Irving Ravetch: Screenwriter and producer who garnered Oscar nominations for his adventurous literary adaptations

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The Independent Online

The screenwriter and occasional film producer Irving Ravetch was best known for the screenplays he wrote with his wife, Harriet Frank Jr, including two films for which they were nominated for Oscars, Hud (1963) and Norma Rae (1979).

Their scripts often dealt fearlessly with such controversial subjects as racism, incest and labour conditions, and they were noted for their audacity in taking prestigious novels as merely the starting point for radically reshaped products. "We've often needed an outside story to get us started," wrote Ravetch in an introduction to a collection of their screenplays. "It sparks us. It sets us in motion. In the end, we may salvage only one or two elements, a character, perhaps, or a situation, or a few strong scenes, and on this we build a whole new drama."

They had a particularly fruitful collaboration with the late director Martin Ritt, for whom they wrote eight films, three of them starring Paul Newman. Players who won Oscars for roles fashioned by the Ravetches (as they were collectively known) included Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas (both in Hud) and Sally Field (for Norma Rae).

The son of immigrants – a Palestinian mother, who became a teacher of Hebrew, and a Russian father, who became a rabbi – he was born Irving Dover Ravetch in Newark in 1920. "I learned how to write," he recalled, "because a poor rabbi mobilises his entire family to work. My job was to write bar mitzvah confirmation speeches for the young men. Each speech began the same way, I'm afraid: 'Today I am a man'." Because he suffered from severe asthma, he was sent as a boy to live with an aunt in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California, having studied English literature and acted in college plays. "I was hooked on movies from the age of seven," he confessed, "from the time I saw The Cisco Kid with Warner Baxter. I knew I had to be in that world."

After serving briefly in the army – he was honourably discharged because of his asthma – he worked in radio, writing the patter for Western singers to speak between numbers. He was then accepted as a trainee by MGM. "MGM was so fabulously wealthy that they could afford to run what they called a Junior Writing Programme, in which they literally trained writers. I wrote some short subjects, including several of the Crime Does Not Pay series." Harriet Frank, namesake of her mother, who was a story editor at MGM, was a writer at the studio, and in 1946 she and Ravetch were married.

In 1947 Ravetch received his first credit at MGM, as co-writer of Living in a Big Way, a comedy starring Gene Kelly as a war veteran facing marital problems. Director Gregory La Cava had provided the slight story, and Ravetch found himself scribbling revisions while the film was in progress to give it some substance, but though Kelly and Stanley Donen provided some musical numbers to punch up the plot, the film was a flop. Ravetch provided the original story and screenplay for the Western The Outriders (1950), and the script for Vengeance Valley (1951), an intense story of filial rivalry. MGM had begun to retrench, however, and both Ravetch and Frank found themselves unemployed.

Frank moved to Warners, while Ravetch tried unsuccessfully to write plays and indulged his enthusiasm for writing Westerns. They included The Lone Hand (1953), with Joel McCrea as a rancher who works undercover with a vigilante gang, and two films on which he collaborated with his wife, Ten Wanted Men (1955) and Run for Cover (1955), with James Cagney as an ex-convict who becomes a sheriff.

They agreed that collaborating had made them more ambitious. "Movies can't correct human injustice all by themselves, but they can show it, they can touch you while showing it, and they can seed ideas," said Ravetch. When they took their idea of an adaptation of William Faulkner's story The Hamlet to producer Jerry Wald, he asked them to choose a director, and they suggested Ritt, formerly blacklisted, who had met Ravetch in New York. "Marty became like a big brother to us. He fought a lot of our battles for us. We were a gang of three."

Both Wald and Ritt were enthusiastic about the team's treatment of their source material. "Here is a book in which is delineated, possibly, the most evil and vicious character in American literature – Flem Snopes," said Ravetch. "We turned him around into a romantic hero named Ben Quick and played by Paul Newman so that our story would work. A pretty desperate thing to do to Faulkner."

Titled The Long, Hot Summer, the film was a success, with some of the Ravetch-Frank dialogue deemed worthy of Tennessee Williams, and Faulkner, when asked by a reporter what he thought of it, replied, "I kind of liked it." Ritt was taken with the Deep South, and their next film was another Faulkner adaptation, The Sound and the Fury (1959), starring Yul Brynner (with toupee), another felicitous adaptation that got elements of incest and nymphomania past the censor.

Four years later they were co-producers, with Ritt, on what is arguably their finest screen achievement, Hud, which was based on Larry McMurtry's novel, Horseman, Pass By. Newman played the amoral title character, and Neal was Alma, the housekeeper who is first attracted to him then repelled by his callous behaviour. "Two key characters were invented," said Ravetch. "Hud himself is a minor character in the novel and is our major contribution. Alma, too, became an original character."

Newman also starred in Ritt's Hombre (1967), co-produced by the Ravetches, a harsh Western in which Newman is a white man raised by Apaches. Another Faulkner book provided the writers' next film, The Reivers (1969), directed by Mark Rydell, a fairly faithful adaptation of the story of a young boy who embarks on an adventurous car journey with two adult friends. Steve McQueen was the film's star.

Rydell's The Cowboys (1972) starred John Wayne, but its violent conclusion was regretted by its writers. "We made a really terrible mistake with the film, in which John Wayne was killed, and the young boys who were in his charge avenged his death. The kids could have captured the villains and brought them in for trial, as they do in the source material... That was our contribution and it is a major regret."

Norma Rae (1979) returned Ritt and his writers to the South for the compassionate true story of a poorly educated mill worker who gradually becomes a union agitator. In the title role, Sally Field gave a magnificent performance that won her an Oscar as Best Actress, and the Ravetches received their second nomination as writers. James Garner received an Oscar nomination for his role in Ritt's Murphy's Romance (1985), a charming romantic comedy in which Sally Field starred as a young divorcee who makes a fresh start in a small Arizona town.

The last film to be written by Ravetch and Frank was Ritt's Stanley & Iris (1990), in which they took a minor thread from Pat Barker's novel Union Street – about a woman with an illiterate husband – and made it the focus of their story. Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro were the stars. In 1990 the Ravetches received the highest accolade of the Writers Guild, the Laurel Award. Still writing, they lived in a hilltop house above Laurel Canyon, crammed with European antiques, which was featured in Architectural Digest. Ravetch's wife survives him.

Irving Dover Ravetch, screenwriter and producer: born Newark, New Jersey 14 November 1920; married 1946 Harriet Frank Jr; died Los Angeles 19 September 2010.