Walter Wager

Genres - Action, Thriller, Spy Film

Share on

Walter Wager was best known to fans of movie thrillers for three of his books -- or, rather, the films made from them: Telefon, Twilight's Last Gleaming, and Die Hard 2. Born Walter Herman Wager in the Bronx, NY, he was the son of Russian immigrants, and he attended Columbia College at Columbia University. He graduated in 1944 and later earned a law degree from Harvard; the practice of law interested him less than aviation, however, and Wager subsequently entered a fellowship program at Northwestern University through which he earned a degree in aviation law. He attended the Sorbonne for a year under a Fulbright scholarship at the end of the 1940s, and then turned his attention to earning a living. Wager spent the early '50s working as an aviation law consultant to the government of Israel, and from there moved to an editorial job at the United Nations, where he oversaw the editing of that organization's myriad publications. His interest in writing got him into radio at the tail-end of that medium's era of prominence, authoring scripts, and in his spare time he wrote stories.

Wager's first novel, Death Hits the Jackpot -- about corrupt CIA agents -- published in the mid-'50s, earned him the princely sum of 3,000 dollars (according to an interview with Joan McIver). He published his second book, Operation Intrigue, in 1956, and over 44 years and 24 more novels, he developed a following among readers of paperback thrillers. His writing was lean and precise, but some of the appeal of Wager's work lay in the fairly novel structure to the threats in his books. In a manner similar to Ian Fleming at his best, Wager's most notable books were built on such notions as escaped prisoners taking over a nuclear missile silo (Viper Three), nerve gas being used to blackmail the city of New York (Otto's Boy), and terrorists taking over an airport control tower (58 Minutes). His output also included nonfiction works such as Stutterin' Boy, an autobiography of Mel Tillis that Wager co-authored. Wager's work from the 1960s also included several television "novelizations," of the series I Spy and Mission: Impossible, authored under the name "John Tiger." During the early to mid-'60s, Wager served as the editor-in-chief of Playbill, the theatrical publication, and he later joined the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), editing the performing rights organization's newsletter.

It was in the 1970s that Wager fully hit his stride as an author. His 1971 thriller Viper Three, about a takeover of a missile silo by escaped criminals, was his first book to be filmed, though it took most of the decade to get produced. In 1976, Wager published one of his few works of fiction that wasn't set in a thriller mode, the satire My Side, credited to "King Kong as told to Walter Wager." Done in a spirit (if not a style) resembling John Gardner's Grendel (which retold the Beowulf legend from the monster's point-of-view), the book turned the King Kong story (which had been revived in the public consciousness by the critically reviled but financially successful mid-'70s remake) on its head, and it was the biggest critical success of Wager's career. The best (and truest) of the movie adaptations of Wager's thrillers was Telefon, which was published as a novel in 1975. The resulting screen version, starring Charles Bronson, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasence, and Tyne Daly, and directed by Don Seigel (who replaced Peter Hyams), was released in 1977 and proved to be one of the more memorable espionage thrillers of its era. That same year saw the release of Robert Aldrich's adaptation of Viper Three, entitled Twilight's Last Gleaming, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Winfield, Gerald O'Loughlin, and Charles Durning. This movie was a somewhat more awkward fit, as the screenplay incorporated a topical, anti-Vietnam War theme (the men holding the silo include an ex-general who wants secret documents concerning the reasons for the Vietnam War released as part of the price for not launching the missiles), and also featured an ending that seemed to refer obliquely to the murder of President Kennedy. A decade later, Wager published 58 Minutes (1987), a thriller about terrorists taking over the control tower and landing radar of a snowbound New York airport (many of Wager's thrillers were set in New York City, where he spent most of his life). The basic plot of the book subsequently became the basis for Die Hard 2, starring Bruce Willis.

Wager was a frequent guest at paperback collector shows and something of a celebrity among mystery and paperback buffs. He was extremely unpretentious about his work, with a great sense of humor, and loved to sign his early books. Wager passed away in July 2004, of complications from brain cancer. His last book, the thriller Kelly's People, was published in 2002. He was also the former national executive vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America.