Emmy-winning and Oscar- and Tony-nominated writer Fay Kanin, who was the first full-term female president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, an advocate for film preservation and a mainstay on the Hollywood circuit for decades, has died, the Academy confirmed. She was 95.
“The Academy is deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved former president and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Fay Kanin,” said the org in a statement Wednesday. “She was committed to the Academy’s preservation work and instrumental in expanding our public programming. A tireless mentor and inspiration to countless filmmakers, Fay’s passion for film continues to inspire us daily. Our prayers and condolences go out to her loved ones.”
Fay and husband Michael Kanin, who died in 1993, were Oscar nommed for their screenplay to the Clark Gable-Doris Day vehicle “Teacher’s Pet” in 1959.
She picked up two Emmys in 1974 for the telepic “Tell Me Where It Hurts,” for best writing in drama (original teleplay) and writer of the year (special), and she won another as a producer on the notable 1979 telepic “Friendly Fire,” about the effects of the Vietnam War on the domestic front, also scoring a nom for penning it.
The Kanins also wrote for the stage, and Fay drew a Tony nomination in 1985 for her book to the musical “Grind.”
The Kanins were part of a clan of showbiz royalty. Michael’s brother was Garson Kanin, who was thrice Oscar-nominated with wife Ruth Gordon for writing screenplays including those for the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy classics “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike.” With Ring Lardner Jr., Michael Kanin won the screenplay Oscar in 1943 for the Hepburn-Tracy film “Woman of the Year.”
In addition to her tenure as AMPAS president from 1979-83, Kanin was chair of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress for two decades, served on the boards of the Academy and of the American Film Institute, was president of the Screen Branch of the Writers Guild of America and served as an officer of the Writers Guild Foundation.
Then-Paramount chief Sherry Lansing told writer Cari Beauchamp in 2001 that Kanin is “one of the great women of our time. She is an excellent writer, an exceptional leader, an extraordinary role model and a personal inspiration to me.”
Fay Mitchell was born in New York City on May 9, 1917 and raised in Elmira, N.Y. She had her first taste of fame when she was 12: She won the state spelling bee, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt presented with her a trophy, beginning a long association between Fay and the Roosevelts. Mitchell wrote and produced a radio show during high school, then studied writing and acting at Elmira College.
Her parents supported her efforts to get into the movie biz; the whole family moved out to Los Angeles, and she attended USC, where she completed her bachelor’s degree. She became a script reader at RKO, where she learned about the business, made friends and met Michael Kanin; they spent their honeymoon in 1940 penning a screenplay.
During World War II, Fay Kanin exhorted women to contribute to the war effort via a series of radio programs she produced. After the war she penned the play “Goodbye, My Fancy,” which centers on a powerful female congresswoman modeled after Eleanor Roosevelt. A hit on Broadway in 1949 (Michael produced), it was adapted into a 1951 Warner Bros. film of the same name starring Joan Crawford.
But the Kanins had started their writing partnership much earlier, selling their script “Sunday Punch” to MGM, where it was made as a B movie in 1942. The same year, Fay Kanin contributed to the comicstrip adaptation “Blondie for Victory.”
Their next film together was Ronald Colman starrer “A Double Life,” about a Shakespearean actor perhaps driven mad by his obsession with his starring role in “Othello.” The script was penned by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, but Michael Kanin produced it — and Fay was in the cast, playing an actress in the stage production of “Othello.”
The Kanins scripted the unremarkable 1952 comedy “My Pal Gus,” starring Richard Widmark, and the equally unremarkable 1954 melodrama “Rhapsody,” albeit replete with classical music and star Elizabeth Taylor. In 1956 they reworked Claire Booth Luce classic “The Women” as “The Opposite of Sex,” softening the satire and draining the material of its bite. They were far more successful with 1958 romantic comedy “Teacher’s Pet,” starring Clark Gable as a hard-nosed journalist pretending to be merely a student in journalism teacher Doris Day’s class. The film earned the Kanins their only Oscar nomination.
In 1952, however, the Kanins discovered they were on the infamous blacklist because of their liberal politics and associations with possibly suspect individuals at the Group Theater and didn’t work for almost two years.
On Broadway, the Kanins’ comedy “His or Hers” — about divorced playwrights who are each are writing a new play and sue each other for plagiarism — played 76 performances in 1954. They were far more successful with “Rashomon,” their adaptation of the classic Kurosawa film. In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson wrote that “no one need despair of a commercial theater that can deal in elusive materials with so much delicacy, expertness and charm.” The play ran for six months in 1959 — and it spawned TV adaptations, including a 1960 version directed by Sidney Lumet, plus 1964 feature adaptation “The Outrage,” scripted by Michael Kanin and starring Paul Newman. The Kanins’ last legit work together was musical “The Gay Life” (later renamed “The High Life”), based on the Schnitzler play “Anatol.”
The Kanins adapted Garson Kanin play “The Live Wire” as “The Right Approach” in 1961, and Fay shifted into TV work in the 1970s.
In addition to her Emmy wins, she drew a writing nomination for the ABC telepic “Hustling” in 1975 and a nom for drama/comedy special for ABC’s “Heartsounds,” of which she was a producer.
One of her proudest moments was the night of the 1980 Academy Awards, when a huge worldwide audience saw that the president of AMPAS was a woman; indeed, but for a technicality Kanin has been the only female president in the history of the Academy, as Bette Davis was elected in 1941 but resigned after two months.
She was vice president of the Academy’s Board of Trustees from 1999-2000 and of the Academy’s board of governors from 2007-08. She was also a member of the steering committee of the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors.
In 1993, she won the Board of the Governors Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, and in 2009, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington honored Kanin for her 20 years of service as chair of the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board with the institution’s 100th Living Legend Award.
“The role played by Fay Kanin as chair of the board for the past 20 years has been critical to the Library’s success in increasing public awareness of the need to preserve America’s film heritage,” Billington said.
In 2003, Kanin received the Humanitas Prize organization’s Kieser Award. At the time, Father Frank Desiderio, president of the Humanitas Prize, said Kanin was being honored for a body of work that is “exemplary of the Humanitas Prize … the kind of writing that really does try to illumine the human condition and talks about the way people choose to use their freedom, preferably to benefit other human beings.”
Earlier, Kanin had been nominated for a Humanitas Prize for “Friendly Fire,” which in 1999 was inducted into the Producers Guild of America’s Hall of Fame for television programs.
Kanin also received kudos from the Writers Guild, winning the Valentine Davies Award in 1975 for contributions to the entertainment industry and community at large; the Morgan Cox Award in 1980, presented to a member whose vital ideas, continuing efforts and personal sacrifice best exemplify the ideal of service to the guild; and in 2005, the Edmund H. North Award, presented to those members whose “courageous leadership, strength of purpose and continuing selfless activity in behalf of the guild through the years, as well as professional achievement of the highest order, have served to establish the Writers Guild of America as a pillar of strength and security for writers throughout the world.”
Update: Kanin is survived by her son Josh, his wife Laurie, two grandchildren (Laurel and Jessica) and two step-grandchildren (Michael and Eddy) and great-grandson Justin.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in Fay Kanin’s name to the American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org/donate.
Funeral services for Kanin will be held Sunday at 3 p.m. at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Chapel), 6000 Santa Monica Blvd.