Josh Greenfeld, 'Harry and Tonto' Screenwriter, Dies at 90

Courtesy of Karl Taro Greenfeld
Josh Greenfeld

He shared an Academy Award nomination with Paul Mazursky, and later wrote a series of books on raising an autistic child.

Josh Greenfeld, who shared an Oscar nomination with Paul Mazursky for his debut screenplay, Harry and Tonto (1974), has died. He was 90.

Greenfeld died May 11 in Los Angeles from pneumonia, his son Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist and novelist, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Greenfeld wrote two further screenplays, the powerful 1978 telemovie Lovey: A Circle of Children, Part II, starring Jane Alexander as real-life Mary MacCracken, a teacher of children with cognitive disabilities; and Oh, God! Book II (1980), with George Burns reprising his comedic title role.

A noted author and playwright, Greenfeld wrote a trilogy of books detailing the heartbreaking struggle of raising and caring for an autistic child. The first publication, 1972's A Child Called Noah, was written in journal form and is considered a landmark book in the field of autism, receiving universal praise for its honesty. “I also know I must try not to feel more sorry for myself than for Noah, but some days I forget,” Greenfeld wrote.

His subsequent publications were A Place for Noah (1978), and A Client Called Noah (1986).

Greenfeld first met Mazursky in 1953 at summer theater in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Almost 20 years later he profiled the writer-director, after his success with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, for an article in Look magazine. "What do you want to do? Do you want to do a movie?" he recalled Mazursky asking him during the interview.

Harry and Tonto told the simple story of an old man (Art Carney, in his Oscar-winning role) and his pet cat, Tonto. "We just had this story about an old guy crossing the country. Either he's got to have someone to talk to or you're going to have to have narration over it. We didn't want that. So, who is he going to talk to?" Greenfeld recalled in the 2011 book Paul on Mazursky. "You know we gave the script to James Cagney, but Cagney told Paul the script was dirty." (In the film, Harry picks up and travels with a young female hitchhiker.)

On Oscar night, the screenwriters lost to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Mazursky, who died in 2014, received five Oscar nominations during his career.

In 1976, Greenfeld adapted Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches into the Broadway play I Have a Dream, starring Billy Dee Williams as King. His other plays included Clandestine on the Morning Line, The Last Two Jews of Kabul and Canal Street. His novels included O for a Master of Magic and The Return of Mr. Hollywood, which was more than a passing nod to writer-director Mazursky. Greenfeld also wrote for major publications, including his New York Times review praising Philip Roth's 1969 novel, Portnoy's Complaint — "I know not since Catcher in the Rye have I read an American novel with such pleasure."

Greenfeld was born Feb. 27 1928, in Malden, Massachusetts. He graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Dramatic Arts in 1953. While attending MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1960, he married Japanese writer and artist Fumiko Kometani. They later moved to Japan and after the birth of their second child, Noah, returned to the U.S.

Greenfeld is survived by his wife, his two sons Karl and Noah, daughter-in-law Silka and granddaughters Esmee and Lola.