Ira Levin

Born - Aug 27, 1929   |   Died - Nov 12, 2007   |   Genres - Thriller, Comedy, Science Fiction, Mystery

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Biography by Nathan Southern

Regarded by critics as one of the most blithely entertaining postwar American novelists, Ira Levin enjoyed decades of not merely seeing his novels hit the market as best-sellers, but of watching Hollywood turn those tomes into satisfying cinematic outings, time and again. Many observers (such as Stephen King, in his 1982 Danse Macabre) singled out Levin for his deft command of Byzantine narrative structures, in which plot elements fit together as snugly as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle and resist attempts at structural alteration.

Levin was born in the Bronx, the son of a toy manufacturer, but he bucked his father's prompting to join the family business by developing and honing his own innate gift for fiction. Early on (in the mid-'40s), the blossoming 15-year-old writer won a second-place, 200-dollar prize in an NBC screenwriting competition, which reinforced his inclinations in that direction, to great effect. Indeed, his first novel, the 1953 murder mystery A Kiss Before Dying, hit bookstore shelves, sold millions of copies, and won an award as the best debut novel of its year. It received two screen adaptations, one in 1955 and a less successful remake in 1991. In the early '50s, Levin also authored the Broadway play No Time for Sergeants (adapted from Mac Hyman's novel), a military comedy starring a then-unknown Andy Griffith that ran for 700 performances, made Griffith a star, and spawned a smash film adaptation directed by Mervyn LeRoy in 1958. The film also witnessed the first pairing of Griffith and Don Knotts.

Though it took Levin over a decade to generate his sophomore novel, the result -- the occult thriller Rosemary's Baby, about a young woman unwittingly lured into conceiving the Antichrist at the hands of a conspiratorial coven -- also clocked in as a number one best-seller and generated one of the most popular, well-received, and lucrative films of the late '60s, scripted and directed by Roman Polanski on a big budget at Paramount and released in 1968. Successive adaptations of Levin novels and plays also scored with critics and the public, but were seldom brought to the screen by the author himself. These included the blockbusters The Stepford Wives (1975), The Boys from Brazil (1978), and Deathtrap (1982). Levin's 1991 novel Sliver -- an erotic thriller about a diabolical apartment house -- received a big-screen adaptation under the aegis of helmer Phillip Noyce and scenarist Joe Eszterhas in 1993. Critics excoriated the film version, but it drew a considerable audience. Levin wrote his last novel, a sequel to Rosemary's Baby titled Son of Rosemary, in 1997, and died of a heart attack a decade later at age 78.