Guest Column: Screen Trade

I met Ernie Lehman my first day on a Hollywood movie set. “Harper” was the flick and the time, I’m guessing, is mid-’65. Big day for me, obviously, and I am doing my standard hide in the corner routine, trying to clock, well, everything.

Jack Warner came into view, said hello to us all, wished us luck — an aide permanently alongside whispering who we were. Mr. Warner was very professional, carried his legend lightly, and I remember it was no big deal when he was around.

The commotion happened later that first morning. I noticed a bunch of the crew suddenly surrounding this newcomer, no one I had ever seen before, and I quickly asked who he was. The reply is embedded to this day.

“That’s Ernie Lehman the writer,” this guy told me. Then the follow-up: “Even his flops are hits.”

Whoa.

Over the decades we stayed in touch and in 1990 went on a trip to Russia with a bunch of other screenwriters. Terrific time. And I remember harassing him to get to work and write the book I wanted to read about his magic decade. I remember he said he didn’t like most books about the business because the author was always the hero of his story and he didn’t want that.

I was pretty smart in those days and I told him, “Ernie, start with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ — no one will think you’re a hero after that.”

He laughed and agreed –but he never to my knowledge got around to writing it. And I am still sad, because think of who he worked with: Wilder and Hitchcock and Liz and Dick and Cary and Bogie and Audrey and Yul and Burt and Tony and Paul — and that’s leaving out maybe half.

You get the idea. It would have been one of the greatest books about the industry. Ever. Because Ernie was not only bright and funny, he was tough, a major league spotter of bullshit.

Think about his career for a minute. In 1954, he had “Executive Suite” and “Sabrina.” ’56 brought us “The King and I” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” ’57: “The Sweet Smell of Success.”

Took a breath for air till ’59 and “North by Northwest.” The ’60s only brought us, among others, “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Nine flicks earning 58 Oscar noms, winning 27. (None for Ernie though. For me, one of the most amazing stats ever.)

Tell you what I think –that’s the greatest decade anybody, of any discipline, ever had in the movie business.

Tell you what else I think. The three greatest screenwriters are Mr. Bergman and Mr. Wilder and Mr. Lehman — the only American-born one of the bunch.

And I will always remember him with pleasure. And will always be just the least bit pissed he never wrote that book…

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