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The Guardian (07/Jul/2005) - Obituary: Ernest Lehman

(c) The Guardian (07/Jul/2005)

Ernest Lehman

Writer of hit Hollywood films including North By Northwest and Sweet Smell Of Success

At a time when prominent authors regarded Hollywood as a place in which to make money, an artistic exile, Ernest Lehman, who has died aged 89, was the first noted writer consciously to pursue screenwriting as his main vocation. He may also have been its most successful practitioner ever.

His four best known films represent a remarkable range: the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock espionage thriller North By Northwest, an original screenplay; the saccharine musical and box-office record breaker, The Sound Of Music (1965); the pitiless study of a ruthless New York columnist, Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), from his own novella; and the acerbic marital catfight, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), based on Edward Albee's play and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Throughout his screen work, Lehman maintained a finely crafted fidelity to a good story, and that became his hallmark. Yet despite four best screenplay Oscar nominations and the record for awards from the Writers' Guild, he only received an Oscar in his 85th year - for lifetime achievement (the Academy's consolation prize).

This did not astonish him, for despite his scintillating record and substantial wealth, he always subscribed to the Hollywood writers' perpetual lament: lack of re spect. He also found writing screenplays difficult - abandoning several and confessing to once spending a fortnight on Northwest staring at his typewriter in his studio office without setting down a single word. Eventually he made a panicky phone call to Hitchcock, who came round promptly and began offering ideas.

Lehman was born to prosperous middle-class parents in Long Island and grew up in New York before attending its City College, where he had unwisely chosen science. It took him five years to get his degree in 1937, but he never put it to use. Instead he worked at various fringe jobs in journalism and showbusiness, including a stint writing for a publicist. This exposed him to the feared columnist Walter Winchell, the model for Sweet Smell's central character, played by Burt Lancaster in the film.

During regular jobs he partnered his old school chum David Brown (later to become a highly successful Hollywood producer) in writing magazine articles, one of which featured Winchell. Then he moved independently to short stories, publishing 32 in three years from 1944 to 1946.

By the time he was invited to Hollywood in 1952, he had married his first wife Jacqueline, had a child with her, and published two successful novellas, The Comedian and Sweet Smell Of Success, both of which first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine.

In Los Angeles, he started work on a major MGM release, Executive Suite, which came out in 1954 with an all-star cast including William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters. It was directed by Robert Wise and its success sealed Lehman's own for his first screenwriting effort. Sabrina, with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, and directed by the great Billy Wilder, quickly followed. Over the next 20 years Lehman worked for almost every studio, and four times for Wise. Their partnership in The Sound Of Music actually rescued Fox from impending bankruptcy when it became a global hit in 1965.

From the mid-1950s Lehman wrote screenplays for the Siam musical, The King And I (1956), an enormous success that made a lifetime's career for Yul Brynner; the New York gang musical West Side Story (1961), based on Romeo and Juliet; the Barbra Streisand musical, Hello Dolly! (1969); the screen autobiography of New York boxer Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which launched Paul Newman's career; an adaptation of John O'Hara's novel, From The Terrace (1960), also with Paul Newman; and in 1972, an adaptation of Philip Roth's then scandalous novel, Portnoy's Complaint. As well as writing the script, Lehman directed for the first time, but it was the worst of his very few flops.

In 1977 and 1982 he published two novels, The French Atlantic Affair and Farewell Performance, but seemed to miss Hollywood. He returned to the industry from the other side in 1983 when for two years he headed the trade union, Writers' Guild West.

An interesting project that the public would never see took him to London in the early 1990s to adapt for the screen Noël Coward's play, Hay Fever, with Lindsay Anderson directing. But Anderson died in 1994 and the film was never made. Later that decade Lehman began working on a Broadway production of Sweet Smell Of Success with his old friend and rival David Brown, but it did not open in New York until early 2002.

A hypochondriac most of his life, Lehman was nevertheless healthy enough to father a child in January 2002 with his second wife Laurie, 50 years his junior. They both survive him, along with two sons from his first marriage.