Leon Uris

Active - 1955 - 1969  |   Born - Aug 3, 1924   |   Died - Jun 21, 2003   |   Genres - Drama, War, Spy Film

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Leon Uris overcame a series of events, including World War II, that seemed to deflect him from his career as a writer, to become one of the top-selling novelists of the second half of the 20th century, his work a source of major motion pictures for 15 years. Born Leon Marcus Uris in Baltimore, MD, in 1924, he was the second child of Wolf William Uris and the former Alma Blumberg, both Polish-Jewish immigrants. The elder Uris had spent a year in Palestine in the late 1910s while traveling from Poland to America; the connection to Palestine would figure in a major way in Leon Uris's later writing career. The impulse to write hit Leon early in life -- according to Current Biography, Leon Uris authored an operetta in 1930, at age six, inspired by the death of his pet dog. Despite his interest in writing, however, he was a poor formal student of English, failing the subject several times. And even such routine matters as his completion of and graduation from high school were thwarted by events around the world -- while still a high school senior, he enlisted in the Marine Corps just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Following a period stationed in New Zealand, Uris served in combat on Guadalcanal and Tarawa as a radio operator, all experiences that would play a key role in his subsequent career.

Uris lived in San Francisco after the war with his new wife, herself a former Marine sergeant, and a growing family. He worked in a non-editorial capacity for a newspaper, writing in his spare time and occasionally trying to get a magazine article published. All of his efforts were unsuccessful until 1950, when he sold an article to Esquire dealing with the All-Amercian football team. With that sale, he plunged into writing in earnest, his goal to tell the story of the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, feeling that -- as he put it to Bernard Kalb in the Saturday Review -- "the real Marine story had not been told." The result, published by G.P. Putnam in 1953, after being rejected by a dozen companies, was Battle Cry. Coming out in the wake of a flurry of fact-inspired (if not fact-based) World War II novels, including Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Battle Cry was highly praised by critics and was a huge seller, possibly helped by the fact that it was a much more unquestioningly patriotic work than many of those other books, most of which took a more cynical, jaundiced, and complex look at the motivations behind the men fighting the war. The marines in Battle Cry, by contrast, signd up and fought for the best of reasons, just as Uris had in early 1942.

Hollywood beckoned in the wake of Battle Cry's success, and by the mid-'50s Uris was working in the story department at Warner Bros., where he was one of the hands that helped to bring Rebel Without a Cause to the screen. At the same time, he also wrote the scenario for Raoul Walsh's screen version of Battle Cry -- a sprawling, epic-length film with a huge cast. The movie was not taken too seriously by reviewers, who mostly criticized it for focusing on what they regarded as soap opera-ish character relationships, and taking two hours to get to any actual fighting. The public, in love with the book and oblivious to the critics, lined up in droves and the movie was an immense success.

For his second novel, Uris wrote The Angry Hills, dealing with the British campaign in Greece during World War II and based on the diary of an uncle of his who had been a member of the Palestine Brigade. That book, in turn, was brought to the screen in 1959 by Robert Aldrich. Uris's own Hollywood output, however, was very spotty at best until 1956, when producer Hal Wallis engaged him to do the screenplay to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Although that script was no more accurate than any other Hollywood version of the story -- the actual characters of Wyatt Earp and his brothers hardly being "heroic" in any way that modern audiences could perceive -- it had scope, power, and a storytelling momentum that made it one of the most popular and enduring Westerns of the post-World War II era, driven by a pair of dazzling performances by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and the unerring directorial eye of John Sturges.

Even as Gunfight was coming to theaters, Uris was already neck-deep in his most challenging project, returning to another aspect of his family's history to research what became the book Exodus, telling of the founding of the State of Israel. He spent two years and traveled 12,000 miles within the tiny country and conducted thousands of interviews with people involved in virtually every aspect of his subject, and he just missed out on getting caught in the late 1956 Sinai War. The book received mixed reviews; critics attacked it on stylistic grounds but were unable to find fault with Uris as a storyteller. The film rights to the book were sold in advance of its writing, an unusual arrangement at the time (made possible by the immense success of Battle Cry as a book and a movie) that covered Uris's expenses for the research. The book, published by Doubleday, became an instant bestseller upon its release in 1958, riding the national list for over a year, with 19 weeks in the number one spot. The 1960 movie, directed and produced by Otto Preminger and released through United Artists, was also a box-office blockbuster, and the paperback edition of the book had sold over five million copies by 1965, with no end in sight.

His 1961 novel, Mila 18, dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis by Polish Jews during World War II; Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin (1964) told of that city's travails in the post-World War II era; Topaz (1967), which was later filmed unsuccessfully by Alfred Hitchcock, dealt with Soviet espionage during the period of the Cuban missile crisis; and Trinity dealt with the Irish struggle for independence from England during the 19th century. Much as Exodus had given Uris a special following among Jewish-American readers for its telling of the history of Israel, Trinity solidified a bond between the author and Irish-Americans that lasted for generations, and all of his books after Battle Cry were widely translated and found audiences around the world. Redemption and A God in Ruins, both follow-ups to Trinity, only extended his special status among Irish readers. Uris's influence on motion pictures waned after Topaz, which somehow became one of Alfred Hitchcock's few failures of the 1960's and perhaps that director's least well known late career movie.

Uris's brand of historical storytelling across a big canvas proved better suited to the printed page or the miniseries, and he acquired a whole new generation of readers in the mid-'70s when QB VII, his 1970 novel based on a lawsuit filed against Uris by a Polish doctor over his mention in the book Mila 18, came to the small screen. A whole new wave of reprints of his novels poured into bookstores and into readers' hands, and all of his novels were steady sellers in the used-book market across the decades. Trinity was still a very quick mover off shelves in New York City (despite its being less Irish in character than ever) in the 1990's and early 2000's, some 25 years after its publication. He remained a popular and successful author into the 1990's, and at the time of his death from renal failure in June 2003, at age 78, he had a new book, O'Hara's Choice -- a story about the Marine Corps -- slated for publication in October of that year.

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