Barrett, James Lee 1929-1989

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BARRETT, James Lee 1929-1989

PERSONAL: Born November 19, 1929, in Charlotte, NC; died of cancer, October 15, 1989, in Templeton, CA; son of James Hamlin and Anne (Blake) Barrett; married Merete Engelstoft, June, 1960; children: Jessica, Penelope, Birgette, Christian David. Education: Attended Anderson Junior College, Furman University, Pennsylvania State University, and Art Students League.

CAREER: Screenwriter, producer, and journalist. Television work includes series producer and executive consultant, In the Heat of the Night, 1988-94. Actor as Sonny Boy in film Fools' Parade, 1971. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1950-52.

AWARDS, HONORS: Antoinette Perry Award for Book of a Musical, 1975, for Shenandoah.



The D.I. (also known as The Drill Instructor), Warner Bros., 1957.

The Truth about Spring (adapted from the novel Satan by Henry de Vere Stackpoole), Universal, 1964.

(With George Stevens) The Greatest Story Ever Told, United Artists, 1965.

Shenandoah, Universal, 1965.

Bandolero! (adapted from a story by Stanley L. Hough), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1968.

(With Kenneth B. Facey) The Green Berets (adapted from the novel by Robin Moore), Warner Bros., 1968.

The Undefeated, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1969.

(And producer) . . . Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1970.

(And executive producer) The Cheyenne Social Club, National General Pictures, 1970.

(And producer) Fools' Parade (adapted from the novel by Davis Grubb), Columbia, 1971.

(And producer) Something Big, National General Pictures, 1971.

Smokey and the Bandit, Universal, 1977.

Wild Horse Hank (based on the novel The Wild Horse Killers by Melvin Richard Ellis), Vestron, 1979.

Also uncredited scriptwriter for On the Beach, produced in 1959.


The Awakening Land (miniseries), 1978.

Stubby Pringle's Christmas, 1978.

Mayflower: The Pilgrims' Adventure, 1979.

The Day Christ Died, 1980.

Belle Starr, 1980.

The Defiant Ones, 1986.

Stagecoach, 1986.

Vengeance: The Story of Tony Cimo, 1986.

The Quick and the Dead, 1987.

Poker Alice, 1987.

April Morning (based on the novel of the same name by Howard Fast), 1988.

Jesse, 1988.

Ruby Jean and Joe, 1996.

Warden of Red Rock, 2001.

Author of scripts for television series, including Checkmate, 1960, Our House, 1986-88, and In the Heat of the Night, 1988.


(With Peter Udell and Philip Rose) Shenadoah (stage play; based on Barrett's screenplay), produced at Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT, 1975; produced on Broadway, 1975.

SIDELIGHTS: James Lee Barrett is remembered as the author of a number of screenplays for both motion pictures and television movies as well as two television series. His works include the popular western Shenandoah, starring James Stewart, and two John Wayne vehicles: the western The Undefeated and the war film The Green Berets. Also written by Barrett is the popular 1977 action comedy Smokey and the Bandit, which starred Burt Reynolds and Sally Field. In addition, Barrett penned the religious classic The Greatest Story Ever Told, which recounts the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In his work for television, Barrett recreated such historical events as the voyage of the Pilgrims to the New World and the taming of the West, and his scripts often provide female actresses with starring roles. He also portrayed racial tension between African Americans and whites in the series In the Heat of the Night, which ran for six years and for which he served as producer.

Barrett was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and soon afterward put his military experience to use in writing the screenplay for the motion picture The D.I, also known as The Drill Instructor. With the assistance of Colonel Kenneth B. Facey, Barrett also wrote the screenplay for the 1968 Vietnam War film The Green Berets.

Although he worked in several genres, Barrett returned most often to the western. His motion-picture screenplay Bandolero! deals with a brother rescuing another from a life of crime, and The Undefeated portrays former U.S. Civil War colonels from both the North and South resolving their differences in order to save their charges from Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in the Southwest. The Cheyenne Social Club, a western comedy starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda, follows the two cowboys as they take charge of a high-class brothel, which John (Stewart) has inherited from an uncle. Wild Horse Hank, based on the novel Wild Horse Killers by Melvin Richard Ellis, stars a teenage Linda Blair, who plays a young woman determined to drive a herd of wild horse to the safety of a refuge to prevent them from being captured and turned into dog food.

Perhaps Barrett's most enduring film, 1967's Shenandoah captures life in the post-Civil War South. James Stewart plays a farmer whose land is located in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Although he tries to remain neutral during the war, he is forced into action when his youngest son is taken prisoner by Union forces. In 1975, ten years after its screen debut, Barrett joined several other writers in adapting Shenandoah as a stage musical of the same name. Produced in New York City, it won the Antoinette Perry Award for best book of a musical for that year, and was revived on Broadway in the mid-1980s.

Beginning in the mid-1970s Barrett became increasingly involved in writing for television, creating pilot episodes for series and screenplays for made-for-television movies while also working as a producer.

Several of these films were in the western genre, among them a remake of the John Ford film Stagecoach, which showcases the talents of country-and-western singers Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, and The Quick and the Dead, based on Louis L'Amour's novel of the same name and starring Sam Elliott. Several of his westerns feature strong women heroines: In Belle Starr a female bandit has her way, while in Poker Alice a New England woman addicted to gambling wins a bordello in a poker game while traveling west by train with her brother.

Although Barrett wrote many westerns for television, he also created several works that focus on other periods in America's past. The 1978 television miniseries The Awakening Land, starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Montgomery, revolves around a frontierswoman's struggle to settle in the Western Reserve Territory (now Ohio) during the early 1800s. The following year Mayflower: The Pilgrim's Adventure aired, chronicling the decisions and vicissitudes faced by the Pilgrims during their voyage to the New World. A decade later, Barrett adapted Howard Fast's April Morning, a juvenile novel about the American Revolutionary War, into a made-for-television movie of the same name.

In 1970 he wrote the motion picture screenplay ... Tick . . . Tick . . . Tick . . . , which focuses on racial tension between whites and African Americans by dealing with the repercussions caused when a black man is elected sheriff in a small southern town. Interestingly, Barrett would return to this topic when he proposed and produced the television series In the Heat of the Night, which portrays a crusty southern sheriff and his African-American lieutenant as they investigate crimes in their racially charged community. This series, starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard E. Rollins, Jr., frequently explored the causes of racial tension during its run from 1988 to 1994.

Barrett's last work to be aired before his death from cancer in 1989 was the legal drama Jesse. However, several of his screenplays have been produced since his death, among them the 1996 television film Ruby Jean and Joe, about an aging rodeo rider and a young female hitchhiker. Dedicated in Barrett's memory is his television movie Warden of Red Rock. In this historical film, set in Arizona at the turn of the twentieth century, prison warden John Flinders is surprised to find an old friend incarcerated and now under his supervision. When this friend escapes the prison, Flinders is forced to decided between friendship and duty.

In 1970, responding to a letter from a student and former neighbor, Barrett gave some advice about screenwriting. Along with counseling discipline and knowledge of a wide variety of fields of endeavor, he stressed becoming "accustomed to loneliness. Writing is the loneliest occupation there is," he wrote in the letter, which is posted on the University of South Carolina Manuscript Collection's Web site. "I am only the middle man between my characters and the paper they come to life on," he continued. "I don't know from one second to the next what a character is going to say or do. I keep them within certain bounds because I know where they have to go. I like for my characters to entertain me. If the characters and their story entertain me, my ego is sufficient to allow me to believe they will entertain others as well." In many instances, Barrett's judgment proved to be correct, for his films continue to entertain movie viewers thanks to the wide distribution of classic films on videotape.



Christian Science Monitor, August 15, 1989, John Beaufort, review of Shenandoah, p. 10.

New York, August 21, 1989, John Simon, review of Shendoah, pp. 134-135.

New York Times, September 11, 1986, p. C25.

Variety, May 30, 1984, review of You Are the Jury, p. 38; May 21, 1986, review of Stagecoach, p. 80; June 3, 1987, review of Poker Alice, p. 86; May 4, 1988, review of April Morning, pp. 534-535.


University of South Caroline Manuscript Collections, (August 9, 2003), "James Lee Barrett Letter, February 1970, Los Angeles, CA, to Miss Becky Stuart."



Variety, October 25, 1989, p. 83.*

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