W.R. Burnett

Active - 1931 - 1967  |   Born - Nov 25, 1899   |   Died - Jan 1, 1982   |   Genres - Crime, Drama, Western

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Descended from a long line of Ohio political bosses (his grandfather was mayor of Columbus), William Riley Burnett was educated at that state's Miami Military Institute and at O.S.U. Thanks to family connections, Burnett landed a job as an Ohio state statistician, a post he held from 1920 to 1927. Finally wearying of civil service, he moved to Chicago, hoping to make his fortune as a novelist. His first book was Little Caesar, an "a clef" account of the rise of Chi-Town's Al Capone. Little Caesar was made into a landmark gangster picture by Warner Bros. in 1931. Throughout his Hollywood years, Burnett avoided being "typed" by tackling virtually every literary genre: if his work has any unifying theme, it's the story of the tough little maverick at odds with a big, impersonal Establishment. Similarly, Burnett was himself a Hollywood "outsider," refusing to humble himself before major stars or powerful directors. Perhaps significantly, he never won an Oscar (though he was nominated for Wake Island) or even as Screen Writer's Guild award. Most of his post-Little Caesar novels made it to the screen, often adapted by Burnett himself: Saint Johnson, based on the legend of Wyatt Earp, became Law and Order (1932), while Jailbreak was transformed into The Whole Town's Talking (1935). On the whole, Burnett's literary efforts came to the screen with their original titles intact, including Dr. Socrates, Dark Command, High Sierra, Nobody Lives Forever, and best of all, The Asphalt Jungle. He also occasionally worked on screen originals like Scarface (1931) and Crash Dive (1944). Despite his virulent anti-communism, Burnett got along quite well with most of the Hollywood Left and frequently collaborated with them. His last major film work, another "little guy against the odds" affair, was 1963's The Great Escape.

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