Ernest Lehman

Active - 1954 - 1995  |   Born - Dec 8, 1915   |   Died - Jul 2, 2005   |   Genres - Drama, Musical, Comedy, Thriller, Romance

Share on

Biography by Jason Buchanan

With a list of credits that reads like an AFI list of some of Hollywood's most beloved classics, screenwriter Ernest Lehman became one of the most successful screenwriters in film history. A New York City native who began his writing career as an author of fiction, Lehman started as a pencil pusher for a Broadway publicist. In the months following his graduation from New York's City College, a nervous Lehman, unable to face the sea of "personal" rejection that writers endure on a daily basis, languished his days on a park bench while churning out short fiction at night. Soon after being turned down by literary great Damon Runyon, however, the aspiring young writer's works began being published in magazines nationwide. In an era where the reputation of a writer was built in the literary world, Lehman's choice to pursue a full-time career in screenwriting was viewed by more than a few as a prostitution of his talents -- but Lehman went his own way. His skin toughened by his early work as a New York press agent, Lehman headed for Hollywood to write his first screenplay, 1954's Executive Suite. An unquestionable hit with critics and audiences, Lehman's smart portrayal of corporate politics soon found him in high demand. Scripts for Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956) were quick to follow. In 1957, two of Lehman's novelettes, The Comedian and The Sweet Smell of Success, were also adapted for the screen.

During a meeting with Alfred Hitchcock in the late '50s, the director asked Lehman to adapt the popular novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM, but the writer refused and the two worked behind the studio's back to craft the enduring thriller North by Northwest from only a threadbare plot outline. The film was a massive success, and the duo later again teamed for Hitchcock's final effort in 1976, Family Plot. In the years between North by Northwest and Family Plot, Lehman found his dream job. After penning West Side Story, the writer was asked to script The Sound of Music for an ailing 20th Century Fox. Advised by his agent to stay as far away as possible from the project, Lehman once again took his own path and crafted what is considered by many to be Hollywood's finest musical. The next year, he adapted Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the 1966 film not only earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination, but his first credit as producer, as well. After he produced and wrote Hello, Dolly! in 1969, anyone who had voiced concern about him prostituting his talents was noticeably silent.

Lehman's last screenplay was for the 1977 John Frankenheimer thriller Black Sunday, though the writer's novel The French Atlantic Affair was adapted into a television miniseries in 1979 and his original screenplay for Sabrina was resurrected for a 1995 remake starring Harrison Ford. Although Lehman never won an Oscar for any specific film, he did receive an honorary award at the 2001 ceremony. Lehman served as president of the Writer's Guild of America from 1983-1985. In 2002, his second wife Laurie gave birth to the couple's first son.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography