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Ernest Lehman

Born and raised in New York City, Ernest Lehman worked as a publicity writer for The Hollywood Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman and utilized his experience in scripting Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957). Though the screenplay bears the stamp of Lehman's co-writer Clifford Odets, this dark and cruel tale originated as a story published by Lehman in Cosmopolitan (1951). This and other stories, one of which became Allan Dwan's "The Inside Story" (1948), brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where he settled in 1953.

That year began his association with Robert Wise on the screenplay for "Executive Suite", and their collaboration continued with "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956) through the acclaimed musicals "West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965). Nominated four times for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, he received his first nod for his work with Billy Wilder on "Sabrina" (1954). Though he would never win an Oscar, Lehman was honored with five Writers Guild of America awards for his screenplays, and he served as that organization's president from 1983-85.

Lehman wrote perhaps his finest screenplay, "North by Northwest" (1959), for Alfred Hitchcock. A sublime mix of farce, chase and layered character, its final scenes on Mount Rushmore make it one of Hitchcock's most memorable movies. When the two of them tried to repeat the success of that classic comic thriller in Hitchcock's final movie "Family Plot" (1976), they fell a bit short, though it did give the Old Master a chance to coast along tongue-in-cheek and display his formidable directing skills one last time. Lehman's other multiple collaborations were with Mark Robson ("From the Terrace" 1960 and "The Prize" 1963) and with John Frankenheimer, who directed a Rod Serling adaptation of a Lehman novelette, "The Comedian" (1957), for "Playhouse 90" and shared screenwriting credit on "Black Sunday" (1976).

The astonishing success of "The Sound of Music" enabled Lehman to land the job of writer-producer for Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) which resulted in one last Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and a Writers Guild of America Award. He wrote and produced the overblown, critically disparaged "Hello, Dolly!" (1969) and added director to that list for "Portnoy's Complaint" (1972), a resounding failure which nipped his directing career in the bud. He published two novels, "The French Atlantic Affair" (1977) and "Farewell Performance" (1983), "Screening Sickness" (1981), a collection of writings on the cinema, and worked as a writer on the 1987, 1988 and 1990 Academy Award shows.

Regrettably, Ernest Lehman stopped writing scripts before turning 60, at least none have reached the screen. His reputation does not rest solely on the smart, funny and beautifully constructed screenplays that hold up to this day like "Sabrina", "Sweet Smell of Success", "North by Northwest" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". He also displayed a remarkable talent for bringing the stage musical to the screen. Lehman learned to leave the sound stage, taking full advantage of the streets, and his movie musicals, particularly "The King and I" (1956), "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" are a big part of his legacy.

  • Writers Guild of America Award Best-Written American Comedy "Sabrina" 1954 award shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor
  • Golden Globe Award Best Screenplay "Sabrina" 1954 award shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor
  • Writers Guild of America Award Best-Written American Musical "The King and I" 1956
  • Writers Guild of America Award Best-Written American Musical "West Side Story" 1961
  • Writers Guild of America Award Best-Written American Musical "The Sound of Music" 1965 sole nominee
  • Writers Guild of America Award Best-Written American Drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 1966
  • British Film Academy Award Best Film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" 1966
  • Writers Guild of America Laurel Award for Achievement 1973
  • Honorary Oscar 2000 awarded "in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work" MILESTONEs
  • Worked three years as publicity writer for The Hollywood Reporter columnist Irving Hoffman
  • 1948 Sold story to Hollywood that became "The Inside Story", directed by Allan Dwan
  • 1951 Published "Tell Me About It Tomorrow" in Cosmopolitan, the basis for "The Sweet Smell of Success"
  • 1953 Moved to Hollywood
  • 1953 Wrote screenplay for Robert Wise's "Executive Suite"
  • 1954 Shared screenwriting credit with Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor on Wilder's "Sabrina"
  • 1956 Adapted the stage musical "The King and I" as a feature
  • 1956 Wrote screenplay for "Somebody Up There Likes Me"
  • 1957 Shared screenwriting credit with Clifford Odets on Alexander Mackendrick's "The Sweet Smell of Success", adapted from Lehman's short story, "Tell Me About It Tomorrow"
  • 1957 Published "Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories"
  • 1957 Rod Serling adapted his novellete "The Comedian" for a "Playhouse 90" production of same name directed by John Frankenheimer
  • 1959 Scripted Hitchcock's "North by Northwest"
  • 1960 Wrote screenplay for Mark Robson's "From the Terrace"
  • 1961 Provided screenplay adaptation for Wise's "West Side Story"
  • 1963 Wrote screenplay for Robson's "The Prize"
  • 1965 Reteamed with Wise as writer of "The Sound of Music"
  • 1966 Adapted Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" for the screen; also produced film
  • 1969 Wrote and produced "Hello, Dolly!", directed by Gene Kelly
  • 1976 Wrote screenplay for Hitchcock's final movie "Family Plot"
  • 1976 Was co-screenwriter on Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday"
  • 1977 Published novel "The French Atlantic Affair"
  • Worked as a columnist for American Film in late 1970s
  • 1981 Published "Screening Sickness", a collection of writings on the cinema
  • 1982 Published novel "Farewell Performance"
  • 1983 - 1985 Served as President of Writers Guild of America West
  • Co-wrote Academy Awards show telecasts in 1987, 1988 and 1990
  • More recent articles in Professional Screenwriter Profiles


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