Ernest Lehman (Ernest Paul Lehman)

Ernest Lehman

Ernest Lehman was born to a Jewish family in New York City, the son of Gertrude (Thorn) and Paul E. Lehman. He was from a wealthy Jewish Long Island family whose fortunes were seriously affected by the Great Depression. Upon his graduation from College of the City of New York (The City College of New York), Lehman became a freelance writer. Lehman felt that freelancing was a “very nervous way to make a living” so he began writing copy for a publicity firm which focused on plays and celebrities. This experience helped form the basis of his 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, which he co-wrote with Clifford Odets. Lehman wrote many short stories and novellas for magazines like Colliers, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. These attracted the attention of Hollywood and in the mid-1950s Paramount Pictures signed him to a writing contract. His first film, Executive Suite, was a success and he was asked to collaborate on the romantic comedy Sabrina, which also became a hit. Some of his most visible contributions to the Hollywood canon are the screenplay adaptations of West Side Story and the mega-hit film version of The Sound of Music. Lehman held amateur radio callsign K6DXK. He was an active member of the Bel Air Repeater Association. In 1958, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had hired Hitchcock to make a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Collaborating with Lehman, Hitchcock gave the studio North by Northwest instead. One of Lehman’s only original screenplays, the film starred Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a group of menacing spies (led by James Mason and Martin Landau). Lehman later said he intended North by Northwest to be “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” The writing process took Lehman an entire year, including several periods of writer’s block as well as a trip to Mount Rushmore to do research for the film’s climax.

North by Northwest was one of Lehman’s greatest triumphs in Hollywood and a huge hit for Hitchcock. For his efforts, Lehman received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a 1960 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. In addition to screenwriting, Lehman tried his hand at producing, and was among a distinct few in Hollywood who had faith in a film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He managed to persuade studio executive Jack L. Warner to allow him to take on the project, and the stark film was a critical sensation, garnering many Academy Award nominations. Lehman was nominated for an Academy Award for 1969’s Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand. In 1972, Portnoy’s Complaint, based on the novel by Philip Roth, was the first and only film Lehman directed. Later, the 1976 screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot earned Lehman a second Edgar Award. By 1979, Lehman had stopped writing screenplays aside from some television projects, turning down offers to write for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. Lehman did complete adapted screenplays for two never-made films, one an adaptation of the Noël Coward classic Hay Fever, another a musical version of Zorba the Greek envisioned for director Robert Wise and actors Anthony Quinn and John Travolta. In 1977, Lehman published the bestselling novel The French Atlantic Affair, about a group of unemployed, middle-class Americans who hijack a French cruise ship for a $35 million ransom. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 1979. Lehman died at UCLA Medical Center after a prolonged illness and was buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

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  • December, 08, 1915
  • USA
  • New York, New York


  • July, 02, 2005
  • USA
  • Los Angeles, California


  • Westwood Memorial Park
  • Los Angeles, California
  • USA

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