Ronald Harwood, 'The Pianist' Screenwriter, Dies at 85

Sir Ronald Harwood
Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Sir Ronald Harwood

The Oscar-winning British scribe also wrote the screenplays for 'The Dresser,' 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' and 'Quartet.'

Sir Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-winning British screenwriter of The Pianist and films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Dresser and Quartet, has died. He was 85.

His agent, Judy Daish, told the BBC that Harwood died Tuesday of natural causes.

Harwood wrote the script for Roman Polanski's World War II drama The Pianist, which won him the 2003 Academy Award for adapted screenplay. He was nominated for the adapted screenplay Oscar on two other occasions, for 1983's The Dresser and 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Highly regarded in Hollywood for his film work, Harwood in his native Britain was known as one of the country's most prominent dramatists as well as an author of several novels. "Films I do for the money," Harwood told the Guardian in a 2016 interview. "It is very good money, no question about it. And we are overpaid — of course we are overpaid — but still, I don’t complain. But writing for the theater is the thing I’ve loved doing most, because it’s about language; relationships and language."

Born Ronald Horwitz in South Africa in 1934, he came to the U.K. in the '50s to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. (He anglicized his name while living in Britain.)

Harwood worked in theater for a number of years before moving into writing, and his first novel, All the Same Shadows, was published in 1961. His first screenplay was for 1962's Private Potter; the film starred Tom Courtenay, with whom Harwood would collaborate on several other projects. On the stage, Harwood's March Hares was first performed in 1964.

Harwood is perhaps best known for his play The Dresser, which debuted in London's West End in 1980 and transferred to Broadway a year later. The story of an aging Shakespearean actor and his personal assistant, or dresser, and their complex relationship, it was based on Harwood's experience as a dresser for the actor Sir Donald Wolfit.

The original production of The Dresser starred Courtenay as Norman and Freddie Jones as "Sir." The Broadway version, which ran for 200 performances, saw Courtenay return alongside Paul Rogers. In 1983, The Dresser was adapted for the screen by Harwood, with the film starring Albert Finney and Courtenay. A critical hit, it was nominated for five Oscars: Courtenay and Finney for best actor, Harwood for adapted screenplay, Peter Yates for best director and the movie for best picture.

The Dresser also has been adapted for radio and most recently for television in 2015 by the BBC in a critically acclaimed production with Anthony Hopkins as "Sir" and Ian McKellan as Norman.

On the enduring popularity of The Dresser, Harwood told the Guardian: "I have no idea what its lasting appeal is, I really don’t. It was my first big success, of course, and I do love it and am very proud of it, but I am puzzled by its popularity. I am still proud of the relationships and feeling within the play, it is a play about emotion; it’s not a play about the brain, it’s about the heart. and that’s what I like."

His other notable plays included the 1995 Nazi drama Taking Sides and Quartet, a 1999 comedy-drama about aging opera singers in a retirement home for musicians (both have been adapted into films). The 2012 adaptation of Quartet marked Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut and starred Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly.

Though screenwriting was a secondary career, Harwood was nonetheless prolific. He wrote for Mike Figgis' The Browing Version (1994), the Apartheid drama Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), Norman Jewison's The Statement (2003), the Annette Bening-Jeremy Irons starrer Being Julia (2004), Polanski's adaptation of Oliver Twist (2005), Mike Newell's Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) and Baz Luhrmann's big-budget spectacular Australia (2008).

Harwood received a number of international accolades and awards . The U.K. awarded him an O.B.E. in 1999 and a knighthood in 2010 for services to drama. The French government made him a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996 and he received numerous honorary doctorates.

Harwood's wife, Natasha, died in 2013. He is survived by their children Antony, Deborah and Alexandra.