Fred Haines: Screenwriter who adapted 'Ulysses'

Fred Haines may have been the man who did the impossible by turning Joyce's Ulysses into a filmable screenplay, but few people know that, when he was growing up on the arid streets of Tucson, Arizona, his adolescent ambition was to steal 100 cars before he turned 18.

When Haines first told me this story, it didn't surprise me. His singular and picturesque life often struck me as the stuff of fiction, and one in which all the narrative shifts – the professional highs and lows, the nomadic existence in a variety of American and European cities, his complex personal life – were accepted with a cool grace. Haines was many things – a screenwriter, a film and theatre director, a pen for hire. But, first and foremost, he was that intriguing American construct – a laid-back stoic – and someone who was very keyed into life's inherent ambiguities.

His childhood was something out of Steinbeck. He was born in Los Angeles during the depths of the American Depression, his family living a hard-scrabble life in California until his father found a job with the Southern Pacific railroad. They moved to Tucson – then a dusty, furnace-hot backwater – and Fred spent many of his formative years concocting escape scenarios to get himself the hell out of Dodge (as they say in the American West).

His brief career as a car thief was one such ruse. So, too, was his decision to join the US Navy. While a sailor, he actually married the Admiral's daughter (and even got along with the Admiral himself). Once honourably discharged from the military, he began a career as peripatetic student, doing time at Columbia and the University of Arizona before getting his degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Two children arrived. And in 1960 he landed a job as a producer at Pacifica Radio – an early pioneer in alternative radio; very hipster in its sensibility, and very much in tune with the political changes that began with the the Kennedy years.

Within months of arriving at Pacifica, Haines was appointed the station manager. The great American film critic Pauline Kael – then programming a repertory cinema in the Bay area of San Francisco – took notice of him, telling the film director Joseph Strick that Haines "might be the most intelligent young man I've ever met".

Haines saw Strick's film of Jean Genet's The Balcony in 1963 and asked for an interview with the director. It was a meeting that was to change the direction of his life – as Strick was also wildly impressed with Haines's intellectual curiosity and film knowledge. And when Haines asked him how to break into the movie business, Strick made a call to a friend at Columbia Pictures. Haines ended up there as a story analyst – and within six months, he'd been promoted to Assistant Head of the Story Department.

His move to Los Angeles coincided with the end of his first marriage. While at Columbia, Strick rang Haines one day to inform him that he'd just wrangled the film rights to that most modern and linguistically complex of all 20th-century novels, James Joyce's Ulysses . . . and would he like to come aboard as co-screenwriter?

"The reason I chose Fred," Strick later recalled, "was twofold: he knew the book and all the references contained within it, and he was also so damn smart." The rule that Haines and Strick imposed on themselves while working on the screenplay was "no new writing". Everything in the script had to be Pure Joyce. "On the day we began work," Strick said, "Fred simply sat down at a manual typewriter and started writing."

The resulting screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award in 1967 – an impressive achievement for a neophyte film writer. Even more impressive was the response to Strick's film – cited by the then-New York Times movie critic, Bosley Crowther, as one of the 50 most important films in cinema history. And the screenplay was frequently acknowledged as an audacious and brilliant reinvention of a novel that – in shape and structure and sheer glossological density – petrified many readers.

During the filming of Ulysses in Ireland, Haines met his second wife, Frances McCormack. Flushed with the success of the film, he accepted several Hollywood screenplays, but always had larger ambitions beyond being a hack for hire. He wrote Strick's film version of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1970) – and when they disagreed on the shape of the screenplay, Haines simply asked that he not be credited as the writer. Such a decision would usually lead to a professional rupture between the two parties. But Haines's usual imperturbableness meant that the close friendship between himself and Strick remained very much intact, and they later collaborated on a well-regarded adventure film, Survive the Savage Sea (1992).

Much of the early Seventies was spent trying to finance a film version of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf (Haines had a penchant for big metaphysical novels). During this time he and Frances lived in a series of hotel rooms and apartments in a variety of European cities. The resulting film – starring Max von Sydow and released in 1974 – was not a commercial or critical success, but no one could deny the ambitiousness of Haines's attempt to translate this most un-linear and Jungian of works to the screen, and the visual brilliance of much of its execution.

But then Frances fell ill with MS – and they both felt compelled to return to Ireland, where she had family and access to good healthcare. Living in a rented apartment in the house of the writer Constantine FitzGibbon – a flat perched on a hillside overlooking the epic grandeur that is Killiney Bay – he continued to write screenplay projects and even had a stint as a script editor for RTE, Ireland's national television service.

It was while living in Dublin that he met another American expatriate – yours truly – who was then running a fringe theatre company called Stage One. Having been a big fan of the films he had written for Joe Strick, I was amazed to discover that Haines was living in a lofty, bohemian perch just beyond the city limits. We became fast friends. And when I proposed that he direct for us a production of Trevor Griffiths' play, The Party, he accepted on the spot.

The production was a great triumph – especially as Haines found a way to make its intense political didacticism dramatic – and he went on to direct several more productions in Dublin, notably a brilliant staging of John McGrath's Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun. By this time I was in charge of the Abbey Theatre's smaller auditorium, The Peacock. And though I proposed Haines as a stage director on several occasion, the then-artistic director would never give him a chance, hinting that he simply didn't like the man's sensibility.

Indeed, many people didn't know how to read Fred Haines. In his standard sartorial outfit – blue workshirt, blue Levi's, scuffed cowboy boots and a Gitane perpetually screwed between his bearded lips – he could have easily passed as a rancher in Wyoming (though the cigarette would have been an all-American Marlboro). But then he started to talk – and you realised that the Cool Dude from Out West was also the possessor of a very big brain. Fluent in German and French, his knowledge of literature and cinema was, quite simply, vast. And he never stopped being interested in everything around him. He was perhaps the most literate and intellectually engaged individual I've ever known.

He was also, without question, a great friend. When I started making my own tentative steps as a writer, he was never less than encouraging. When success finally came my way, he was exceedingly shrewd on the subject of hitting it big, counselling me (and I always remember this) that "success is, at best, a fragile veneer". When I had problems in my personal and professional life, he was always at the end of a phone line, ready to hear me out, his counsel astute and alive to life's manifold contradictions.

Then again, he himself knew a thing or two about the contradictory business of a creative career. By 1984 he was broke – and with little further work on offer in Dublin, he and Frances returned to Los Angeles. The marriage finally ended a few years later, and Fred led a very streamlined existence as a writer – the occasional television film and rewrite job, and 10 years as the co-writer of Vincent Bugliosi's massive revisionist history of the Kennedy assassination, its projected title "Final Verdict" (eventually published as Reclaiming History: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 2007). At one point – when a third live-in relationship ended – he was actually living in his tiny office on Sunset Boulevard. When I remarked that this set-up was the stuff of a bad detective novel he just shrugged and said: "It doesn't bother me."

And I think he was telling the truth. Fred accepted success the way he accepted setbacks – with dispassionate coolness. His wonderful children, Sean and Regan, came to his rescue, setting him up in a delightful cottage adjacent to Sean's house near Venice Beach. He lived there for the rest of his life – and when he was diagnosed some years ago with the lung cancer that finally killed him, his response was pure Fred: "Well, they always told me that cigarettes were a dumb habit."

Douglas Kennedy

Fred Haines, screenwriter, film and theatre director: born Los Angeles 27 February 1936; married first 1955 Dede Wright (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), second Frances McCormack; died Venice, California 4 May 2008.

Douglas Kennedy's excellent obituary of Fred Haines took me back nearly 50 years, to when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, with Tony Tanner, the future literary critic, writes William Plowden.

In autumn 1958, we moved into the world's smallest shared apartment, in the backstreets of Berkeley, and to our great good fortune found ourselves next door to Fred and his then wife Dede. They could not have been friendlier, more interesting neighbours, willing guides to the intellectual and artistic pleasures of the Bay Area and the night life of San Francisco, always ready for a shared excursion, or a meal, or just a leisurely chat sitting on the front steps.

It was good to discover that Fred subsequently found success and that this did nothing to diminish the pleasure he took in life, nor his outstanding qualities as a friend.

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