(b. 9 June 1922 in New York City; d. 21 June 2003 in Los Angeles, California), playwright, screenwriter, director, and producer who satirized the conventions of sexual conduct in the 1950s and the manner in which men and women were stifled by them.
Axelrod was the son of Herman Axelrod, a realtor, and, Betty Carpenter, a silent-screen actress. Axelrod dropped out of high school and in 1940 and 1941 secured work as an actor and stage manager in summer stock. From his earliest days, Axelrod was an insatiable reader. He began writing for radio, writing scripts for the melodrama Manhattan at Midnight (1940). On 28 February 1942 Axelrod married Gloria Washburn, and the couple had two children.
During World War II Axelrod served three years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He then returned to New York City to continue his writing career. Axelrod estimated that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he worked on more than 400 radio and television scripts. Radio credits ranged from The Shadow (1936–1954) to the Grand Ole Opry. In television Axelrod wrote for The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue (1950), a variety hour, and Celebrity Time (1948–1952), a quiz show. During this period Axelrod wrote two novels, Beggar’s Choice (1947) and Blackmailer (1952); contributed sketches to Small Wonder (1948), a theatrical revue; and wrote a short musical, All About Love (1951), that was performed in nightclubs.
From a young age, Axelrod was fascinated by the stage and hung around Broadway theaters, mingling with the crowd during intermissions and sneaking in to see second and third acts. He later found his first success in the New York theater when he wrote two popular plays, both featuring ingenuous female characters who oozed sexuality, much to the confusion and frustration of the men around them. The first was The Seven Year Itch (1952), a 1,141-performance Broadway hit in which a married Manhattanite chases a sexy young neighbor while his family is away in the country.
In June 1954 George and Gloria Axelrod were divorced. That October, Axelrod wed Joan Stanton. The couple had two children and remained together until Joan’s death on 13 September 2001.
The acclaim Axelrod received for The Seven Year Itch led to his first Hollywood screenplay, Phffft! (1954), a sex comedy. Next Axelrod and Billy Wilder adapted The Seven Year Itch (1955) for the screen. Tom Ewell recreated his stage role, and Marilyn Monroe was a memorable presence as the sex object. Upon the release of the film, Axelrod lamented that the amorous overtones of the play, including the sexual union between the two characters, had to be deleted from the script on the order of Hollywood censors.
Axelrod’s Broadway follow-up was Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955), a Hollywood satire in which a naive writer barters his soul to a satanic agent in exchange for fame and the love of a Marilyn Monroe–like screen goddess played by Monroe clone Jayne Mansfield. The play enjoyed a healthy run of 444 performances.
Axelrod returned to the movies with an adaptation of William Inge’s Bus Stop (1956), which gave Marilyn Monroe her best-ever dramatic acting role, a chanteuse who becomes the love object of a cowboy. The director-writer Frank Tashlin, rather than Axelrod, wrote the screen version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Axelrod refused to see the film, claiming it had nothing in common with his play. He then returned to Broadway to produce Gore Vidal’s comedy Visit to a Small Planet (1957) and to direct the Harry Kurnitz satire of the music world Once More, with Feeling (1958). Axelrod wrote the screenplay of the Max Shulman novel Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) but disassociated himself from the film after it was altered by the director Leo McCarey. Axelrod closed the 1950s with one final playwriting effort, Goodbye Charlie (1959), in which a Hollywood lothario is murdered and returns to earth as a female bombshell with a male libido. Goodbye Charlie lasted just 109 performances. Axelrod did not write the 1964 screen version.
Axelrod began the 1960s by adapting to the screen the Truman Capote novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The heroine, Holly Golightly, was yet another sexual creature who fascinates yet frustrates men. Axelrod earned his sole Academy Award nomination for the film, but he was dissatisfied with director Blake Edwards’s handling of the script. Axelrod left New York for Los Angeles so that he could be in closer contact with the powers-that-be in Hollywood. He became the highest-paid screenwriter of the 1960s.
Axelrod veered from male-female relations with his adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a cutting-edge cold war satire-thriller involving brainwashing, political paranoia, McCarthyism, and a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate. Axelrod also coproduced the film, which disappeared from movie and television screens after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Upon its 1987 theatrical re-release, The Manchurian Candidate was hailed as a classic.
Axelrod returned to the subject of sex with his next two projects, Paris When It Sizzles (1964) and How to Murder Your Wife (1965), which he wrote and coproduced. Neither film was successful. Axelrod then directed, wrote, and produced an inspired creation, Lord Love a Duck (1966), a zany satire of Southern California lifestyles.
Axelrod returned to Broadway one last time to direct the Neil Simon comedy Star-Spangled Girl (1966). He made one final stab at producing and directing his own screenplay with The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968), a sex farce, and wrote one last novel, Where Am I Now—When I Need Me? (1971). Axelrod’s final film scripts were unmemorable thrillers: a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1979), The Holcroft Covenant (1985), and The Fourth Protocol (1987). Axelrod died of heart failure in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea.
The 1950s was a time in which American women were expected to ooze sexuality yet cling to their virginity until their wedding nights. Men could ogle these women and even woo them with chaste kisses, but they only could touch them after leading them to the altar. In his plays and screenplays, Axelrod lampooned what he viewed as the silliness of such conventions. His most successful plays, the farcical The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, were precursors of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
An extensive interview with Axelrod appears in Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1960s(1997). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post (both 22 June 2003) and the New York Times (23 June 2003).