David Stevens, Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter on 'Breaker Morant,' Dies at 77

Courtesy of Chris Rudsdale
David Stevens

The writer-director also adapted his play 'The Sum of Us' into a film starring Russell Crowe and co-authored a novel with 'Roots' legend Alex Haley.

David Stevens, the screenwriter who shared an Oscar nomination for the landmark 1980 Australian historical drama Breaker Morant, has died. He was 77.

Stevens died Tuesday of cancer in hospice in Whangarei, New Zealand, his partner, Loren Boothby, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Stevens also adapted his play The Sum of Us into a 1994 Australian Film Institute-winning movie starring Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson and directed the five-hour 1981 romantic miniseries A Town Like Alice, featuring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown.

Stevens wrote the 1996 telefilm The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years and received an Emmy nomination for his writing on the 1988 miniseries Merlin, starring Sam Neill as the legendary medieval magician.

When Breaker Morant was released in 1980, the Australian film industry was in the middle of its New Wave — a resurgence that received particular attention around the world.

The film, directed by Bruce Beresford, who also helped adapt Kenneth G. Ross' 1978 stage play, depicted the true story of three lieutenants court-martialed in 1902 for murdering Boer prisoners and a German missionary.

Breaker Morant, starring Thompson, Brown and Edward Woodward, raked in 10 AFI Awards, including best screenplay, director and picture. On Oscar night, however, the screenwriters lost to Ordinary People's Alvin Sargent.

For The Sum of Us, Stevens captured the comfortable relationship between a widower and his gay son. It played off-Broadway, helmed by Kevin Dowling and starring Tony Goldwyn and Richard Venture, before Dowling co-directed the big-screen adaptation with Geoff Burton.

Stevens was particularly proud of Mama Flora's Family, a 1997 historical novel he co-wrote with Roots author Alex Haley. The multigeneration epic covering a half-century of African-American history received an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work, fiction.

Stevens and Carol Schreder then turned it into a two-part CBS miniseries the following year that starred Cicely Tyson.

After Haley's death in 1992, Stevens was commissioned to complete his novel Queen: The Story of an American Family. That, too, became a CBS miniseries, Alex Haley's Queen, starring Halle Berry in 1993.

Born on Dec. 22, 1940, in Tiberias, Palestine, Stevens began a love for the theater after he witnessed an English pantomime, and he appeared in a play in Jerash, Jordan. While emigrating to Australia in the 1960s, his boat was diverted to New Zealand; he decided to stay and gained experience working in radio and in television drama departments.

In the early '70s, Stevens completed his journey to Australia and joined powerhouse Crawford Productions, becoming the go-to writer and director for popular crime shows like Division 4, Matlock Police, Cop Shop, Solo One, Bluey and Homicide.

His directing résumé included the comedy The Clinic (1982), set in a venereal disease clinic in Melbourne, and the nostalgic Undercover (1984), about the early years of Australian lingerie manufacturer Berlei.

Stevens' final film as a director was the romantic drama Kansas (1988), starring Matt Dillon.

In addition to Boothby, survivors include his sisters Eve and Maureen.