Lehman, Ernest Paul 1915-

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LEHMAN, Ernest Paul 1915-

PERSONAL: Born 1915, in New York, NY; son of Paul (co-owner of women's clothing shops) and Gertrude (co-owner of women's clothing shops) Lehman; married, 1942; wife's name Jacqueline (died, 1994); married; second wife's name Laurene; children: Roger, Alan; (second marriage) Jonathan Maxwell. Education: City University of New York, B.A.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Writers Guild of America, 7000 West Third St., Los Angeles, CA 90048-4329.

CAREER: Screenplay writer, film producer, and author. Has also worked as a radio comedy writer, Broadway press agent, freelance short-story writer, and as copy editor for a Wall Street financial magazine.

MEMBER: Writers Guild of America West (member of council, 1965-69, president, 1983-85), Screenwriters Guild (member of executive board).

AWARDS, HONORS: All for best screenplay: Writers Guild nomination, 1954, for The Executive Suite; Writers Guild award, and Academy Award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, both 1954, both for Sabrina; Writers Guild Award, 1956, for The King and I; Writers Guild nomination and Academy Award nomination, both 1959, both for North by Northwest; Writers Guild award and Academy Award nomination, both 1961, both for West Side Story; Writers Guild award, 1965, for The Sound of Music; Writers Guild award and Academy Award nomination, both 1966, both for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; honorary Academy Award, 2001, for body of work.



(Author of screen story, with Geza Harcseg) The Inside Story, Republic, 1948, re-released as The Big Gamble, Republic, 1954.

Executive Suite (adapted from the novel by Cameron Hawley), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1954.

(With Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor) Sabrina (adapted from the play Sabrina Fair, by Taylor), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954.

The King and I (adapted from the play by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1956.

Somebody up There Likes Me (adapted from the autobiography by Rocky Graziano with Rowland Barber), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956.

(With Clifford Odets) Sweet Smell of Success (adapted from Lehman's novella Tell Me about It Tomorrow), United Artists, 1957.

North by Northwest (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959), Viking (New York, NY), 1972.

From the Terrace (adapted from the novel by John O'Hara), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1960.

West Side Story (adapted from the play by Arthur Laurents), United Artists, 1961.

The Prize (adapted from the novel by Irving Wallace), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1963.

The Sound of Music (adapted from the play by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1965.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (adapted from the play by Edward Albee), Warner Bros., 1966.

Hello Dolly (adapted from the play The Matchmaker by Thorton Wilder), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1969.

(And director) Portnoy's Complaint (adapted from the novel by Philip Roth), Warner Bros., 1972.

Family Plot (adapted from the novel The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning), Universal, 1976.

(With Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat) Black Sunday (adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris), Paramount, 1977.


The Comedian and Other Stories, New American Library (New York, NY), 1957.

Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories, New American Library (New York, NY), 1957.

The French Atlantic Affair (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.

Farewell Performance (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1983.


Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town (collected articles), Putnam (New York, NY), 1982.

Contributor of articles and short stories to numerous publications, including Esquire, Redbook, Collier's, Harper's, Liberty, Town and Country, Cosmopolitan, and American Mercury. Columnist, American Film.

ADAPTATIONS: Lehman's story "The Comedian" was filmed as part of CBS-TV's Playhouse 90 in 1957; The French Atlantic Affair was produced as a television miniseries in 1979.

SIDELIGHTS: One of the most successful screen-writers of the 1960s and 1970s, Ernest Paul Lehman crafted film scripts in an array of genres from comedy-musical to noir thriller during a career spanning four decades. His versatility led to work on projects as diverse as The Sound of Music and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he is best known for his work on the Alfred Hitchcock-directed movies North by Northwest and Family Plot. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Nick Roddick called Lehman "a champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay" and a film writer who has achieved "critical and commercial successes." Lehman has been nominated several times for for Academy Awards in the category of Best Screenplay.

Lehman grew up on Long Island and drifted into creative writing while a student at the College of the City of New York. His first published work, a profile of bandleader Ted Lewis, appeared in 1939; for the following thirteen years his work appeared in such magazines as Collier's, Esquire, Liberty, Redbook, American Mercury, and Cosmopolitan. As a young college graduate in Manhattan he held several editorial positions, including a copy-writing job for a publicity agency that provided the background for his story and screenplay Sweet Smell of Success. Lehman also sold pieces to magazines. After his short story The Comedian appeared in Collier's in 1953, Paramount Studios brought him to Hollywood to work on a screenplay adaptation. That project was ultimately canceled, but Lehman received other screenwriting assignments and settled permanently in California.

Lehman's scripts defy easy categorization. Some, like Executive Suite and Sweet Smell of Success, serve as exposés of the business world. Others, such as Sabrina and Somebody up There Likes Me, offer uplifting stories of underdogs who achieve beyond their dreams. Still others—most notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Portnoy's Complaint—are adaptations of gripping works of literature that explore serious and complicated themes. It was the 1959 Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest, however, that elevated Lehman into screenwriting's top echelon. The original story involves a New York advertising executive (played in the film by Cary Grant) who is abducted in a case of mistaken identity. The character escapes his kidnappers but almost loses his life in the process as he must outwit and outrun the tenacious and imaginative criminals. Roddick declared North by Northwest Lehman's "finest work, a model of screenplay construction as well as a fine piece of dramatic writing."

In addition to his dramas, Lehman adapted quite a number of musicals for the screen. Most went on to be huge commercial successes, from the 1956 film The King and I, starring Yul Brynner—which won four of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated—to the immensely popular The Sound of Music, which won an Academy Award for best picture in 1964. The author scored another hit with his West Side Story, which Roddick characterized as "a great deal more than a simple adaptation…. [The changes give] bite to the movie, balancing the tendency for it to become an overly sentimental love story with a downbeat setting."

In some respects Lehman's career reached an apex in the mid-1960s, when he was acclaimed for his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. Thereafter, his productions of Hello, Dolly! and Portnoy's Complaint drew negative reviews and did little business at the box office. His last screenplay, Black Sunday, proved successful as an action-thriller based on a terrorist plot to bomb the Super Bowl. Black Sunday was released in 1977; since that time Lehman has turned his attention to other challenges.

One of those challenges has been fiction, including the suspense-filled novel The French Atlantic Affair. Lehman's screenwriting experience is reflected in this work: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the movie rights before the book was even released, and it was eventually made into a television miniseries. A synopsis of the plot reveals its adaptability to the screen. The story follows two unemployed aerospace engineers and their partners in crime—seventy-four married couples—as they attempt to "shipjack" a France-bound ocean liner and demand thirty-five million dollars in ransom. While the three thousand other passengers are unaware of the scheme, the conspirators promise authorities they'll bomb the ship within forty-eight hours if their demands aren't met. When an irate wife complains to the ship's captain about her husband's smuggled ham radio, the ship's crew is able to renew its communication with land. Eventually, the plot spans the Atlantic as the presidents of France and the United States, the French police, the U.S. Navy, French and American media personalities, and an American think tank work to avoid the looming disaster.

Lehman's second novel, Farewell Performance, appeared in 1982, and was followed by a collection of Lehman's columns from American Film, titled Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town. From 1983 to 1985 Lehman served as president of the Writers Guild of America, West. In 1986 he wrote the screenplay for a film titled I Am Zorba, but the project was abandoned before the film was made. In 1987, 1988, and 1990, Lehman wrote and coordinated the 59th, 60th, and 62nd Academy Awards shows on ABCTV.

Lehman continued to write in the 1990s, producing a satirical article in the Los Angeles magazine, and adapting Noel Coward's Hay Fever for film, but the film was never made. He also worked on an original screenplay, Dancing in the Dark, and an autobiography, both not yet published.

Lehman's collected papers are archived at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection includes business and personal correspondence, early short stories and articles, outlines and successive drafts of screenplays, typescripts, proofs, technical drawings, publicity materials, and newspaper articles by and about Lehman.



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, 1927-1973, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 1974, pp. 188-195.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 44: American Screenwriters, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 157-165.

Ernest Lehman: An American Film Institute Seminar on His Work, Microfilming Corporation of America (Glen Rock, NJ), 1977.

Taylor, John Russell, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1978, published as Hitch: The Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock, Faber (London, England), 1978.


American Film, October, 1976, pp. 33-48.

Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1977.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 7, 1977.

Cosmopolitan, July, 1975, pp. 168-171, 182.

Denver Post, September 18, 1977.

Houston Chronicle, August 8, 1977.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1977.

Newsweek, April 4, 1977.

New York Times, October 30, 1983.

New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1977.

Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, November 13, 1977.

Saturday Review, April 30, 1977.

Sight and Sound, winter, 1967-1968, pp. 26-27.

Times (London, England), December 30, 1969.


Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, http://www.oscars.org/ (May 28, 2003), "73rd Annual Academy Awards, Honorary Award."

Curtain Up, http://www.curtainup.com/ (May 28, 2003), Elyse Sommer, review of Sweet Smell of Success.

Ernest Lehman Collection, http://hrc.utexas.edu/ (May 28, 2003).

MSN Entertainment, http://entertainment.msn.com/ (May 28, 2003), "Ernest Lehman."

Overlook Press, http://www.overlookpress.com/ (May 28, 2003), "Fiction, The Sweet Smell of Success."

Writers Guild of America, http://www.wga.org/ (May 28, 2003), articles about the author.

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