One of the most prolific and respected screenwriters in Hollywood history, Ernest Lehman was described by Dictionary of Literary Biography’s Nick Roddick as a ‘champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay’. One look at his career, and we can certainly see why.
Ernest Lehman was born in New York City in 1915. After graduating from the City College of New York, he started working as a freelance writer and copywriter for a Broadway publicist. He also wrote short stories and novellas for a number of magazines, which garnered him considerable attention. In the 1950s, Paramount hired him as a screenwriter and in 1954, he wrote his first screenplay, Executive Suite (dir. Robert Wise), an adaptation of the Cameron Hawley book. That same year, he co-wrote Sabrina (dir. Billy Wilder), with Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In 1956, he had hits with Somebody Up There Likes Me (dir. Robert Wise) and The King and I (dir. Walter Lang), and in 1957 he co-wrote what is perhaps his greatest screenplay, Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick), with Clifford Odets, having based much of it on his own personal experiences as a writer in New York. Inexplicably, he did not receive a nomination for it. Two years later, he wrote his very first original screenplay, North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which got him his second Oscar nomination and an Edgar Award – the first of two; the other one was for Family Plot (1976, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). In 1961, he received yet another nomination for West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise), and in 1965, he collaborated with Wise again in The Sound of Music. His last Oscar nod came in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (dir. Mike Nichols), which he adapted from the Edward Albee play. Though he never won a competitive Oscar, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary one in 2001, before passing away in 2005 at the age of 89.