Gill Dennis, Screenwriter on 'Walk the Line,' Dies at 74

Gill Dennis - H 2015
Courtesy of AFI

Gill Dennis - H 2015

A graduate of AFI’s first class, he also penned the teleplay for 'Riders of the Purple Sage,' starring Ed Harris.

Gill Dennis, who co-wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, has died. He was 74.

Dennis, who also penned Walter Murch's Return to Oz (1985) and did the teleplay for the 1996 TNT Western Riders of the Purple Sage, starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, died Wednesday night of an apparent heart attack at his home in Portland, Ore., his wife, Kristen, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Dennis was among the 18 young filmmakers — Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Caleb Deschanel among them — who were selected for the inaugural class of the AFI Center for Advanced Film Studies. He graduated in 1971, after serving as an intern on the Sam Peckinpah film The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Dennis returned to the school in 1997 as a master filmmaker-in-residence and taught the incoming class in September. 

“Though his artistry as a writer and director took him and his stories to screen and stage across the decades, he never left AFI,” AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale? said in a statement. “Always giving. Always giving back.”

Dennis also oversaw screenwriting workshops in Ireland, Portugal, Scotland and Australia during his career.

For Walk the Line, Dennis teamed with director James Mangold to adapt Johnny Cash: The Autobiography, published in 1997. The drama earned five Oscar nominations, with Reese Witherspoon winning best actress for her portrayal of June Carter.

Dennis interviewed Cash for three weeks before filming; during one session, he asked the country superstar to draw the floor plan of the house where he grew up in Arkansas.

“He sketched with a palsied hand and I watched,” Dennis said in a profile story that was published in April. “I wanted to know everything — where the sun came into the house in the morning, where he listened to the radio and where he slept.”

“He’s the best writer who doesn’t like words,” Deschanel said in the piece. “He has an understanding of how things work and finds the right way of telling you something without saying it. That’s the best way to tell a story.”

A native of Charlottesville, Va., Dennis attended Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and served in the U.S. Army before working as an uncredited writer with Murch on The Black Stallion (1979). He wrote and directed Without Evidence (1995), starring Angelina Jolie, and penned the screenplay for On My Own (1991), starring Judy Davis.

He also wrote the Showtime miniseries Home Fires, named one of the top 10 television events of 1987 by Time magazine.

Dennis played "Man With Cigar" in Eraserhead (1977), written and directed by his pal Lynch, but his scene was left on the cutting room floor.

Dennis was married to actress Elizabeth Hartman, who received an Oscar nomination in 1966 for portraying the blind teenager who becomes romantically involved with Sidney Poitier's character in A Patch of Blue. Suffering from depression, she jumped to her death in 1987, a few years after their divorce, at age 45.

Dennis wrote and directed the 1973 film Intermission, in which Hartman starred.

In addition to his wife — one of Peckinpah's daughters — survivors include sons Sam and Geoff and sisters Anne (his twin) and Mary.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

4:45 p.m. May 15: Updated with details of death supplied by his wife, Kristen.