Alvin Sargent, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter of 'Julia' and 'Ordinary People,' Dies at 92

Alvin Sargent - Getty - H 2018
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His sterling career also included 'Paper Moon,' 'The Sterile Cuckoo,' 'What About Bob?' and three Spider-Man movies.

Alvin Sargent, the master of the adapted screenplay who won Oscars for Julia and Ordinary People in a fabled career that ran the gamut from Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to The Amazing Spider-Man, has died. He was 92.

Sargent died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Seattle, friend and producer Pam Williams (Lee Daniels' The Butler) told The Hollywood Reporter. She was partners with his late wife, Laura Ziskin.

Sargent had an uncanny knack for taking books and plays and transforming them into crisp screenplays that burst to life on the big screen.

The Philadelphia native landed the first of his three Academy Award nominations by bringing Joe David Brown's 1971 novel Addie Pray to theaters as Paper Moon (1973), directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Tatum O'Neal, its 10-year old star, became the youngest actor to win an Oscar when she was honored for her portrayal of the book's title character.

John Frankenheimer's I Walk the Line (1970), Sargent's adaptation of Madison Jones' 1967 novel An Exile, gave Gregory Peck one of his edgiest roles. Paul Newman tapped the screenwriter to take Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) to the screen. Newman directed and his wife, Joanne Woodward, starred.

His other adaptations included the Dustin Hoffman crime drama Straight Time (1978), based on an Edward Bunker novel; Nuts, the 1987 Barbra Streisand thriller taken from Tom Topor's play; the Danny DeVito-starring Other People's Money, the screen adaptation of a Jerry Sterner play; and Unfaithful, the 2002 remake of Claude Chabrol's La Femme Infidele that featured Richard Gere and Diane Lane.

For 25 years, Sargent was the life partner of writer-producer Ziskin, and the couple collaborated on the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? (1991) and the drama Hero (1992), starring Hoffman. They married in 2010, a year before she lost her battle to breast cancer.

Sargent's career breakthrough came with one of his first film efforts, an adaptation of the 1965 John Nichols novel The Sterile Cuckoo (1969).

"I became involved in the movie business because of Alvin Sargent," former Paramount president and producer David Paul Kirkpatrick (The Evening StarBig Night) wrote in a 2011 tribute. "I remember seeing [Sterile Cuckoo] as a teenager and being tremulous, largely due to a 'peel the tomato' scene that lasted 10 minutes between the romantic leads [Liza Minnelli, who would receive an Oscar nomination for her work, and Wendell Burton].

"The story was about a college romance in New England. It was filled with sexual tension that finally burst in this funny, sad, secular humanist scene of a first lovemaking experience. After a kinetic series of cuts in the first half of the movie, the scene…plays in one [almost] continuous master."

Julia (1977), the Holocaust drama starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, was based on the personal writings of Lillian Hellman. Best picture winner Ordinary People (1980), the gut-wrenching look at a family falling apart after a tragedy, was adapted from a novel by Judith Guest.

J.J. Abrams often cites Ordinary People, which starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, as the inspiration for 1991's Regarding Henry, the screenplay that jump-started his career.

"I realize the blank page is a magic box, you know? It needs to be filled with something fantastic," Abrams said in 2007. "I used to have the Ordinary People script that I'd flip through. The romance was amazing to me; it would inspire me. I wanted to try to fill pages with the same kind of spirit and thought and emotion that that script did."

Kirkpatrick said one of his fondest memories as a young filmmaker was reading an early version of Sargent's screenplay for Bobby Deerfield (1977). Based on Erich Maria Remarque's 1961 novel Heaven Has No Favorites, it tells the tale of an American race car driver (Al Pacino) who finds success on the European circuit as he falls in love with a terminally ill Belgian woman (Marthe Keller). 

"I was standing in the office of Ray Wagner, who was then production chief at MGM," Kirkpatrick wrote. "I will never forget Wagner talking about the beauty of an original screenplay he had just read by Alvin Sargent that the studio was considering. He called Sargent ‘the prince of gentle writing.'"

Toward the end of his career, Sargent took on a unique challenge: adapting the story of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. He penned the screenplays for Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007), both starring Tobey Maguire as the web-slinger, and did a rewrite on The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), featuring Andrew Garfield in the title role. For that last one, he shared screenwriting credit with James Vanderbilt and Steve Kloves.

Sargent's efforts were widely hailed for capturing the nuances of the character that made the Marvel comic book so popular. 

"Now this is what a superhero movie should be," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 2004 film. "Spider-Man 2 believes in its story in the same way serious comic readers believe, when the adventures on the page express their own dreams and wishes. It's not camp and it's not nostalgia, it's not wall-to-wall special effects, and it's not pickled in angst. It's simply and poignantly a realization that being Spider-Man is a burden that Peter Parker is not entirely willing to bear."

Alvin Supowitz was born April 12, 1927. His older brother, Herb, was a TV writer and producer best known for his work on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live (he died in 2005). Their father was a feed salesman who committed suicide in his early 40s.

Sargent attended Upper Darby High School outside Philadelphia but dropped out during World War II to join the U.S. Navy. As he revealed during a 2008 interview with the Writers Guild Foundation, Sargent made the move to ensure he would get a diploma. "If you quit high school during the war and your grades were not very good and you're not even going to graduate, they graduate you," he said. 

While in the service, Sargent learned a skill that would lead to his celebrated career — typing. "It never occurred to me to be a screenwriter, or any kind of a writer, or anything, actually. I never had a plan," he said. "I learned to type. That was my one skill. After I got out, I took jobs to earn a living. But my one passion was typing."

After the war, Sargent moved to Los Angeles and waited tables, delivered for a clothing company and drove props around for CBS. For a brief time, he attended UCLA, then decided to give acting a shot, joining The Circle Theatre, an L.A. troupe that included William Schallert, Jerry Epstein, Kathleen Freeman and Sydney Earl Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son.

(Sargent remembered appearing in a production of Rain that starred June Havoc. His brother worked the rain machine, and Charlie Chaplin was the director.)

He then took to selling ads for Variety. One day, Sargent received a phone call from casting director Maxwell Arnow, who wanted him to play a soldier in From Here to Eternity (1953). He got a few days off, flew to Hawaii and appeared as Nair in the best picture winner directed by Fred Zinnemann. (More than two decades later, Zinnemann would direct Julia, Sargent's first Oscar win.) 

Sargent toiled as an ad salesman for the next seven years while he wrote in his spare time. "I started writing dialogue," he said. "People talking to each other — that's what I called it."

Through a friend, his work made its way to an agent who got Sargent a job as a story editor on the 1961-62 ABC series Bus Stop. It didn't take him long to realize that he knew nothing about being a story editor, and he was fired. But as the year ran down, he landed another gig, revising a Ben Casey script after the original writer had left for Christmas. 

Sargent then forged a career in dramatic television, turning out scripts for Naked CityEmpireRoute 66Mr. Novak and Run for Your Life. In 1964, he wrote "The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow," a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that saw the title character (Patricia Collinge) and her cat locked in a safe by her niece's fiance.

Sargent credited Naked City producers Leo Davis and Herbert Leonard, among others, for helping him grow. "These guys were fantastic," he said in his Writers Guild Foundation chat. "They worked with you. And you really learned how to put stuff together."

Sargent graduated to features in 1966 with Gambit, a breezy caper comedy starring Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, and he went on to write other films like Dominick and Eugene (1988), White Palace (1990), Bogus (1996) and Anywhere But Here (1999). 

From 1953 to 1974, Sargent was married to actress Joan Camden (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). She died in 2000. They had two daughters, Amanda and Jennifer. Survivors also include his stepdaughter, Julia; grandchildren Anna, Olivia, Lillian and Oliver; and a great-grandson, Lawrence.

He was quoted as saying, "When I die, I'm going to have written on my tombstone, 'Finally, a plot.'"

A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles at a date to be announced. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to Stand Up to Cancer, which Ziskin co-founded in 2008.