Obituary: Don McGuire

DURING THE last half of the Forties, Don McGuire enjoyed a steady career in films as an actor, typifying the regular all-American "Joe" in likeable fashion without ever making the sort of impression that would lead to major stardom. In 1951 he wisely switched to writing, for which his background in journalism had prepared him, and directing.

Though much of his work was undistinguished, he had a hand in the writing of two outstanding movies, John Sturges's fine thriller Bad Day at Black Rock and Sydney Pollack's comedy Tootsie, for which McGuire received an Oscar nomination, along with his co- writers Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal. He also worked extensively in television, creating the hit show Hennessey.

Born in Chicago in 1919, McGuire worked on local Hearst newspapers as a journalist, then after spending four years in the US Army went to Hollywood as a press agent. His boyish charm led to the offer of a film contract with Warners and he made his screen debut as a wounded soldier in Pride of the Marines (1945). Roles followed in two of Joan Crawford's best films, Humoresque (1946, as a barman) and Possessed (1947), as a hospital intern tending to the traumatised Crawford. In Nora Prentiss (1947), he was a young van driver who starts the film's events in motion when he runs down and slightly injures Ann Sheridan, and in The Man I Love (1947), starring Ida Lupino, he had one of his best roles as a young husband who spoils his flighty wife (Dolores Moran).

When Warners let him go in 1948 he found himself mainly in B movies, though one of them, Richard Fleischer's Armoured Car Robbery (1950) was a superior thriller in which McGuire made a strong impression as Danny Ryan, a rookie detective assigned to work with a seasoned veteran (Charles McGraw) who has just lost his partner. At the film's climax, Ryan nearly loses his life during a tense undercover ruse.

One of McGuire's last films as an actor was Double Dynamite (1951), in which he played the womanising son of a bank manager - an important film for him in that he formed a friendship with its star, Frank Sinatra. Later McGuire was to write the Sinatra film Meet Danny Wilson (1952) and both write and direct the western Johnny Concho (1956) starring Sinatra.

McGuire's first screenwriting credits came when he wrote the original stories for two B thrillers, Double Deal (1950), a murder mystery set in the world of oil-wells, and Dial 1119 (1950), a minor but engrossing movie set in a bar where a psychopath (Marshall Thompson) holds captive a disparate group of customers. The film made notable use of the bar's television set to further the narrative, one of the first times that the then-fresh medium had been used as an important plot device. McGuire's script for Meet Danny Wilson was a skilful blend of comedy and drama neatly tailored for Sinatra, but his story and screenplay for the Donald O'Connor- Janet Leigh musical Walking My Baby Back Home (1953) was tediously lacklustre.

He fared better with his adaptation of a Howard Breslin story, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), though Millard Kaufman wrote the final screenplay for this powerful drama in which a one-armed stranger (Spencer Tracy) arrives in a remote western town just after the end of the Second World War and uncovers a dark secret. McGuire co-scripted two Martin and Lewis vehicles, Three Ring Circus (1955) and one of their best films Artists and Models (1956). McGuire was one of four writers (including the director Frank Tashlin) on the latter, but Jerry Lewis thought highly of his work, and, when the comic turned producer the following year to make his first solo starring vehicle, he engaged McGuire both to write and direct.

A satire on films about juvenile delinquency, The Delicate Delinquent was, like McGuire's Sinatra western Johnny Concho, only a moderate success and McGuire moved into television where, in 1959, he created, as writer, producer and director, the series Hennessey, which ran for three seasons. Set at a naval base in San Diego, it starred Jackie Cooper as a young medical officer who treated the base personnel and their families, with Abby Dalton as his nurse-sweetheart and James Komack as a Bilko-type naval dentist.

McGuire spent most of the next 20 years working in television, and during that time wrote three novels largely based on his experiences, The Day Television Died, 1600 Floogle Street and The Hell With Walter Cronkite. When McGuire returned to the big screen, it was with a gigantic success, Tootsie (1982), for which he and Larry Gelbart wrote the original story. One of the highest-grossing films in the history of Columbia Pictures, this trenchant comedy of sexual identity and the vagaries of show business was an enormous hit and won an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. McGuire expressed displeasure at some of the changes that were made to the original conception - the final screenplay was by Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, with uncredited additional work by Elaine May.

Don McGuire, actor, screenwriter and producer: born Chicago 28 February 1919; died Los Angeles 13 April 1999.

Comments