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Ernest Lehman Edit Profile


Ernest Lehman was an American screenwriter.


Lehman, Ernest was born on December 8, 1915 in New York City.


He went to City College in New York, and then he worked for a while for a show business publicity agency. That’s where he saw and heard the world of Sweet Smell of Success (57, Alexander Mackendrick), which began life as a novella by Lehman and grew eventually into a screenplay where he shared credit with Clifford Odets. The novella and other short stories won offers from Hollvwood—one story sold in the late forties and became The Inside Story (48, Allan Dwan).


Lehman was in Hollywood by the early fifties, where John Houseman found him “prickly but stimulating,” loved his work, and hired him for Executive Suite (54, Robert Wise). Next, he had a baptism of fire-by-collaboration, working with Billy Wilder on Sabrina (54). For The Ling and I (56, Walter Lang), he displayed a very different talent, that of taking a war-horse from one medium and making it work in another. The script for Somebody Up There Likes Me (56, Wise) is Lehman’s favorite, because he felt he had got at things left unsaid in boxer Rocky Grazianos autobiography.

As years pass, nothing dates in Sweet Smell of Success: the vision of ordinary corruption is still as fresh as a warm corpse. The only tiling blurrv in die film—the bond between Hunsecker and his kid sister—was always blurry. It is a terrific and important movie, with fabulous dialogue.

Lehman then did North by Northwest (59, Alfred Hitchcock), his only original script. No one ever found Hitchcock an easy master, but Lehman handled him very well, no matter how frustrated he felt. The end product is a sublime mix of farce, chase, and layered character—the sense of Grant’s advertising man as a kid who has to find maturity in a hurry is marvelously embedded in the headlong action. Only movies could make such gos-samer seem as solid as American distance.

From the Terrace (60, Mark Robson) was strictly routine; and West Side Stony (61, Wise and Jerome Robbins) was a test case for not getting in the way. The Prize (63, Robson) is a very entertaining movie.

At this point, Lehman negotiated his hot record into the job of writer-producer and he deserves great credit for turning a potential menagerie into the verv effective Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (66, Mike Nichols). He then wrote and produced the successful but hardly interesting Hello. Dolly! (69, Gene Kellv). Failure came in large and loud with Portnoy’s Complaint (72), which he also directed personally. In hindsight, Lehman admitted that he had missed the quality of Philip Roth’s book by selecting onlv a part of it for film.

His only other credits are Family Plot (76, Hitchcock), a fascinating idea that doesn't click; and Black Sunday (77, John Frankenheimer), a knockout setup that didn't win an audience.

Since then, Lehman has worked as a novelist and was a columnist for American Film magazine in the late seventies. He was given an honorary Oscar in 2001.



Member Writers Guild American West (president 1983-1985).


Around the age of sixty, Ernest Lehman seemed to have stopped doing scripts. Of course, he may have been writing away (like Bills Wilder) on screenplays that are smart, funny, and beautifully constructed, only to be told that no one has the patience for movies like that any more and, anyway, what does he know about what kids want? So the kids are deprived, too, and everyone misses Lehman’s subtle way of getting us to grow up.


Married Jacqueline Shapiro, 1942 (deceased 1994). Children: Roger, Alan. Married Laurie Sherman, 1997.

1 child Jonathan.