Playwright and screenwriter George Axelrod, who penned “The Seven Year Itch” and adapted “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” has died. He was 81.
Axelrod died Saturday morning in his sleep of heart failure at his Los Angeles home.
He was a widely respected Broadway and Hollywood power in the 1950s and ’60s, specializing in dark satires of American attitudes toward sex and politics. He earned an Oscar nom in 1961 for adapting “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” then adapted and co-produced “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962.
Born in New York on June 9, 1922, Axelrod sold his first radio script, “Midnight in Manhattan,” in 1942. He scored his breakthrough Broadway success 10 years later with “The Seven Year Itch,” which ran for three years with 1,141 performances.
He added directing to his accomplishments with his next Broadway play, the somewhat autobiographical “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” in 1955.
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In 1959 he also did double duty on “Goodbye Charlie” and later adapted Alfred Hayes’ novel “My Face for the World to See,” for the stage.
Axelrod produced Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” (with Clinton Wilder), and directed “Once More, With Feeling” and Neil Simon’s “Star Spangled Girl.
His first film credit came in 1954 with the Judy Holiday/Jack Lemmon comedy “Phfft.” He followed that by co-writing the film version of “Seven Year Itch” with Billy Wilder, and an adaptation of William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” both starring Monroe. The latter is considered her best screen performance.
“Rock Hunter” also became a movie in 1957 as did “Goodbye Charlie” in 1964, but Axelrod did not write either script. Only the former was mildly successful. His contribution to “Rally Round the Flag Boys!” in 1958 went uncredited.
He turned Truman Capote’s novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into a film in 1961, although he originally wrote it for Monroe and director John Frankenheimer. When Audrey Hepburn came aboard, she insisted on a more experienced director and Blake Edwards was brought onto the project.
Axelrod got the chance to work with Frankenheimer in the memorable “The Manchurian Candidate,” adapted from the Richard Condon novel, starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey.
He also wrote Hepburn’s 1964 vehicle “Paris When it Sizzles,” which he co-produced with director Richard Quine.
Quine and Axelrod shared writing and producing duties on “How to Murder Your Wife” the following year. Axelrod then took a turn in the director’s seat in a black comedy he adapted with Larry H. Johnson, “Lord Love a Duck,” with Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall.
In 1968 Axelrod also wrote, directed and produced the moderately successful comedy “The Secret Life of an American Wife” with Walter Matthau.
With his string of successes, Axelrod eschewed the ink-stained wretch stereotype and became a dashing figure in the industry. He and his second wife Joan, who co-owned design boutiques, became prominent members of the Hollywood social circuit.
After moving to London in the 1970s, the Axelrods’ home became a de rigueur stopping point for celebs as they traveled through Europe.
In 1971 he wrote his memoirs, “Where Am I Now That I Need Me?” From then on he worked sporadically, writing the remake of “The Lady Vanishes” in 1979, adapting “The Holcroft Covenant” in 1985 and “The Fourth Protocol” in 1987.
Joan Axelrod died in 2001.
Axelrod is survived by daughter Nina, sons Peter, Steven and Jonathan, a producer; seven grandchildren and sister Connie Burdick.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)