George Axelrod

Witty writer of such stage and film hits as 'The Seven Year Itch' and 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'
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George Axelrod, writer: born New York 9 June 1922; married first Gloria Washburn (two sons; marriage dissolved), second Joan Stanton (died 2001; one daughter); died Los Angeles 21 June 2003.

One of the most incisive and witty writers for Broadway and Hollywood during the Fiftiess and Sixties, George Axelrod wrote the stage hits The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and film scripts for such classics as Bus Stop, Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Manchurian Candidate.

A native New Yorker, he was born in Manhattan in 1922. His mother, Betty Carpenter, was a movie starlet. His father, Herman Axelrod, had attended Columbia University where he edited the college magazine The Jester, but gave up dreams of a writing career to join his family's property business. "I had no respect for my father whatsoever because of that decision," said Axelrod later.

His parents were divorced when he was young, and he was raised by his mother, who "had a series of gentlemen friends who contributed to her general well-being". Expelled from high school, Axelrod never went to college, but later became a voracious reader "to make up for my formal lack of education".

In 1940 he became an apprentice at the Cape Playhouse in Massachusetts, which led to acting roles. Already determined to become a writer, he sold the first of several radio scripts in 1940 prior to spending three years in the Army Signal Corps during the Second World War. He then spent several years writing for radio and television, contributing to over 400 radio and television scripts from 1947 to 1952, including regular assignments on The Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, The Boris Karloff Mystery Playhouse and The Peter Lind Hayes Show. "It was a very exciting period," he said, "and in the mornings, between eight and nine, which is when I would have to leave to go to work, I would work on my play."

The play was The Seven Year Itch, a comedy in which a timid book editor fantasises about the glamorous girl who has moved into the apartment above his. It opened on Broadway in November 1952 and ran for over a thousand performances. Axelrod had wanted the actor Keenan Wynn to play the hero, who specialises in transforming respectable texts into lurid paperbacks (Little Women becomes Secrets of a Girls' Dormitory) but the producers cast Tom Ewell, who had a personal triumph in the role. In this play and his subsequent one, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Axelrod is considered to have anticipated the sexual revolution, and inevitably he frequently did battle with the Production Code and various censor groups throughout his career in Hollywood.

When Billy Wilder directed a film version of The Seven Year Itch in 1955, the Production Code administration director Geoffrey Shurlock declared the play "flatly in violation of the Code clause which states that adultery must never be the subject of comedy or laughter". Axelrod said,

The premise is that a guy has an affair with a girl while his wife is away and he feels guilty about it. And the guilt is funny. In the movie, he couldn't have the affair, but he felt guilty anyway; so the premise didn't make any sense.

Though Billy Wilder later stated his regret that he made the film under "straitjacketed" conditions, and critics felt that the film suffered from its dilution, it was a big commercial success, largely due to the captivating performance of Marilyn Monroe and some new gags inserted by Wilder and Axelrod (including Monroe's identification of a Rachmaninoff piece as classical because "it doesn't have a vocal"). Axelrod said

We didn't really make a very good picture. In addition to having a horrible Production Code problem, the play just didn't adapt. The claustrophobic element of the play is what makes it work - the guy trapped in the little apartment, his imagination soaring out of the apartment. When you open the play up, it loses its tension.

Wilder and Axelrod became good friends and later planned to collaborate on another project, an adaptation of James Thurber's story The Catbird Seat, but it failed to materialise. Axelrod had one more Broadway hit, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955), a spoof of Hollywood told in the terms of the Faust legend. (He had nothing to do with the 1957 film version, which was substantially altered.) He co- produced, directed and wrote a less successful stage comedy Goodbye, Charlie (1959), which starred Lauren Bacall as the reincarnation of a murdered male writer. He also co-produced Gore Vidal's hit play Visit to a Small Planet (1957), and directed Harry Kurnitz's comedy Once More with Feeling (1958) starring Arlene Francis and Joseph Cotten.

Axelrod's first script for the movies was Phffft (1954), based on his own unproduced play and directed by Mark Robson. It benefited from a cast headed by Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon and Jack Carson, but it was a minor piece compared to Axelrod's next three films, which were among the best of the era.

In 1956 he fashioned William Inge's play Bus Stop into a superb vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, who gave her most affectingly poignant performance in the tale of a talentless "chantoosie" who is romanced by a rowdy cowboy.

Marilyn was a sad, sad creature. She was sick. In a rightly ordered world, she would have been in a nuthouse. Once you got to know her, you couldn't feel sexy about her. You just wanted to comfort her, cuddle her, father her.

Axelrod's fine adaptation of Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) made its basically unsavoury tale (Variety described it as "kept boy meets kept girl") into a real charmer and an exquisite vehicle for Audrey Hepburn.

The writer's favourite scene is the one in Tiffany's with the sales clerk, played by John McGiver ("a genius at high comedy"). It was not in the book, but became a memorable part of the screenplay, which won Axelrod an Oscar nomination. The film had originally been planned by Axelrod and the director John Frankenheimer, but Hepburn, who had director approval, felt that Frankenheimer would not be right for the project and had him replaced with Blake Edwards. Frankenheimer was to work again with Axelrod, though, on his masterwork, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film which Axelrod famously described as "going from failure to classic without ever passing through success".

As soon as he read the book by Richard Condon, Axelrod wanted to adapt it for the sceen.

There was a lot of resistance. It was everything the studio didn't want - political satire, worse than regular satire. Sinatra made it possible. I had known him for years and we were close friends. He agreed to play the lead and that's the only way United Artists would let us do it.

Superbly adapted by Axelrod from a complicated novel difficult to film ("The main trick was to make the brainwashing believable"), the film blended mystery, satire, thrills and quirky humour with expert finesse and is one of the great movies of the Sixties. Though he described Sinatra as having "the attention span of a gnat", Axelrod also thought him "one of the best screen actors in the world."

He's magic. Like Marilyn. But you have to understand how he works. When he won't do many takes, it's because he can't. He has no technical vocabulary as an actor. Something magical happens the first time, and sometimes he can do it a second time. After that, it's gone. . . He never tries to change a line. He has enormous respect for the dialogue.

The film proved ahead of its time for the general public, and suffered a further setback when Sinatra had it withdrawn from circulation after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Axelrod's career was never to reach such heights again, though he had a cult hit with the comedy Lord Love a Duck (1966), a black comedy starring Tuesday Weld and directed by Axelrod. ("The problems with it are in the script, not the directing. It is very well directed.").

In 1968 Axelrod moved to London with his family, remaining for seven years, during which he wrote a third novel, Where Am I Now - When I Need Me (1971). His first was Beggar's Choice (1947), and later he wrote Blackmailer (1952). In London he also wrote for Punch, reviewed books for the New Statesman and wrote a restaurant column for Vogue.

In 1974 he returned to Hollywood and embarked on some ill- advised projects because he needed the money. Axelrod also began to rely on alcohol when he found it difficult to get into a writing mood. He finally had to attend the Betty Ford Clinic ("It was either that or die") and became an addict of solitaire after giving up both drinking and smoking

He felt that his writing was rooted in the Fifties. "I concede the fact that fashions change. I can't write social comedy any more because I don't know how yuppies talk."

Axelrod's first marriage, to Gloria Washburn, produced two sons but ended in divorce ("I was a lousy father to my two children and a terrible husband") and his second wife, the former Joan Stanton, died in 2001. (Axelrod said he told Stanton in 1971, "If you think it's hell living with me, why don't you try being me for a while.")

In 1987, when given a tribute by the New York Film Festival, he told the audience,

I always wanted to get into the major leagues, and I knew my secret: luck and timing. I had a small and narrow but very, very sharp talent, and inside it, I'm as good as it gets.

Tom Vallance

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