Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Sweet Smell of Success" Writer Ernest Lehman 2005 Westwood Village Cemetery

Ernest Paul Lehman [1] (December 8, 1915 – July 2, 2005) was an American screenwriter.[2] He received six Academy Award nominations during his career, without a single win.[2] At the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001, he received an Honorary Academy Award for his ingenious and influential works for the screen that has inspired new generations of screenwriters and captivated filmmakers, actors, film critics, and audiences by the beauty of his screenwriting. He was the first screenwriter to receive that honor. The award was presented to him by friend and The Sound of Music star Julie Andrews.

Early years

Lehman was born in New York City, the son of Gertrude (Thorn) and Paul E. Lehman.[3] He was from a wealthy Jewish Long Island family whose fortunes were seriously affected by the Great Depression. Upon his graduation from College of the City of New York (The City College of New York), Lehman became a freelance writer. Lehman felt that freelancing was a "very nervous way to make a living" so he began writing copy for a publicity firm which focused on plays and celebrities. This experience helped form the basis of his 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, which he co-wrote with Clifford Odets. Lehman wrote many short stories and novellas for magazines like Colliers, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. These attracted the attention of Hollywood and in the mid-1950s Paramount Pictures signed him to a writing contract. His first film, Executive Suite, was a success and he was asked to collaborate on the romantic comedy Sabrina, which also became a hit. Some of his most visible contributions to the Hollywood canon are the screenplay adaptations of West Side Story[2] and the mega-hit film version of The Sound of Music.[2]

Amateur Radio

Lehman held amateur radio callsign K6DXK. He was an active member of the Bel Air Repeater Association.

Collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock

In 1958, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had hired Hitchcock to make a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Collaborating with Lehman, Hitchcock gave the studio North by Northwest instead. One of Lehman's only original screenplays, the film starred Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a group of menacing spies (led by James Mason and Martin Landau). Lehman later said he intended North by Northwest to be "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." The writing process took Lehman an entire year, including several periods of writer's block as well as a trip to Mount Rushmore to do research for the film's climax.

North by Northwest was one of Lehman's greatest triumphs in Hollywood and a huge hit for Hitchcock. For his efforts, Lehman received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a 1960 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.

Other projects

In addition to screenwriting, Lehman tried his hand at producing, and was among a distinct few in Hollywood who had faith in a film adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He managed to persuade studio executive Jack L. Warner to allow him to take on the project, and the stark film was a critical sensation, garnering many Academy Award nominations. Lehman was nominated for an Academy Award for 1969's Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand.[2]

In 1972, Portnoy's Complaint, based on the novel by Philip Roth, was the first and only film Lehman directed.[2] Later, the 1976 screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot earned Lehman a second Edgar Award. By 1979, Lehman had stopped writing screenplays aside from some television projects, turning down offers to write for Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs and Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible. Lehman did complete adapted screenplays for two never-made films, one an adaptation of the Noël Coward classic Hay Fever, another a musical version of Zorba the Greek envisioned for director Robert Wise and actors Anthony Quinn and John Travolta.

In 1977, Lehman published the bestselling novel The French Atlantic Affair, about a group of unemployed, middle-class Americans who hijack a French cruise ship for a $35 million ransom. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 1979.


Lehman died at UCLA Medical Center after a prolonged illness and was buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was survived by a wife, Laurie, and his son Jonathan, as well as two sons (Roger and Alan) from his first marriage.

Writing credits


Executive Suite (1954) 
Sabrina (with Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor) (1954) 
The King and I (1956) 
Sweet Smell of Success (with Clifford Odets) (1954) (also Story) 
North by Northwest (1959) 
West Side Story (1961) 
The Prize (1963) 
The Sound of Music (1965) 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) 
Hello, Dolly! (1969) 
Portnoy's Complaint (1972) (also Director) 
Family Plot (1976) 
Black Sunday (with Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffatt) (1977) 


Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories, short stories (1957) 
The French Atlantic Affair, novel (1977) 
Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town, essays (1982) 
Farewell Performance, novel (1982)


Lehman received a total of six Academy Award nominations throughout his whole career, yet he failed to receive a single win. At the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony in 2001, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Lehman did, however, receive more honorable recognition from the Writers Guild of America than any other screenwriter in film history.



2. Fox, Margalit (July 6, 2005). "Ernest Lehman, 89, Who Wrote 'North by Northwest,' Dies". The New York Times. 

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