Obituary: Donald Stewart

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THOSE UNDECIDED about Augusto Pinochet's extradition to Spain could do worse than rent Missing, Constantin Costa-Gavras's 1982 film about the disappearance of an American during the general's coup of 1973. The film's chillingly realistic atmosphere of state terrorism is largely due to its exemplary, Oscar-winning screenplay, co-written by the director with Donald Stewart.

Stewart was also screenwriter of the techno-thriller trilogy Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) which makes one see the paranoia, counter-intelligence and military hardware of Missing in another light.

Indeed Stewart's lifelong fascination with cars, engines, motor racing and the machinery of speed were reflected not only in his first career as a motoring journalist but also in his screenplays. Missing could thus be read as much for its military-technical accuracy as its liberal intentions, the first line of the screenplay being "A weapons carrier straddles the centre line of a road", followed by such descriptions as "Armored vehicles rumble by. A matte- black Huey gunship crackles overhead, an army jeep moves slowly across the empty square."

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1930, Stewart came of age in Motor City at the height of its domination by the "big four" car companies and his passion for automobiles was matched by the culture of his home city. He began as a journalist reporting for The Detroit Times and then while still in his twenties founded and co-published the car magazine Competition Press that evolved into the current Autoweek. He also briefly became the editor of Hop Up and Motor Life Magazine, based in Hollywood.

In 1960 he left reporting and moved to New York for the advertising industry, becoming copywriter and creative executive for a series of agencies such as J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam and BBD & O. Not surprisingly, he specialised in advertising copy for the motor trade, an area of booming competition in the car-obsessed economy of Sixties America. He became creative director of the Fletcher-Richards Agency and an expert on all things automobile.

Then, in 1975, already in his mid- forties, Stewart moved to Hollywood to try his luck at screenwriting. His first produced script was Jackson County Jail, a 1976 Roger Corman road movie. Corman was known for his extremely low budgets and willingness to employ first-time writers as well as directors or actors. As Corman writes in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (1990):

Jackson County Jail was one of the rare scripts that came to us from the outside and became a big picture for New World. A nice story structure. It got strong critical notices and became a huge success.

Indeed The New York Post noted ". . .a quality that lifts it above its class" and Kevin Thomas in The Los Angeles Times called it "loaded with surprises . . . a harrowing image of Bicentennial America that doesn't just touch a contemporary raw nerve here and there but a complex nerve of sensibilities."

The film gave Tommy Lee Jones his first feature lead and Stewart's plot was so strong that the director Michael Miller reworked the same initial premiss two years later as a television movie called Outside Chance. Part of the film's backing came from a Chicago-based real estate syndicate, Balcor, and it did so well that Balcor were taken right to the limit of their allowable profits, much to their amazement. Corman dryly notes, "We just about tripled our own investment."

Stewart had created a very successful first script, both critically and financially, but it was still a long way from Missing's screenplay, which is used in film schools for instruction in structure and development and still reads extremely well. Based on the book by Thomas Hauser, the final draft screenplay was completed on 5 February 1981 by Constantin Costa- Gavras, Stewart and John Nichols. As a screenplay, "Missing" was a working title which stuck and the opening credits set the tone: "This film is based on a true story. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The guilty are already protected." This was changed in the film to "to protect the innocent and also to protect the film".

In 140 pages and 130 scenes, the story of Charles Horman's disappearance and the desperate search of his wife and father through the labyrinth of the Chilean military and the American diplomatic services is grippingly told. Even the descriptive prose itself is notably superior: "For now they are dark silhouettes against that picture window framing beautiful lawns and garden areas that positively glimmer with controlled antiseptic radiance."

The performances of Jack Lemmon as the father and Sissy Spacek as the wife were outstanding, but the script did not go unnoticed. It won the 1983 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, up against impressive competition such as Das Boot, Sophie's Choice, Blake Edwards's Victor Victoria and David Mamet's The Verdict. On Oscar night, 11 April 1983, Stewart acknowledged "a lot of very brave people . . . but above all Charles Edward Horman", the recently deceased subject of the film. Missing also won the 1982 WGA (Writers Guild of America) award for Best-written Adapted Drama and the Bafta and British Film Critics' Circle Award for best screenplay.

As a Hollywood screenwriter the only difficulty Donald Stewart faced was being confused with Donald Ogden Stewart, who wrote numerous famous screenplays, won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story in 1940 and penned a guide to screenwriting. The index of the book Inside Oscar (1993) even lists Donald Stewart as his namesake Ogden. To add to the confusion, Ogden Stewart's son, Donald Stewart, is a journalist who often writes about motor racing.

This did not deter Stewart from his career as a highly paid script doctor and writer, most notably for the aforementioned Tom Clancy trilogy and most recently a television film, Dead Silence (1997), starring James Garner.

Adrian Dannatt

Donald E. Stewart, journalist, advertising executive and screenwriter: born Detroit, Michigan 1930; married (two sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 28 April 1999.