Thursday 29 August 2019

In memoriam: Edward Lewis (Telegraph 26/08/19)

Edward Lewis, who has died aged 99, was a film producer whose exceptional run of credits from the 1960s onwards may be less significant than the place he inhabits in Hollywood history.

For his third feature-length production, Spartacus (1960), Lewis hired the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by the entertainment industry for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee thirteen years before. Lewis agreed to serve as Trumbo’s “front” – the creative whose name would grace the script pages turned in to the project’s backers Universal.

Sharper eyes may have spotted evidence of subversion in the film’s rousing climax, where the hero’s fellow slaves defy their Roman interrogators, each in turn claiming the identity of the fugitive Spartacus. Yet the behind-the-scenes masquerade continued for much of the shoot’s duration.

In his 2012 memoir I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, star Kirk Douglas suggested that Lewis found it tricky to maintain the pretence: “Every time Eddie Lewis told someone he was writing Spartacus, it embarrassed him.” Yet only when the film was well into production – making it hard for the heavily invested studio to pull the plug – did Lewis reveal his screenwriter’s identity, insisting that Trumbo be given full credit and salary.

Universal’s acquiescence led to protests from the American Legion, yet upon its October 1960 release, Spartacus was hailed as a triumph, going on to win four Oscars, a Golden Globe, offhand approval from the newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy (“it was fine”) and a lasting place in the cinematic canon.

More importantly, however, the film’s success changed the way the industry perceived those who had been blacklisted. After writing Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), Trumbo was rehired by Lewis – this time without the need for subterfuge – to write the Universal-released The Last Sunset (1961) and Lonely Are The Brave (1962). In return, Trumbo gifted his former front a copy of his novel Johnny Got His Gun bearing the inscription “To Eddie Lewis – who risked his name to help a man who’d lost his name.”

Edward Lewis was born in Camden, New Jersey on December 16, 1919 to furniture maker Max Lewis and his wife Florence (née Kline). He was a restless youth, quitting Bushnell University to attend dental school, which he also left to serve as an Army captain in England during World War II.

After his service, he moved to Los Angeles, and met Mildred Gerchik; they wed in 1946, and were married until her death this April. According to their children, it was Mildred, whose mother was an activist and whose brother had fought in the Spanish Civil War, who nudged Edward’s politics leftwards.

After trying unsuccessfully to set up an organisation to house returning veterans, the pair were inspired by friends to write a screenplay: the resulting adaptation of de Balzac’s The Lovable Cheat (1949) wasn’t especially well received, but it succeeded in carrying them into the entertainment sector.

Edward served an apprenticeship in TV before joining Douglas’ Bryna Productions in 1956, claiming “I couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I became a producer”. After Spartacus, he worked consistently for two decades, producing many of the director John Frankenheimer’s strongest films, among them the Cold War thriller Seven Days in May (1964), the enduringly cult Seconds (1966) and a four-hour adaptation of The Iceman Cometh (1973) starring Lee Marvin.

Politics remained central to Lewis’s work. He resumed his writing career with Brothers (1977), about the relationship between black activist Angela Davis and jailed Black Panther Geoffrey Jackson, then produced Costa-Gavras’s Palme d’Or-winning Missing (1982), on the Chilean coup d'état. After overseeing the wildly successful The Thorn Birds (1983) for TV, Lewis saw his final production, farmland drama The River (1984), nominated for four Oscars.

In retirement, Lewis travelled, collected art and took up the pen again, writing fiction and several stageplays. In a 1987 Los Angeles Times piece promoting his musical The Good Life, he mused on its protagonist: “[He’s] a man who’s principled, believes in things — and at 70, remains a militant, optimistic person... And, you know, that’s been the theme of my own life. I’m bothered by the cynicism and negativity everywhere today. I’m an optimist; I believe there can be a good life.”

He is survived by two daughters, Susan and Joan Lewis.

Edward Lewis, born December 19, 1919, died July 27, 2019.

No comments:

Post a Comment