Norman Corwin, the prolific writer-producer known as “radio’s poet laureate” who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at 101, was among the first to use the new entertainment media of the 20th century to explore social issues of importance.
Before Norman Lear or Rod Serling, Corwin was, like Orson Welles, using the medium of radio drama to explore the issues of the day. One of the peaks of his long career came in 1945, with a program he created for V-E day, “On a Note of Triumph.”
Carl Sandburg called this program “one of the all-time great American poems.” The show had been conceived as a morale booster for the troops before the end of the war was anticipated; Corwin was told, however, that President Truman wanted the program to air not despite but because of the victory. Corwin’s most famous program drew an audience of 60 million at a time when the U.S. population was about 130 million.
Three months later came his V-J Day documentary “14 August,” narrated by Welles.
Born in Boston, Corwin first worked as a writer at a couple of Massachusetts newspapers and later as a newsreader for radio station WBZA. He moved to New York in 1936 and first created programs for an independent radio station there.
Corwin began working for the CBS Radio Network in 1938. His CBS series “Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music” — which marked the first use of a writer’s name in a program title — included rhymed fantasy “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” and “They Fly Through the Air,” Corwin’s galvanizing response to the Spanish Civil War.
In 1941, CBS’ “The Columbia Workshop” series provided Corwin with a 26-week slot, “26 by Corwin”; he produced a wide-ranging series of programs, many of which reflected his sense of social justice. His run ended a month before Pearl Harbor. He adopted a similar approach for 1944’s “Columbia Presents Corwin.”
In December 1941, Corwin wrote and produced the landmark program “We Hold These Truths.” This celebration of the Bill of Rights’ 150thanniversary, narrated by Welles, aired simultaneously over all four networks a week after Pearl Harbor.
For his efforts in advancing the notion that the world should become more unified, Corwin became the first winner of the One World Award, established by the Common Council for American Unity along with the (Wendle) Wilkie Memorial of Freedom House. The honoree received an around-the-world trip, and Corwin made good use of the prize, setting out on a four-month journey in June 1946 accompanied by a CBS recording engineer. His 100 hours of recorded interviews with world leaders and ordinary citizens were molded by CBS into a 13-part documentary that aired in 1947.
Corwin left CBS in 1948 and produced a series of programs for United Nations Radio.
Also during the 1940s, Corwin wrote several books and penned the libretto to an opera, “Warriors,” that was produced at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1947.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Corwin penned several screenplays. He drew an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Irwin Stone’s “Lust for Life” (1956). He also scripted “The Blue Veil” (1951), “Scandal at Scourie” (1953), “No Place to Hide” (1956), “The Naked Maja” (1958), “The Story of Ruth” (1960) and “Madison Avenue” (1962) and did uncredited work on “The Band Wagon” and John Huston’s “Moby Dick.”
He was also writing and sometimes directing plays, including “The Rivalry,” with Richard Boone as Abraham Lincoln, in 1959, and “The World of Carl Sandburg,” with Bette Davis, in 1960, both on Broadway.
In 1991, 50 years after his show “We Hold These Truths” first aired on radio, Corwin produced a show for American Public Radio with the same name and some of the same material, again celebrating the Bill of Rights.
“A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin” won the Oscar for best documentary short in 2006.
In 2001, NPR broadcast six new Corwin plays under the title “More by Corwin.”
Corwin was a writer in residence at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in recent years.
Corwin’s wife of 47 years, actress Katherine Locke, died in 1995. He is survived by a daughter, Diane, and son, Anthony.