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Rebel Without a Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern died on Feb. 2 at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital after battling a brain tumor, the Writers Guild of America, West announced on Friday. He was 92.
A family statement cited by the WGAW said that Stern was “surrounded by the next generation of filmmakers and screenwriters he had mentored and inspired, as well as friends and family who came from all parts of the country for a two-week vigil before his death.”
Stern earned Oscar nominations for Teresa (1952) and Rachel, Rachel (1969) and an Emmy Award for Sally Field‘s 1976 multi-personality hit Sybil. He was close friends with Rebel star James Dean; Paul Newman, whom he fought to cast in 1956’s The Rack; and Marlon Brando, for whom he wrote the WGA Award-nominated 1963 film The Ugly American. (Stern earned four WGA noms and one win, for 1978’s A Christmas to Remember.)
When he first met the standoffish Dean, Stern bonded with him by mooing like a cow. Delighted, Dean mooed right back (which his character also does in the Planetarium scene in Rebel Without a Cause) in an impromptu competition to imitate farm animals. “That’s what got me the job writing Rebel,” Stern told THR for a 2013 article that explained how Dean wound up starring in the epochal film instead of Brando, who auditioned for it.
“I grew sick to death of talking about nothing but movies and being part of a community where film was more important than anything else in life — and where the movies became more and more about other movies and less and less about real life,” Stern told Baer. “Writing on assignment, with lots of money handed to you before you even began, got very scary for me,” he told Berson. “My dread of not being perfect, something I got from a childhood surrounded by powerful, successful people, began to infect everything I wrote.” He developed writer’s block and quit accepting assignments.
At age 60, Stern found happiness by marrying Marilee Stiles, a ballerina discovered by George Balanchine. An analysand like the sensitive Stern, she suffered from dissociative identity disorder (the Sybil illness) and, like him, dealt with her issues in art: The New York Times hailed her as “one of the most interesting of contemporary outsider artists to emerge in recent years.”
When she got a job teaching at Seattle’s Balanchine-inspired Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Sterns sold their Mandeville Canyon home and moved to Seattle permanently. “I’m happier here in Seattle because I’m involved in real things, like my work at the zoo helping the gorillas,” Stern told Baer.
But Stern remained influential in movies, teaching writing at the University of Washington and The Film School, which he founded with Tom Skerritt, Warren Etheredge and Robert Redford protege Rick Stevenson, who cast Hugh Grant in his first film, Privileged. “He was my Yoda,” says Stevenson of Stern, who taught more than 1,000 screenwriters in Seattle while continuing to write his own scripts.
“Actors loved and depended on him,” says Ireland, “smart directors loved him — apparently he drove a few of them batty with detail — but bottom line, he worked for the same people more than once. His legacy in this industry is celebrated with every viewing of one of his wonderful films.”
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