Noel Black, Director of Cult Hit ‘Pretty Poison,’ Dies at 77

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Noel Black, who directed the 1968 black comedy “Pretty Poison,” a cult hit despite a diverse critical response, died of bacterial pneumonia at a hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif. on July 5. He was 77.

Starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, “Pretty Poison” was adapted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. from Stephen Geller’s novel “She Let Him Continue.”

Perkins plays an arsonist who’s done his time and tries to win the affection of a pretty blond student, played by Weld. But despite a well-scrubbed facade, Weld’s character is in fact a psychopath, and soon the pair are committing a string of crimes, including homicide.

Twentieth Century Fox pulled the picture after weak box office, but when some critics championed the film, the studio re-released the movie, which began to pick up a cult following — a following that only grew with time.

It was released on DVD in 2006.

His short about California skateboarders, “Skaterdater,” was nominated for an Oscar in 1966 and won the Palme d’Or for best short at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. “Skaterdater” and its plaudits drew the attention of executives at Fox executives, who chose Black to direct “Pretty Poison.”

Sam Waterston, Sondra Locke and Robert Forster starred in “Cover Me Babe” (1970), Black’s first film after “Pretty Poison,” which focuses on a film student keen on the avant-garde. His next effort, 1971’s “Jennifer on My Mind,” was penned by Erich Segal — hot from having adapted his novel “Love Story” into a hugely succesful film the year before.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, however, both films flopped.

Black moved into television work, writing and directing episodic television, with credits such as “Kojak” and “Quincy, M.E.” He also helmed an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” for PBS’ “The American Short Story,” and he returned to the bigscreen for the caper comedy “A Man, a Woman and a Bank,” starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams and Paul Mazursky.

Born in Chicago, Black went to UCLA, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film.

Black was married twice, to Sandra MacPhail and Catherine Cownie.

Survivors include a daughter, Nicole Black Gonthier and a son, Marco, from his marriage to MacPhail; four grandchildren; and a step-granddaughter.


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  1. We did a great evening with Noel, Tony Perkins and John Randolph from Pretty Poison at the UCLA Film Archives when Jerry Roberts and I were running a Los Angeles Film Critics Assn venture called Critics’ Choice. Those 20+ evenings became a book titled MOVIE TALK FROM THE FRONTLINES, but alas, a staffer lost the tape recording of that one evening so the insights and fun of that night have been lost forever. I treasure the time spent with Noel who was a gentle, kind, creative, wonderful spirit. Needless to say, Pretty Poison is a timeless, tasty gem with great perfs from Tuesday Weld and Tony Perkins. It also benefitted from the great writing of another friend we lost this year, Lorenzo Semple. Treasure the days with your friends and remember, the good films eventually find the audience they deserve. Pretty Poison forever.

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