Writer-producer Ernest Lehman, who penned screenplays for such classic pics as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” died Saturday at UCLA Medical Center. He was 89.
The cause of death was a heart attack, said his wife, Laurie. He had recently recovered from pneumonia.
Lehman directed one film and produced three, but he was best known as a writer — one of the most admired in the business — who could create literate star vehicles that often racked up major awards and big box office.
He won five Writers Guild Awards and was nominated for Academy Awards six times, four as a writer and twice as producer of best picture nominees, but he never took home Oscar gold until he received an honorary award in 2001. Lehman was the first screenwriter to be so honored.
Mel Shavelson, a longtime friend who worked with him as a co-writer on three Oscarcasts, said, “Ernie Lehman was one of the last and greatest screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The only special effects in his brilliant screenplays were human beings.”
He was president of the Writers Guild from 1983-85, was active in guild business for many years and was honored in 1995 with a special tribute for his body of work. He also received the WGA’s prestigious Screen Laurel Award in 1972.
Born in New York and raised on Long Island, Lehman pursued a career in chemical engineering, switching to literature while at City College of New York. After graduation he worked for a Wall Street financial publication that soon went under. He went freelance, selling magazine articles and writing publicity materials for Broadway theatrical agencies — an experience he would later draw upon for “Sweet Smell of Success.”
His career as a fiction writer took off, as more than 50 of his short stories and short novels were published in magazines including Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Colliers. His novella “The Comedian” was adapted by Rod Serling into an Emmy-winning “Playhouse 90” drama starring Mickey Rooney.
Lehman’s success was noticed by Paramount, which invited him to join its writing staff. He was quickly borrowed by MGM, which in 1954 gave him his first assignment, “Executive Suite,” with William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, June Allyson and Walter Pidgeon.
It was his first teaming with director Robert Wise. They would go on to do three memorable films together: “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”
At Par he soon began work on an adaptation of the Broadway romantic comedy “Sabrina,” sharing screenplay credit with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor. The three earned an Oscar nom and a Writers Guild Award. Lehman was nommed for his second WGA award for his screen adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”
In a complete turnaround, he was tapped to adapt the gritty, black-and-white “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” based on middleweight champion Rocky Graziano’s biography. Pic was a major turning point in Paul Newman’s career.
It was the perfect preparation for an adaptation of Lehman’s own novella “Sweet Smell of Success,” which he also wanted to direct. But British director Alexander Mackendrick was brought in to tackle the New York-based meller, and playwright Clifford Odets added his ideas to Lehman’s.
Lehman and Odets shared writing credit on the 1957 drama starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. A B.O. disappointment then, it’s now regarded as a seminal ’50s film.
His first major original screenplay was for Alfred Hitchcock, the wrong-man chase drama “North by Northwest” for MGM. The 1959 release contained several classic moments, such as Cary Grant being chased by a crop-dusting plane and the climactic Mount Rushmore sequence. The film, which influenced generations of action films (including James Bond pics), brought Lehman a second Oscar nomination and yet another nom from the WGA.
His third Oscar nom came for his adaptation of the musical drama “West Side Story,” which brought him a third Writers Guild Award. The 1961 pic won 10 Oscars, winning every category in which it was nominated — except screenwriting.
Lehman was not nominated for his script for “The Sound of Music,” though his collaborators on both tuners praised his work in reordering the songs and restructuring the plot, moves that made them even more effective (and more acclaimed) on film than onstage.
Seeking more creative control, Lehman took the producer’s reins for the film of Edward Albee’s drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
According to Lehman, it was he who insisted on helmer Mike Nichols, who had never directed a film; cinematographer Haskell Wexler; and leading actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was also Lehman who persuaded Warner Bros. head Jack Warner to leave the then-shocking language intact and to shoot in B&W. The only thing he didn’t get was Robert Redford, who passed on the role of Nick, played by George Segal.
The film was a major success, bringing 13 Oscar noms (including two for Lehman) and a fifth Writers Guild Award for Lehman.
His next double-duty effort was the less successful “Hello, Dolly!” in 1969, with a seriously underage Dolly Levi, the 25-year-old Barbra Streisand. But Lehman was nommed as producer when the pic was one of the five best pic contenders.
In 1972, he helmed an ill-fated adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black.
Lehman later admitted he’d bitten off more than he could chew with the pic, which he wrote, produced and directed. He never went near directing again.
Back to books
He returned in 1976 to work on Hitchcock’s last film, the amusing “Family Plot,” and then was hired by Robert Evans to adapt thriller “Black Sunday” for the screen in 1977.
Latter experience soured Lehman on screenwriting for several years, so he turned to writing novels and created a bestseller, “The French Atlantic Affair,” which was later mounted as a 1979 six-hour miniseries. He also wrote commentary and humorous pieces about the movie industry for American Film mag.
For the Vanity Fair “Hollywood 400” issue in 1999, Lehman posed in a field near the one used in “North by Northwest,” with a biplane zooming eight inches above him — 42 times. Lehman told Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd: “And I had to keep my back to the plane. I hoped his wheels wouldn’t crease my head.”
Lehman, as outspoken in person as in his writing, reacted forcefully to the 1999 announcement that Elia Kazan was to receive an honorary Oscar. “I think he should hide it,” he told Archerd. “No, he should stage an auction and give the proceeds to those on Social Security who were blacklisted!”
Lehman had been in failing health for several years. Just two weeks ago, he had been visited by his lifelong friend David Brown and Richard Zanuck. Brown reported Lehman “was sharp as a tack and in great mental form — although he had been in pain for years.”
His first wife, Jacqueline, died in 1994. Lehman married Laurie in 1997, and they have a 3-year-old son, Jonathan. Other survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Roger and Alan, and two grandchildren.
Services will be held Friday at Westwood Memorial Park. Contributions may be made to the Writers Guild Foundation and/or the Motion Picture & Television Fund.