Harriet Frank Jr., the two-time Oscar nominee for Hud and Norma Rae who partnered with her husband, the late Irving Ravetch, to form one of the great screenwriting teams in Hollywood history, has died. She was 96.
Frank died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, her nephew, Michael Frank, told The New York Times.
Frank and Ravetch worked on 17 features together, including eight directed by Martin Ritt over a 32-year span and three that were adapted from William Faulkner novels. They also transformed work by Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Pat Conroy, William Inge, Pat Barker and Dale Jennings for the big screen.
The couple met as writers at MGM and “were thrown into the studio system, and we went by the seat of our pants, by instinct and by a modicum of luck and happy circumstance,” Frank told Patrick McGilligan in a 1990 interview. Her nickname was “Hank,” and she and Ravetch were married from 1946 until his death in September 2010 at age 89.
Frank and her husband’s first two collaborations with Ritt came on The Long, Hot Summer (1958), starring Paul Newman, and The Sound and the Fury (1959), starring Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward. Faulkner novels published in 1940 and 1929, respectively, served as the source material.
The trio also teamed on Hud (1963), starring Newman and Patricia Neal and based on McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By; Hombre (1967), another Newman topliner, this one adapted from Leonard’s 1961 novel; Conrack (1974), featuring Jon Voight and based on Conroy’s The Water Is Wide; the Sally Field starrers Norma Rae (1979), using an original screenplay based on the life of union organizer Crystal Lee Jordan, and Murphy’s Romance (1985), based on a Max Schott novella; and Stanley & Iris (1990), starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro and adapted from a Barker novel.
“On every single one of those pictures, we were with Marty from the preproduction and casting to the final advertising campaign,” Ravetch said in a 2003 interview. “We were also on the set every single day, and he invited us to the rushes every single morning. It was a true collaboration, and we always had a marvelous time.”
Ritt died in December 1990, 11 months after the release of Stanley & Iris. The film marked the final screen credit for Frank and Ravetch as well.
Frank was born March 2, 1923, in Portland, Oregon. Her mother, Harriett Sr., wrote magazine stories and briefly had her own radio program, and her father worked in the shoe business.
In 1939, her mom came to California and began a 15-year stint as an MGM story editor, pitching studio head Louis B. Mayer and other execs on stories she thought could be made into movies. She was a “yarn spinner,” is how a magazine described her, and she made her case “with gestures, emotion and dialogue.”
Meanwhile, Harriett Jr. attended UCLA as an English major and, thanks to her mom, was accepted into a Junior Writing Program at MGM. Ravetch was a short subject writer at the studio when they met.
“You want the story?” he asked McGilligan. “I saw this lovely creature, and she was up the hall, about 50 yards. I knew a chap in the office next to her, so I went to him and said, ‘A deal: I give you $50, you give me your office.’ He said, ‘Done and done.’ So I paid for the office next to her and courted her on L.B. Mayer’s time.”
Said Frank, “Any man who comes into your office every morning and reads you The New York Times is the man you have to marry.”
When they returned from their honeymoon, they discovered they had been fired and the Junior Writing Program had been dismantled. Frank, though, landed at Warner Bros., and she co-wrote the screenplays for Silver River (1948), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn, and Whiplash (1948), a film noir starring Dane Clark and Alexis Smith.
Frank also penned comic short stories for magazines like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and Amazing Stories while Ravetch stayed home and wrote original Western tales. “She kept me alive during the early years of our marriage,” he said.
They didn’t collaborate on scripts for many years. “He would go down the hall to one room, and I would go to another, to be confronted with two sets of problems,” Frank said. “Suddenly, one evening, we said to each other, ‘This is nonsense. Let’s try it together.’ Happily, we’ve been doing it ever since.”
They received their first dual story credits on a pair of 1955 Westerns: Ten Wanted Men, starring Randolph Scott, and Run for Cover, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Cagney.
Ravetch met Ritt, a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, in the late 1940s when the writer had a play in New York. “A producer optioned a play of mine and gave me the choice of two directors,” he said. “I picked the one who was not named Marty Ritt, and then the play turned out a terrible failure.
“Ever since then, I felt, ‘I have got to make this up’ — to myself, not to Marty. So, when I came back to L.A. and we embarked on our first major feature with [producer] Jerry Wald at Fox — The Long, Hot Summer — I recommended Marty Ritt.”
Frank and Ravetch had brought Faulkner’s 1940 novel The Hamlet to Wald. For the screenplay, the couple turned the evil Flem Snopes of the book into the romantic hero portrayed by Newman.
They also delivered Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury to Wald and The Reivers, the author’s last novel, to producer Gordon Stulberg; the latter became a 1969 Steve McQueen starrer directed by Mark Rydell. (He and the screenwriters would work again on John Wayne’s The Cowboys (1972), based on a Jennings novel.)
Many of their adaptations were “violent departures from the originals,” as was the case with The Long, Hot Summer, Ravetch noted. The Reivers, on the other hand, was “100 percent Faulkner because we found it readily adaptable to film.”
The couple also wrote the 1960 features The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, directed by Delbert Mann and based on Inge’s 1957 play, and Vincente Minnelli’s Home From the Hill, adapted from a William Humphrey novel; John Guillermin’s House of Cards (1968), a mystery starring George Peppard and Inger Stevens that was based on a Stanley Ellin novel; and Richard Fleischer’s The Spikes Gang (1974), starring Lee Marvin, from a novel by Giles Tippette.
Frank also wrote two novels published in the late ’70s, Single and Special Effects, and she and her husband received the prestigious WGA Laurel Award in 1988.
Her nephew wrote about his aunt, not very glowingly, in his 2017 memoir The Mighty Franks.