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The Telegraph (12/Dec/2008) - Obituary: John Michael Hayes

(c) The Telegraph (12/Dec/2008)

Obituary: John Michael Hayes

Screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for his work with Hitchcock on Rear Window

John Michael Hayes, the screenwriter who has died aged 89, collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on four of his early films, beginning with Rear Window (1954) which earned him the first of two Academy Award nominations.

Acclaimed by François Truffaut as Hitchcock's "very best screenplay in all respects", Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, was followed by To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry (both 1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). But when Hayes successfully challenged Hitchcock over a credit dispute, the relationship came to an abrupt end.

Darkly good-looking, the pipe-smoking Hayes struck one journalist as looking "like a Hollywood scriptwriter as played by a Hollywood film star in a Hollywood film about Hollywood". During the writing of the Rear Window script, the British-born Hitchcock urged Hayes to consult classic English murder cases – particularly that of Dr H H Crippen – for ideas about the disposal of a dead body, and a piece of evidence (a wedding ring) that incriminates the killer.

Dialogue as sharp as a tack – a skill honed during his early days writing for radio – was Hayes's trademark. In one Rear Window scene he has Stella, a nurse, ask: "You heard of that market crash in '29? I predicted that. I was nursing a director of General Motors. Kidney ailment, they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, 'What's General Motors got to be nervous about?'... When General Motors has to go to the bathroom 10 times a day, the whole country's ready to let go." The Hollywood censor threatened to order a rewrite of this last line "to take it away from the present impression of being toilet humour", but it survived verbatim.

For his Rear Window script, Hayes was awarded an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. But when he showed Hitchcock the statuette, the master of suspense waved it aside, saying: "You know, they make toilet bowls of the same material."

Hayes was by no means the only writer to have his contribution disparaged by Hitchcock, who dismissed him as nothing more than a "radio writer who wrote the dialogue". But although Hayes stood up to the great director, and took him to arbitration over the writing credits for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the two were never reconciled and their partnership ended bitterly.

John Michael Hayes was born on May 11 1919 at Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a toolmaker who had once been a song-and-dance man. During a sickly boyhood, he became a voracious reader and realised that he wanted to be a writer. By the age of 16, he had become editor of a Boy Scout weekly, and soon after was hired as a cub reporter for his local newspaper, the Worcester Telegram.

By writing material for small radio stations, he earned enough to enrol at Massachusetts State College where he read English. After a traineeship with a radio station in Ohio, Hayes joined Procter and Gamble as editor of daytime serials, popularly known as soap operas. Drafted into the United States Army during the Second World War, Hayes wrote and performed in stage shows to entertain the troops.

Following the Battle of Midway in the Pacific, Hayes was ordered to act as film projectionist for his unit and, while waiting for replacement features, screened Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) three times a night for a month; after 90 screenings he had seen the film more often, he was sure, than Hitchcock himself ever did.

After the war Hayes launched himself as a radio writer in Hollywood, but spent nearly 18 months in hospital in Massachusetts with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. On his discharge he hitchhiked back to California, returning to CBS to write a new show for Lucille Ball called My Favorite Husband. He never looked back.

Earning a reputation for solidly constructed screenplays, and specialising in comedy and suspense, Hayes turned out scripts for many popular series, including Amos and Andy and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Among the most successful of his radio shows was The Adventures of Sam Spade, which exemplified Hayes's gift for sophisticated, wisecracking banter.

Moving into films in 1951, Hayes's first assignment was a Second World War action film, Red Ball Express (1952), starring Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier. He next wrote Thunder Bay (1953), the first of three scripts for James Stewart, followed by Torch Song (1953) for Joan Crawford.

Early in 1953 Hayes was hand-picked by Alfred Hitchcock to adapt a Cornell Woolrich short story called Rear Window. The collaboration proved an important turning point for both. For Hitchcock, who had suffered a string of flops, it marked an upswing, critically and commercially. For Hayes, it lifted him into the world of A-list directors, stars and budgets. Despite Hitchcock's reputation as a martinet, Hayes was given complete creative freedom, and together they created one of cinema's most enduring works.

Following his break with Hitchcock, in 1957 Hayes was offered the job of adapting what was to become a scandalous best-seller, Grace Metalious's steamy novel of repressed small-town sex, Peyton Place. Despite his stellar reputation, Hayes managed to offend Metalious during their introductory lunch at Romanoff's restaurant. He asked her if Peyton Place was her autobiography. "I beg your pardon?" the author asked. When Hayes repeated the question, Grace Metalious threw her Bloody Mary in his face

While writing the script Hayes had to contend with the moral guardians in the Hays office, and compared to the sex-soaked novel the film was bland. Most of the main characters were significantly changed to meet 1950s morality standards, rendering the powerful story sentimental and meaningless. Grace Metalious wept angrily when she saw the film, and again when most critics preferred it to the book. One said Hayes's script had "transformed a worthless and dirty book into a good film"; indeed, it broke box-office records, becoming the top-grossing film of the year, and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Hayes's screenplay.

Later in the 1950s Hayes grew disenchanted with Hollywood and moved to Maine. But the offers of work continued. Hayes script-doctored the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Butterfield 8 (1960) for MGM and followed with adaptations of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1961), and Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (1964).

In 1962 Hayes began a long association with Joseph E Levine, adapting Harold Robbins's best-seller The Carpetbaggers, then a second Robbins blockbuster, Where Love Has Gone (both 1964). But when Levine turned his attention to a biopic of Jean Harlow, Hayes was called on to rewrite the script completely as it was being shot. After Harlow (1965), Hayes undertook another rewriting assignment, the Sophia Loren vehicle Judith (1966) which he completed in 18 days, a feat described by Loren's husband, the director Carlo Ponti, as "a creative miracle".

Hayes's script Nevada Smith (also 1966), based on the character from The Carpetbaggers, remained his last feature credit for nearly 30 years. In the 1970s, Hayes turned to writing and producing for television, and continued into the 1980s.

More recently Hayes had been a professor of film studies and screenwriting at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He also lectured on his career at film festivals and universities, officially retiring in 2000.

In 2004, the Writers' Guild of America presented Hayes with its highest honour, the Screen Laurel Award.

John Michael Hayes, who died on November 19, married, in 1950, Mildred Louise Hicks (Mel). Their two sons and two daughters survive him.