Sidney Sheldon, who won awards in three careers — Broadway theater, movies, television — then at age 50 turned to writing bestselling novels about stalwart women who triumph in a hostile world of ruthless men, has died. He was 89.
Sheldon died Tuesday afternoon of complications from pneumonia at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said Warren Cowan, his publicist of more than 25 years.
His wife Alexandra and his daughter, author Mary Sheldon, were by his side.
“I’ve lost a longtime and dear friend,” Cowan said. “In all my years in this business, I’ve never heard an unkind word said about him.”
“I want to be remembered as someone who simply created worlds that people have enjoyed visiting for awhile,” he once said in an interview. “I take great pride in what I do and I work damn hard at it.” That proved to be an understatement.
The prolific and diverse Sheldon moved easily from writing (and occasionally directing) Hollywood studio era comedies like his Oscar winning “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” to television, where he created such series as “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Patty Duke Show,” to best-selling melodramatic potboiler novels like “The Other Side of Midnight” and “Windmills of the Gods.”
Sheldon remained active as a writer well into his ninth decade and many of his novels were turned into films and TV miniseries, usually boasting his name in front of the title. Sheldon also distinguished himself on Broadway as a librettist, winning a Tony for the book to the 1959 hit musical “Redhead,” starring Gwen Verdon.
Sheldon was largely self-taught. He was born in Chicago on Feb. 11, 1917 and though he attended one year at Northwestern U. on scholarship, he dropped out because of the Depression. While working as a checkroom attendant at Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel, Sheldon began scribbling songs like “My Silent Self,” and in 1936 headed to New York with aspirations of being a songwriter. But he attracted little attention and soon after moved to Los Angeles, where he was hired for $22 a week to read scripts at Universal.
After writing several scripts, he finally sold one, and by the early ’40s had his first credits: Republic’s “Mr. District Attorney” and “She’s in the Army” for Monogram.
After being discharged from the Army Air Forces for medical reasons, he partnered with Ben Roberts on the book for the Broadway revival of “The Merry Widow,” which opened in 1943, and a few months later helped pen the musical comedy “Jackpot.” It was followed by “Dream With Music” and the less successful “Alice in Arms.”
He returned to Hollywood after the war, and in 1947 picked up an Oscar for best original screenplay for the Cary Grant comedy “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer,” which led to a contract assignment at MGM. He wrote the screenplay for the 1948 musical “Easter Parade” and then adapted “Annie Get Your Gun” and wrote the Astaire/Rogers “Barkleys of Broadway.” Throughout the ’50s, Sheldon worked largely on comedies like “Nancy Goes to Rio,” “Rich, Young and Pretty” (both for MGM contract star Jane Powell), two Martin and Lewis comedies, “You’re Never Too Young” and “Pardners,” “The Birds and the Bees,” “Three Guys Named Mike,” “Remains to be Seen,” “Just this Once,” and the 1956 film version of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” starring Bing Crosby.
Also during the ’50s, Sheldon directed a Cary Grant comedy “Dream Wife” and a largely fictional biography “The Buster Keaton Story” starring Donald O’Connor. His only other film directing credit was 1974’s “Buster and Billie.”
At the end of the decade, he returned to Broadway and picked up a Tony for his libretto to “Redhead.” However, his original Broadway comedy “Roman Candle,” shuttered after five performances in 1960.
Sheldon segued into television in the ’60s — after penning two other scripts, the comedy “All in a Night’s Work” and the musical “Jumbo” — scoring a bull’s-eye with 1963’s “The Patty Duke Show,” starring the actress in a dual role. His subsequent series “I Dream of Jeannie” in 1965, was an even bigger hit, and Sheldon wrote most of the series’ scripts, sometimes under a pseudonym. Six years later, he sold his interest in the series for $1 million, thought to be a princely sum at the time, but actually a bargain considering the show continued to run in syndication into the next century. The series “Nancy” in 1970, about a president’s daughter, was cancelled midseason. In 1979, he helped create the romantic action series “Hart to Hart.”
Expressing dissatisfaction with the limitations of screenwriting, in 1970 Sheldon published his first novel, “The Naked Face,” but it didn’t succeed until much later (2 million copies in paperback) after he became well known as a novelist following the debut of 1974’s “The Other Side of Midnight,” which sold an astonishing seven million copies. The turgid film version of that novel in 1977 has gone on to become a camp classic.
In 1974, William Morrow signed Sheldon to a $7.5 million hardcover deal with paperback rights going to Warner Books. His next novel “A Stranger in the Mirror,” about a ruthless Hollywood comedian, immediately shot to the top of the bestseller list in 1978, as did “Bloodline” (which became a lesser Audrey Hepburn vehicle).
Sheldon’s highly melodramatic and incident-filled novels proved to be better suited for the small screen, and starting with 1980’s “Rage of Angels” (which the author adapted and produced), his works regularly made the transition to television. Rage, which spawned its own sequel, was followed by adaptations of “Naked Face,” “Master of the Game” and later in the decade “Windmills of the Gods.” In the ’90s, Sheldon’s above-the-title miniseries included “Memories of Midnight,” “Sands of Time,” “Stranger in the Mirror” and “Nothing Lasts Forever.”
Even after the appetite for his novels cooled on television, Sheldon continued to churn ’em out. During the ’90s, he published such other titles as “The Stars Shine Down,” “Morning, Noon and Night,” “The Doomsday Conspiracy,” “The Best Laid Plans” and “Tell Me Your Dreams.” He also co-wrote children’s books about a character named Drippy, with his daughter Mary.
Sheldon was widowed in 1985, when his first wife, the former Jorja Curtright, died. In 1989, he married Alexandra Kostoff.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)