HOLLYWOOD — Ernest Lehman, a six-time Academy Award nominee who on March 25 will become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Oscar, has, by his own account, enjoyed a fortunate creative life.
Brought to Hollywood from his native New York by Paramount when he was just past 30 and immediately loaned out to MGM to write a big picture, “Executive Suite,” starring William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck and Fredric March under Robert Wise’s direction for producer John Houseman.
He wrote and/or produced several of the major pictures of the 1950s and 1960s: “The King and I,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Hello, Dolly!”
But while Lehman looks back with a sense of gratification at all of these films, he doesn’t pretend that making them was a picnic — nor does he see his half-century in Hollywood through retrospective rose-colored glasses.
“All the pictures involved feelings of nervousness and anxiety. Good times? I don’t know. I had good times and bad times on every picture,” he recalls.
Pressed to remember a favorite film or period in Hollywood, he ventures, “Jerry Robbins auditioning 150 dancers for ‘West Side Story.’ That was fun.
“And then there was one day … I was in my office at MGM writing ‘Sweet Smell of Success,’ and Bob Wise was working on ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ at the studio and I went down and did a little rewriting on that. Then I was called over to Fox to write some extra dialogue for Yul Brynner for ‘The King and I.’ I worked on three pictures that day. That was a good day.”
Now 80, Lehman hasn’t had his name on screen in some time. But Overlook Press recently published “Sweet Smell of Success,” a collection of his fiction that includes two novellas, “Tell Me About It Tomorrow,” which was the basis for the “Sweet Smell” screenplay, and “The Comedian,” which became a famous “Playhouse 90” drama written by Rod Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Mickey Rooney.
He is also anticipating seeing his name in lights on Broadway next season as the long-in-the-works musical version of “Sweet Smell of Success” finally hits the big time.
The original story, first published in 1950 in Cosmopolitan, had its roots in Lehman’s youthful days and nights working for press agent Irving Hoffman in New York in the late ’30s. Part of his job was servicing columnists such as Walter Winchell, upon whom the Hunsecker character was based, with items.
“I knew that world very well,” Lehman says. Originally, Lehman was engaged to write and direct “Sweet Smell.” But during a series of aggravatingly prolonged story conferences with his employers — Burt Lancaster, Harold Hecht and James Hill — Lehman developed an enormous spastic colon and was advised by doctors to spend three weeks n Tahiti to unwind from the tension.
“I was upset at the time, but I never could have done the job Sandy Mackendrick did directing it,” allows Lehman. He says to this day, “I can watch the movie and still be gripped by it. The only thing I would have changed was the very end,” a scene of attempted suicide by Hunsecker’s sister that had been in Lehman’s first draft but which he had changed before publication.
“Unfortunately, I told them about my original ending, and they told it to Clifford. I just don’t like it. The way I rewrote it for my story gave Susan fiber and strength, and a way to get back at Falco and J.J.”
The stage production of “Sweet Smell” marks the first time one of Lehman’s stories has moved from the screen to the legit stage. For a writer with no theater background, Lehman has been involved in an unusual number of high profile stage-to-screen transfers, each of which presented its own set of formidable challenges.
On the celluloid side, for “West Side Story,” Lehman spent considerable time selecting precise locations for scenes, altered the placement of some songs and worked out “how to open it up so you wouldn’t feel stagebound, and how to make it a continuous narrative that kept moving.”
On his biggest hit, “The Sound of Music,” Lehman was instrumental not only in getting the film launched and in the very involved reworking of the show, but in determining the key talents involved.
“I saw it on Broadway, where, you should remember, it got some pretty savage reviews. I told David Brown, who was heading the story department at Fox, that this would make a very successful movie, and then Buddy Adler and Richard Zanuck,” he says.
The studio gave Lehman the task of persuading William Wyler to direct it, which he did, even though “Wyler hated ‘The Sound of Music.’ Everyone thought it was saccharine crap.” Nor did Wyler want to consider Julie Andrews for the lead.
Eventually, Wyler eased away, Lehman slipped a draft of his script to Robert Wise, and the two of them went to Disney to see dailies from “Mary Poppins” and signed her at once. Everything Lehman did in the writing, from choosing locations for the songs to reducing the sentimentality and strengthening the characters and storytelling, improved the original book enormously.
Even though it involved less rewriting, “Virginia Woolf” may have posed the most daunting challenge. “The play absolutely decimated and destroyed me,” Lehman recalls. “When I saw it, I had no idea of ever making it into a movie. It tore me apart. It tore one other person apart, and Abe Lastfogel told me that that person was Jack Warner.” Warner ended up paying $500,000 for the screen right to Edward Albee’s play and turned to Lehman to write and produce the film.
It was a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor berating and pointing her finger at her late husband Michael Todd that convinced Lehman that the actress “was Martha, although it took considerably longer for him to realize that her current husband, Richard Burton, should play George.”
One of the screen’s perennial favorites, “North by Northwest,” was one of Lehman’s few original screenplays. Initially hired by Alfred Hitchcock to adapt “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” which was subsequently made by other hands, the script began evolving after Lehman told the director “I want to do the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” meaning one with “wit and sophistication and excitement, and it has to move from place to place.”
After weeks of what Lehman remembers weeks of highly enjoyable lunches with the director, “Hitchcock said, ‘I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.’ But then we had to come up with who and why they were there.”
Then Hitchcock said: “I always wanted to do a scene in the United Nations about a speaker who says ‘I won’t continue until the delegate from Peru wakes up,’ and they go over and find out that he’s dead.’ ”
And so it went, with Hitchcock throwing out ideas for sequences he’d always had in his head, and Lehman trying to develop characters and stitch together a story of some coherence.
“Then Hitch went off to make ‘Vertigo,’ and I was left all alone at MGM. I got through 65 pages and sent them to Hitch, but I had no third act. I had no idea why they were going to Mt. Rushmore. For two weeks I couldn’t come up with a thing,” Lehman recollects. “But when Hitchcock said he’d bring in a famous suspense writer to throw ideas around, I said, ‘She takes a gun out of her purse and shoot him with fake bullets, like the Polish underground had used, and it all came out of me in a couple of weeks. I had the whole third act.”
As brilliant as Hitchcock was, Lehman bridles a bit at the way the director inflated his own contributions at the expense of writers, including himself.
One of the most famous Hitchcock scenes is the crop-dusting sequence in “North by Northwest,” but Lehman claims that, “I wrote the entire sequence and acted it out in his living room.”
Per the writer, all Hitchcock said to him was, “I’ve always wanted to do a scene where the camera goes 360 degrees around and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, except the protagonist.”
Lehman adds: “But we had to get him there. First, Hitch said we should get him caught in a tornado, and I said, ‘Hitch, you can’t just order up a tornado.’ But it got me thinking about the sky, and so naturally I thought of a plane. I wrote it out shot by shot.”
Lehman has so many stories to tell about his 50 years in Hollywood that he is writing a book, titled “How the Hell Should I Know? Tales from My Anecdotage.”
As for his honorary Oscar, Lehman says: “I am thrilled. I was so surprised. When the phone rang I was making dinner with my wife here, and I was just stunned when it was the president of the Academy. It’s especially meaningful because no screenwriter has ever been so honored.”