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Joyce Eliason, the Emmy-nominated writer and producer whose works include the miniseries The Last Don, Titanic and The Jacksons: An American Dream, has died. She was 87.
Eliason died Monday evening after a brief illness, according to her agent.
A prolific writer for television, Eliason had a career that spanned four decades. She was known for her work on miniseries and television movies, adapting best-selling books and biographies by the likes of Priscilla Presley and Katherine Jackson for the small screen.
Born in 1937 in a small town in Central Utah, Eliason moved to Salt Lake City and worked for TV Guide for some years. She had dreams of being an actress and at age 30, a divorced single mother with two daughters, she moved to California to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Eliason’s acting career failed to take off, but she put together some of her writing, which eventually led to screenwriting opportunities. Her first major TV writing credit came in 1972 writing for ABC’s Love, American Style, Paramount Television’s anthology comedy series. In 1974, she collection of writings, poems and letters, Fresh Meat/Warm Weather, was published and two years later her novel Laid Out was released.
In 1980, Eliason co-wrote the screenplay for Tell Me a Riddle, her first feature. Directed by Lee Grant, the film was based on the short story by Tillie Olsen. For much of the 1980s, Eliason became a writer-for-hire on television movies; her credits included Child Bride of Short Creek, A Matter of Sex, Right to Kill?, Mistress and Winnie.
Eliason wrote the 1985 TV movie Surviving: A Family in Crisis, a wrought drama that examined teen suicide and starred River Phoenix and Molly Ringwald. The film earned Eliason a nomination for the Humanitas Prize. She also adapted Presley’s 1985 best-selling autobiography Elvis and Me into the 1988 television movie of the same name that starred Dale Midkiff as Elvis and Susan Walters as Priscilla. Her 1989 TV movie Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett, would be a critical hit and earn three Emmy nominations.
She experienced her greatest success in the 1990s, notably writing and producing an adaptation of Katherine Jackson’s autobiography My Family into the five-hour ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. Charting the rise of The Jackson 5 and the later meteoric success of Michael Jackson, the series, which starred Angela Bassett as Katherine, was a huge commercial, critical and cultural hit and was watched by more than 38 million people.
Eliason found more Emmy success with the 1994 two-part CBS miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, based on the 1989 novel by Allan Gurganus and starring Cicely Tyson, Diane Lane, Anne Bancroft and Donald Sutherland.
She co-wrote the big-budget CBS miniseries Titanic that aired in 1996, a year before Titanic-mania gripped the world with the release of James Cameron’s monster film hit of the same name. Directed by Robert Lieberman, the two-part series starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Curry, Roger Rees and George C. Scott.
The following year, Eliason wrote and produced another hit, the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s mafia crime saga The Last Don for CBS, which spawned a sequel series, The Last Don II, in 1998. It starred Danny Aiello as Don Domenico Clericuzio, an aging mafia boss perpetually plagued by his plotting family.
Her other notable television credits include the 2001 Marilyn Monroe biographical miniseries Blonde, co-written with Joyce Carol Oates, and the Lifetime movies Gracie’s Choice and America.
Outside of television, Elias co-produced David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive.
Eliason is survived by her daughters, Polly and Jill Eliason, and four grandchildren.
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