Screenwriter, Former Academy President Fay Kanin Dies

Fay Kanin Headshot - P 2013
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Fay Kanin Headshot - P 2013

UPDATED: She and her late husband, Michael, were a formidable Hollywood writing team, with credits including the delightful “Teacher’s Pet.”

Fay Kanin, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning screenwriter who brought an energetic and assertive female voice to her work, then served four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has died. She was 95.

Kanin, a New York State spelling bee champion at age 14 who with the late Michael Kanin made for one of the most popular husband-and-wife screenwriting teams in Hollywood history, died Wednesday of natural causes at her home in Santa Monica, her family said.

The Kanins shared an Oscar nom for their spunky romantic comedy Teacher’s Pet (1958), starring Clark Gable as a newspaper editor and Doris Day as a journalism teacher. Their first film collaboration, Sunday Punch (1942), about boxers living in a boarding house, was accomplished while they were on their honeymoon in Malibu.

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The Kanins also penned My Pal Gus (1952), a love story starring Richard Widmark and Joanne Dru; Elizabeth Taylor’s violin-tinged drama Rhapsody (1954); and The Opposite Sex (1956), starring June Allyson. Their Broadway hits included the drama Rashomon and the musical The Gay Life, starring Barbara Cook.

(Michael Kanin, the older brother of writer Garson Kanin, who shared an Oscar with Ring Lardner Jr. in 1943 for the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, died in 1993 at age 83.)

In the early 1970s, when the couple's writing partnership became stressful, Fay Kanin went solo on telefilms. She penned 1972’s Heat of Anger, about a strong, older lawyer played by Susan Hayward; the Maureen Stapleton-starring Tell Me Where It Hurts, for which Kanin captured two Emmys; and 1975’s Hustling, based on Gail Sheehy’s nonfiction book about a crusading magazine reporter (Lee Remick) investigating a prostitution ring in New York.

In 1979, Kanin wrote and produced the ABC telefilm Friendly Fire, a tour de force starring Carol Burnett as a real-life Iowa woman battling the U.S. government in an effort to uncover the truth about the death of her son in the Vietnam War. Seen by 64 million people, it captured four Emmys, including one for outstanding drama or comedy special.

Kanin and Hustling producer Lillian Gallo partnered a year earlier to become one of the first female production teams in Hollywood. But they made just one film together, TV’s Fun and Games (1980), which starred Valerie Harper in an examination of gender discrimination in the workplace.

“I am interested in growth,” Kanin once said. “To me, that’s the most interesting thing, that people change, grow. I guess that’s been present, in some form or other, in almost every movie that I’ve done.”

Kanin was elected president of the Academy in 1979, succeeding Howard W. Koch, and served the first of four terms. She was the second woman to hold that role (Bette Davis left after a month in the post in 1941).

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Kanin was born Fay Mitchell on May 9, 1917, in New York City, the only child of a clothing store manager and a retired vaudeville actress. She studied writing at the all-female Elmira College and worked for the local Star-Gazette. Eager to get into show business, she convinced her family to move to Los Angeles the summer before her senior year of college.

Kanin attended USC for a year and landed a job at RKO reviewing scripts for $25 a week. She took full advantage of her access, talking with directors, editors and producers and learning about the business. The first words Michael -- who was under contract at the studio writing B-movie scripts -- said to her were, “Will you marry me?” she told People magazine in 1980.

The Kanins’ winning formula? They would make the outline of the story and then divide the writing, with each working on a scene that they felt strongly about. Then one of them would pull it all together.

Reflecting on the early part of her career, Kanin once told author Cari Beauchamp: “When I first started working in Hollywood, women were big stars … and they played complex, accomplished characters. And many of the writers were women. Then came the end of World War II; the men came home and took over to a larger degree than ever before. Female characters became either passive or sex objects, not much more than wallpaper around men’s lives.”

Kanin’s characters, however, were strong-willed women -- professors, journalists and congresswomen, many of whom could be considered feminist before the term existed. 

Kanin’s first try at writing a play, Goodbye, My Fancy, was produced in 1948. But things were not as easy as that sounds, she recalled when she was honored at the Humanitas Prize Luncheon in 2003.

She had submitted her script to Max Gordon, then a top New York producer, and when she visited his office, he sat behind a desk, empty except for two scripts. “It’s funny, it’s got heart, and it has something to say. I like it. Only I’m not going to do it,” she recalled him saying of her play.

“Look”, he said, “Here’s a new play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Kaufman -- I’ve done a lot of plays with him, all big hits. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. Edna Ferber -- I don’t have to tell you about her.” He picked up the other script. “And here’s a first play by Fay Kanin. Now, I can only do one more play this season. If you were me, Max Gordon, which one would you do?”

Kanin said she "gulped and admitted I’d do the Kaufman-Ferber play. He returned my script, wished me luck and I flew back to Los Angeles.”

She and Michael took out a bigger mortgage on their house, got some partners and produced the play themselves. Starring Shirley Booth, it opened on Broadway and was a rousing hit. The Kaufman-Ferber play had opened ahead of theirs and closed within a few weeks.

After one performance, she encountered Gordon. “He saw me, came over and shook his head. ‘I just want to ask you one thing,’ he said. ‘Why’d you have to give me such lousy advice?’ ”

Added Kanin: “He was right; it was lousy advice. Looking back at it, I realize that when Max Gordon asked me which play he should do, I should have said, ‘Do mine.’ Because I’ve learned that confidence in yourself and in your work is your greatest attribute.”

In a statement, the Academy said it was "deeply saddened" by the death of its "beloved former president."

"She was committed to the Academy’s preservation work and instrumental in expanding our public programming," the statement read. "A tireless mentor and inspiration to countless filmmakers, Fay’s passion for film continues to inspire us daily. Our prayers and condolences go out to her loved ones."

Survivors include her son Josh, his wife Laurie, two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. Another son, Joel, died of leukemia in 1958 at age 13.

A funeral will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The family requests that donations in Kanin’s name be made in the fight against cancer.

Scott Feinberg contributed to this report.