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Ernest Lehman Dies


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Ernest Lehman, 89, Who Wrote 'North by Northwest,' Dies


Ernest Lehman, a noted Hollywood screenwriter whose work included classic films of the 1950's and 60's like "North by Northwest," "Sweet Smell of Success" and "The Sound of Music," died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 89 and lived in Los Angeles.


The apparent cause was a heart attack, his wife, Laurie, said.


One of the best-known screenwriters in Hollywood in the postwar years, Mr. Lehman worked with many of the most prominent directors of the period, including Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. A master of adaptation, he wrote or was a co-writer of film scripts for several Broadway musicals, including "The King and I" (1956), "West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965); romantic comedies like "Sabrina" (1954), which began life as a play; and astringent dramas like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), by Edward Albee.

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Harry Ransom Center/University of Texas


Ernest Lehman and Hitchcock at work in 1958 on "North by Northwest."


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For "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), which explored the relationship between a sycophantic press agent (Tony Curtis) and a vindictive newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), Mr. Lehman adapted his own novella, first published in 1950.


In 2001, Mr. Lehman received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; he was the first screenwriter to be so honored. He also produced three films, "Virginia Woolf," "Hello, Dolly!" (1969) and "Portnoy's Complaint" (1972).


Ernest Paul Lehman was born in Manhattan on Dec. 8, 1915, and raised in Woodmere, N.Y. He earned a bachelor's degree from City College in New York and began a career as a freelance fiction writer for popular magazines.


In the late 1930's, Mr. Lehman worked as a copywriter for the Broadway press agent Irving Hoffman. His job was to haunt the nightclubs, slipping juicy tidbits to Walter Winchell and other gossip columnists. Mr. Lehman told The Los Angeles Times in 2001, "I was on the prowl for gossip, so that I could feed the columnists so that they would let me live for another day."


That world - of backs scratched, logs rolled and favors rigorously tabulated - formed the backdrop for Mr. Lehman's novella "Tell Me About It Tomorrow," published in Cosmopolitan in 1950. While adapting it into "Sweet Smell of Success," Mr. Lehman became ill and was replaced by Clifford Odets, who shares credit for the screenplay. Mr. Lehman was a producer of the Broadway musical version of the film, which played for three months in 2002.


Mr. Lehman's most celebrated work, "North by Northwest" (1959), directed by Hitchcock, is his only original script. In rapid-fire dialogue as dry and delicious as a fine martini, he brings to life the character of Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), a shallow advertising executive who is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. The film's opening scene captures Thornhill as he dictates frantically to his secretary:


"Send her a box of candy from Blum's. Ten dollars. The kind ... you know ... each piece wrapped in gold paper? She'll like that. She'll think she's eating money."


As a writer, Mr. Lehman was nominated for four Oscars (for "Sabrina," "North by Northwest," "West Side Story" and "Virginia Woolf"). As a producer, he received two best picture nominations, for "Virginia Woolf" and "Hello, Dolly!"


Mr. Lehman also directed "Portnoy's Complaint" (1972), for which he adapted Philip Roth's novel; the film was considered a critical and commercial failure. His other screenplay credits include "Executive Suite" (1954), "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956), "Family Plot" (1976) and "Black Sunday" (1977). From 1983 to 1985 he was president of the Writers Guild West.


The author of two novels, "The French Atlantic Affair" (Atheneum, 1977) and "Farewell Performance" (McGraw-Hill, 1982), Mr. Lehman published a collection of essays, "Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town" (Putnam) in 1982.


Mr. Lehman's first wife, the former Jacqueline Shapiro, whom he married in 1942, died in 1994. He is survived by his second wife, the former Laurie Sherman, whom he married in 1997; two children from his first marriage: Roger, of Ho Chi Minh City, and Alan, of Manhattan; a son from his second marriage, Jonathan, of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.


Writing "North by Northwest," Mr. Lehman tried to put himself in Roger Thornhill's shoes, often at his peril. To research a scene in which Thornhill is arrested for drunken driving, Mr. Lehman "got a very friendly judge to put me through the whole procedure," as he told The Los Angeles Times in 2001.


Emboldened, he tried to climb Mount Rushmore, the site of the film's gripping conclusion. "That was a ridiculous procedure for a screenwriter," Mr. Lehman said. "Halfway up, I looked down and realized I could be killed if I slipped."




Sad news indeed. Thankfully, he left a legacy of excellent work behind him.

May he rest in peace.

My condolences to his friends and family.

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This man's embodiment of work will certainly live on even after we are all gone to meet our maker to be sure.

My favorite is "North By Noarthwest" many thanks to him

for that movie! its the best! My condolescences to his

family and friends. lolite...

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I recently watched the DVD of "North By Northwest," and enjoyed Mr. Lehman's interview on the making of the movie. He was a great writer indeed, one of Hollywood's best. I can't think of any writer today who is as well accomplished as Mr. Lehman was. Thank goodness he was honored with an Honorary Oscar.


May he rest in peace.

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