lardner’s $2,000-a-week contract.

The Chicago native spent most of his childhood in Greenwich, Conn., and Great Neck, Long Island, amid literary and journalistic notables such as Grantland Rice, Heywood Broune, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott.

Extensive credits

His first work as a screenwriter came in the mid-1930s, rewriting the final scenes with Budd Schulberg for David O. Selznick’s “A Star Is Born,” including the famous “This is Mrs. Norman Maine speaking.”

The Lardner-Kanin screenplay for “Woman of the Year” represented the first teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Other credits prior to the blacklist included “Meet Dr. Christian,” “Courageous Dr. Christian,” “The Cross of Lorraine,” “Tomorrow the World,” “Arkansas Judge,” “Blonde Trouble,” “Cloak and Dagger” and “Forever Amber.”

During that period, he also served on the Screen Writers Guild board.

Lardner was among the best known of the Hollywood Ten, which included Albert Maltz, Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Herbert Biberman, Robert Adrian Scott, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie and Edward Dmytrk. All went to prison for up to a year. Many other prominent writers, directors, actors and producers were also blacklisted after refusing to testify.

Writing from the pen

Lardner began work in prison on his first novel, “The Ecstasy of Owen Muir,” which was published in 1955. For more than a decade following the blacklist, Lardner continued to work as a writer under pseudonyms, contributing to “The Forbidden Street,” “Four Days Leave,” “A Breath of Scandal,” “Virgin Island” and “The Big Night” along with TV series such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

Lardner eventually began working in the film business again under his own name and collaborated with Terry Southern on 1965’s “The Cincinnati Kid,” starring Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson. Aside from his work on “MASH,” he also authored “The Greatest” and the 1976 TV movie version of “Woman of the Year.”

During the 1980s, Lardner concentrated on books, writing “The Lardners: My Family Remembered” and his second novel, “All for Love.” In 1989, the Writers Guild of America gave Lardner its Screen Laurel Award and in 1992, the WGA East tapped him for the Ian McLellan Hunter Award.

Lardner remained active in recent years, completing an autobiography titled “I’d Hate Myself in the Morning,” due to be published next year by The Nation Books. His son James Lardner said negotiations began recently for “The Fishermen of Beaudrais,” a screenplay about the French resistance that Lardner and Trumbo co-wrote in the early ’40s.

“He was always in good spirits even after he became ill,” James Lardner added.

Lardner is survived by his wife, Frances; sons Peter and James; daughter Ann; stepson Joseph and stepdaughter Katharine.

(Richard Natale contributed to this report).

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