Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Alvin Sargent, Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter, dies at 92

  • Robert D McFadden, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-05-12 14:30:41 BdST

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Alvin Sargent, right, with the producers Avi Arad, left, and Laura Ziskin at the premiere of “Spider-Man 2” in Westwood, Calif, in 2004. The New York Times

Alvin Sargent, the veteran Hollywood screenwriter who won an Oscar for his gripping portrayal of breakdowns lurking under the surface of an affluent but guilt-ridden family in Robert Redford’s 1980 film “Ordinary People,” died Thursday in Seattle. He was 92.

The death was confirmed by his daughter Amanda Sargent.

Sargent also won an Academy Award for his script for “Julia,” Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 film, with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, based on a chapter in Lillian Hellman’s memoir “Pentimento,” about her friendship with a woman who died fighting the Nazis in the years leading up to World War II.

One of Hollywood’s most versatile writers, Sargent, who adapted screenplays from books and stories, wrote or collaborated on scores of television and film scripts over six decades: comedies, dramas, Westerns, romances, even Spider-Man adventures. He also wrote the original screenplay for Alan Pakula’s 1973 bittersweet comedy, “Love and Pain and the Whole Damned Thing.”

But he was best known for “Ordinary People,” his treatment of Judith Guest’s 1976 novel about a family whose idolised older son has drowned in a boating accident. Tormented by survivor’s guilt, his brother (Timothy Hutton) attempts suicide. The mother (Mary Tyler Moore), in denial, clings to an illusion that everything is fine, as the passive father (Donald Sutherland) and a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) try to mediate the mess.

“Ordinary People” won three other 1981 Oscars: for best picture, best direction by Redford and best supporting actor for Hutton. Moore was nominated for best actress and Hirsch for best supporting actor. The picture also won six Golden Globe Awards and critical acclaim.

Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it “a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them,” adding: “The real achievement of Robert Redford, who makes his directorial debut in ‘Ordinary People,’ and of Alvin Sargent, who meticulously adapted Miss Guest’s novel for the screen, is that the Jarretts become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronised or satirised.”

Sargent was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for “Paper Moon” (1973), Peter Bogdanovich’s film about a couple of Depression-era con artists posing as father and daughter. The screenplay was adapted from Joe David Brown’s novel “Addie Pray,” and starred the father-daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Roger Ebert, the critic, gave the film his top rating.

Sargent was the younger brother of Herbert Sargent, a television writer and a producer of NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, and “Saturday Night Live,” for which he and Chevy Chase created “Weekend Update,” the show’s longest-running sketch. Like Herbert, Alvin changed his surname from Supowitz to Sargent when he began earning writing credits.

“It’s an easier name to sell in Hollywood,” Sargent said in an interview for this obituary. “I never saw a script until 1952 when my agent got me a small acting job and handed me a plane ticket to Hawaii and a copy of ‘From Here to Eternity.’ I read it on the plane. It was beautiful.”

Sargent played the soldier who tells Pvt Robert E Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) that his buddy, Pvt Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra), is being beaten nightly by the brig commander, Fatso (Ernest Borgnine). Sargent also played one of the victims strafed at Schofield Barracks as enemy planes attacked Pearl Harbour.

Sargent soon forgot his un-credited role, but not Daniel Taradash’s screenplay, which won an Oscar, one of eight conferred on Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 movie.

In the early 1960s, Sargent broke into television script writing and created episodes of “Ben Casey,” a hospital series, and “Naked City,” a police drama, both on ABC; “Route 66,” the CBS series; and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” thrillers on NBC. In 1966, he shared his first screenwriting credit for “Gambit,” about a cat burglar’s escapades, starring Michael Caine.

Sargent’s screenplay for Paul Newman’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (1972), adapted from Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize play about a widow (Joanne Woodward) and two daughters struggling with poverty and emotional fragility, was warmly received by Stephen Farber in a review in The Times.

“Sargent and Newman have made some miscalculations,” he said, “but they have succeeded in liberating the material from the confines of the stage, and they have intelligently refashioned the play, retaining its best qualities — the insights into character, the strong sense of family — and eliminating some of its melodramatic excesses.”

Late in his career, Sargent wrote four “Spider-Man” films, devoting years to the Marvel Comics hero who is the alter-ego of Peter Parker, a photographer and aspiring scientist imbued with superhuman powers after being bitten by a radioactive, genetically altered spider. He battles villains like the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman and the Lizard.

Sargent was un-credited for “Spider-Man” (2002), whose rights were acquired by Sony Pictures Entertainment (Columbia Pictures) with restrictions. But he was credited for “Spider-Man 2” (2004), and with collaborators for “Spider-Man 3” (2007), and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). All were produced by Laura Ziskin, Sargent’s longtime companion and wife.

The screenwriter was born Alvin Supowitz in Philadelphia on April 27, 1927, the younger of two sons of Isaac Supowitz and the former Esther Kadansky. His father, who sold hay and grains, killed himself in 1941, when his sons were teenagers. Both boys graduated from Upper Darby High School, Alvin, in 1945. After three years in the Navy, he worked as a waiter, truck driver and part-time actor.

He and Joan Creears, an actress who used the stage name Joan Camden, were married in 1953. Besides Amanda, they had another daughter, Jennifer, and were divorced in 1975. In 2010, he married Ziskin, who died in 2011. Herbert Sargent died in 2005. In addition to Amanda and Jennifer, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Julia Barry.

Like other screenwriters in Hollywood, where thousands of scripts are submitted but only a relative few are chosen for production, Sargent often mused about the search for good stories.

“When I die,” he liked to say, “I’m going to have written on my tombstone, ‘Finally, a plot!’”

 

©2019 New York Times News Service