As the last installment in our “TOH! Remembers” series, our contributors look back at the writers the film community lost in 2013, from critic Roger Ebert, to novelists Elmore Leonard and Richard Matheson, and more.
Who: Roger Ebert
Born: June 18, 1942
Died: April 4, 2013
Known For: “Two Thumbs Up” or “Two Thumbs Down,” the signature moments on the television program he shared with film critic Gene Siskel for 23 years when the two critics agreed on the value of a movie. If they disagreed, it was one thumb up and the other thumb down.
Career Breakout: The day in 1967 when the Chicago Sun-Times made him, at the age of 24, its movie critic. He was until the end of his life a film critic for the ordinary moviegoer. When he died, he had more than 800,000 followers on Twitter.
High Point: The first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1975) and the first to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (in 2005)
Low Point: His decade-long struggle with thyroid and facial cancer. Despite being unable to eat, drink, or speak for the last several years, he continued to see and review movies, telling Esquire magazine in 2010: “When I am writing, my problems become invisible.”
Yes, it’s True: According to Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, Ebert submitted captions to 107 New Yorker cartoon caption contests before finally winning the magazine’s 281st contest. –Aljean Harmetz
Who: Fay Kanin
Born: May 9, 1917
Died: March 27, 2013
Known for: Being the second woman to become president of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Bette Davis lasted two months as president in 1941. Becoming president in 1979, Kanin served the
allowable four years and pushed the Academy into film preservation.
Career Breakout: Her first play, “Goodbye, My Fancy,” (1948)
about a congresswoman trying to rekindle an old love affair. The play lasted more than a year on Broadway
and was then turned into a movie starring Joan Crawford.
High Point: Deciding to write for television when she got
disenchanted with movies. Her
relationship dramas with a feminist twist won her numerous awards, including Emmys
for “Tell Me Where It Hurts” (1974) about a housewife who wants more from life
and “Friendly Fire” (1979) the true story of a soldier accidentally killed by
his own troops which was watched by 60 million viewers.
Low Point: Being blacklisted along with her husband and
co-screenwriter Michael Kanin by HUAC because they had taken some classes at
the Actors’ Lab.
Yes, it’s True: The Kanins’ most successful movie and the
only one that earned them an Academy Award nomination, “Teacher’s Pet” (1958)
starring Clark Gable and Doris Day, was a movie that almost didn’t get made
because the Kanins were not under contract to any studio. –Aljean Harmetz
Who: Elmore Leonard
Known for: Terse and witty dialogue in exquisitely-crafted novels and screenplays.
Career Breakout: In Westerns, the story for “3:10 to Yuma” in 1957; in crime, “Get Shorty” in 1995.
High Points: Barry Sonnenfeld’s comedy blockbuster “Get Shorty,” starring Gene Hackman and John Travolta, and Steven Soderbergh’s noir thriller “Out of Sight,”starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, as well as the well-reviewed hardboiled cable series “Justified,” based on his stories.
Low Point: Continued to work as ad copywriter while churning out Western short stories
Yes, It’s True: Born in Louisiana, he lived in Detroit from the age of 9 and never lived anywhere else, despite becoming rich and famous (hence known as “the Dickens of Detroit”); picked up lifelong nickname “Dutch” (after pitcher Dutch Leonard) when he served as a Seabee for 3 years in the South Pacific. –Meredith Brody
Who: Richard Matheson
Born: February 20, 1926
Died: June 23, 2013
Known For: His 1954 book “I Am Legend” about a pandemic which turns humans into something resembling zombies. It has been made into movies four times – as “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), “The Omega Man” (1971), “I Am Legend” (2007) and “I Am Omega,” a straight-to-video production that same year. In addition, George Romero gave Matheson’s novel credit as the inspiration for his 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead.”
Career Breakout: His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” allowed him to become a screenwriter when it was turned into the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man” a year later.. “I figured it would be easier if I had something they wanted,” Matheson said in an interview. I sold the novel with the stipulation that I write the script.”
High Point: Writing 16 episodes of the “Twilight Zone” television series between 1959 and 1964, including the 1963 episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner as an airline passenger recovering from a nervous breakdown is taunted by a wing-walking gremlin who can be seen by no one else. A part of popular culture, the episode has been parodied a dozen times including a The Simpsons episode, “Terror at 5 ½ Feet” that takes place on a school bus.
Low Point: His nomination for a Razzie Award for Worst Screenplay for “Jaws 3-D.”
Yes, it’s True: Both Stephen King and Steven Spielberg have something to thank Matheson for. King has said “I Was Legend” was one of the things that inspired his choice of career. Spielberg’s first television movie, “Duel,” (1971) about a motorist’s desperate attempt to survive when he is pursued by the unseen driver of a huge truck, was written by Matheson.–Aljean Harmetz
Who: Alan Sharp
Known for: Beautifully-crafted, witty, erudite screenplays, often of the muscular western noir variety.
Career Breakout: Peter Fonda’s 1971 follow-up to “Easy Rider,” “The Hired Hand,” co-starring Fonda and Warren Oates; and Robert Aldrich western “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972), starring Burt Lancaster.
High Points: Arthur Penn’s iconic private eye thriller “Night Moves” (1975), starring Gene Hackman and Melanie Griffith, and Michael Caton-Jones’ 1995 Highland outlaw epic “Rob Roy,” starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange.
Low Points: After “Rob Roy,” Sharp kept writing well into his mid-70’s, mostly for television; he was one of the eldest working members of the Writers Guild. After penning Sam Peckinpah’s last film, 1983 thriller “The Osterman Weekend,” Sharp’s final feature was “Dean Spanley,” a New Zealand picture starring Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Northam that was never released theatrically stateside.
Yes, It’s True: Once married to Dame Beryl Bainbridge, the man some called “the quintessential American screenwriter” was born in Scotland and emigrated to LA in his thirties. –-Meredith Brody