The Oscar-nominated screenwriter who penned North by Northwest and West Side Story was 89

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 06, 2005 09:00 AM

Ernest Lehman, the much-admired Hollywood screenwriter who practically had a lock on movie adaptations of great Broadway musicals, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday at UCLA Medical Center, say reports. He was 89.

Besides such Best Picture Oscar blockbusters as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Lehman also sent the librettos of The King & I and Hello, Dolly! through his typewriter.

His other screenplays included such ’50s classics as Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn; the Alfred Hitchcock classicNorth by Northwest, starring Cary Grant; and the seminal New York media story The Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

His 1966 adaptation of playwright Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including two for Lehman as producer and writer.

In 2001, with Sound of Music star Julie Andrews at his side, Lehman was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he became the first screenwriter awarded an honorary Oscar, for his “varied and enduring work.”

“I accept this rarest of honors on behalf of screenwriters everywhere, but especially those in the Writers Guild of America,” he said onstage, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “We have suffered anonymity far too often. I appeal to all movie critics and feature writers to please always bear in mind that a film production begins and ends with a screenplay.”

Lehman is survived by his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jonathan, as well as his sons Roger and Alan from his marriage to his late first wife, Jackie. Other survivors are his daughter-in-law, Julie, and two grandchildren, Adele and Jack.