Philip Yordan

Active - 1942 - 1992  |   Born - Apr 1, 1914   |   Died - Mar 24, 2003   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Action, Adventure, Historical Film

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Philip Yordan was born in 1914 to a Polish immigrant family. In the late '30s, he entered the movie business as a writer employed by director/producer William Dieterle. He earned a reputation in Hollywood during the 1940s for his ability to synopsize and pitch story ideas, and later for packaging the writing and production work on movies. Yordan's earliest screen credit was on the 1942 feature Syncopation. His best works of the period were Max Nosseck's Dillinger (1945), an extraordinarily frank and violent telling of the notorious criminal's career, which earned Yordan an Oscar nomination, and Frank Tuttle's Suspense (1946). Both movies were produced by Frank and Maurice King, and Suspense was the most expensive movie in the entire history of Monogram Pictures.

Yordan never slackened the pace of his career in Hollywood, and by 1947 had moved on to Nero Films and producer Seymour Nebenzal, for whom he wrote The Chase. In 1949, he moved up to 20th Century Fox, where he adapted Jerome Weidman's novel into the movie House of Strangers. Although he would periodically return to Fox in the 1950s, Yordan seldom stayed long in any one studio situation, and when he joined the studio for the first time, he already had more irons in the fire than most screenwriters. In 1949, he formed Security Pictures and, in a joint venture with Columbia Pictures, produced the first of two film adaptations of Anna Lucasta. Because of the racial sensibilities of the time, and the widespread segregation laws enforced around the country, it was impossible to film the play as written or originally staged with any hope of its finding success -- Yordan collaborated on the screenplay with playwright Arthur Laurents, transforming the characters into white Polish immigrants and casting Paulette Goddard and Oscar Homolka as the leads. Later that same year, he was back working for the King brothers and with Kurt Neumann on Bad Men of Tombstone, and then authored the screenplay for Reign of Terror, a thriller set amid the bloodshed that followed in the wake of the French Revolution.

It was during the early to mid-'50s that the hidden, more controversial side of Yordan's career began. There was a considerable body of unused screenwriting talent floating around Hollywood at the time, by virtue of the Red Scare and the studio blacklist, which had left writers, actors, and technicians out of work by the thousands. Some of these writers soon found their way to Yordan's door. He served as a "front" in perhaps dozens of instances, paying these writers a share of the fees for scripts of theirs that he signed his name to. It was a strange symbiotic relationship, as the blacklistees were grateful for the work, even at the reduced rate of pay that they were receiving, while Yordan's commitments were met. At the same time, it meant that Yordan was getting credit for other men's work. It was only decades later that the Screenwriters Guild began trying to sort out the genuine authorship of many screenplays attributed to Yordan.

Yordan won his only Oscar in 1954, for his screenplay for Broken Lance -- a Western remake of House of Strangers. In his rewrite of his earlier script, Yordan emphasized elements that brought out the similarities to Shakespeare's King Lear much more than House of Strangers had. The middle of the decade also saw him involved with a number of smaller films, several of them made at Fox, including Street of Sinners, and one major Western, The Bravados (1958), directed by Henry King, and starring Gregory Peck and Joan Collins.

During this period, Yordan also revived Security Pictures for two major projects: God's Little Acre and Anna Lucasta. At the end of the 1950s, he wrote a few inventive Western scripts such as The Fiend Who Walked the West (a remake of Fox's Kiss of Death), Day of the Outlaw (1959) (starring Robert Ryan), and one major independent production, The Bramble Bush (1960), made by Milton Sperling.

Most of Yordan's activity after that, however, was confined to Europe. He became involved as a screenwriter and producer for former Hollywood executive Samuel Bronston, who set up a production company in Spain. Officially, all Yordan did was write (or co-write) the screenplays of movies such as El Cid (1961), King of Kings (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), as well as the plot for Circus World (1964), but he seemed to some observers to be far more connected to the day-to-day matters of production than Bronston was -- he was sufficiently involved at an executive level to have brought aboard such Hollywood blacklistees as Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet to work on several of these films in various capacities.

In the midst of this flurry of activity in Spain, Yordan's Security Pictures became active again with the movie The Day of the Triffids (1962), which became a major cult favorite. In the years that followed the 1965 collapse of Bronston's Spanish operation, Yordan produced the semi-revisionist historical epic Custer of the West (1968), starring Robert Shaw, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), for which he adapted Peter Shaffer's play about Pizzaro's explorations. In the 1970s however, both his working capital and his luck both seemed to run out, following Bad Man's River, for which Yordan only wrote the screenplay. Europe was no longer as hospitable as it had been to his kind of productions or the multi-national financing that he usually put together. He scripted a couple of movies in the early '80s and went back into production later in the decade with Cry Wilderness and Bloody Wednesday (both 1987), but Yordan's heyday was clearly past. The Bronston movies and films like Battle of the Bulge and Crack in the World kept his name visible on television, but by the end of the 1990s, Yordan was as forgotten as most of the blacklistees that he had helped out back in the '50s. At the time of Yordan's death in the early spring of 2003, it seemed as though only one of the prominent survivors in those ranks, Bernard Gordon, who was a friend and business associate, knew anything about this incredibly creative yet strangely mysterious man.

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