Joseph Stefano

'Psycho' scriptwriter


Joseph William Stefano, scriptwriter: born Philadelphia 5 May 1922; married 1953 Marilyn Epstein (one son); died Thousand Oaks, California 25 August 2006.

Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho and co-created the admired fantasy series for television The Outer Limits. It was Stefano who suggested starting Psycho with an exposition of the character of Marion Crane, whereas Robert Bloch's original novel begins with a chapter on Norman Bates. "Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person," said Stefano:

They would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the $40,000. When she dies, the audience would be the victim.

It was Hitchcock himself who decided that casting a major star as Marion would make the shower murder a particularly shocking surprise.

Born in Philadelphia in 1922, Stefano was the son of a tailor who made silk ties (which was to inspire Stefano when he wrote the screenplay for the film The Black Orchid). From an early age his heart was set on a performing career, and a few weeks before he was due to graduate he set off for New York where, calling himself Jerry Stevens, he sang, danced and played piano in Greenwich Village clubs, writing his own songs and special material.

It was in a New York bar in 1953 that he met his future bride, Marilyn Epstein, who later told the Philadelphia Enquirer, "I was trying to make a choice on the jukebox and this great-looking man in a black jacket, jeans and boots, said, "Play that one, I wrote it.""

His ongoing love of popular song resulted in a huge sheet-music collection, and he once spent five hours challenging the singer-archivist Michael Feinstein about who could name increasingly obscure numbers.

Stefano started writing radio scripts during the 1940s, and he first worked in television when hired as a performer and writer on the Sunday-night variety show Ted Mack's Family Hour (1951). His first script for Hollywood was Martin Ritt's The Black Orchid (1959), which starred Sophia Loren as a gangster's widow with a wayward son, and Anthony Quinn as the widower who offers her a new life. Stefano, who called the script "semi-autobiographical", was lauded for the screenplay, and Loren won the Best Actress Award at Venice for her performance.

Later the same year, Stefano won praise for a his Playhouse 90 television play about a soldier's racial prejudice, Made in Japan, and the following year he moved to Hollywood, where Alfred Hitchcock, dissatisfied with the first screen treatment (by James P. Cavanaugh), of the 1959 Psycho novel, hired him on the advice of his agency, MCA, and his associate Joan Harrison, who was familiar with Stefano's radio work. Stefano felt that, apart from the ending, Bloch's book was "weak in writing and characterisation".

Though Stefano's screenplay was brilliant, Bloch was incensed later when Stefano claimed,

Bloch's novel started with Marion Crane arriving at the motel and immediately being killed . . . So we backed the story up a bit and learned something about her.

In fact, the novel introduces Marion (called "Mary" in the book) in the second chapter when she gets lost in the rain, then it describes in some detail her life so far and her stealing $40,000. Hitchcock himself said, "Psycho [1960] all comes from Robert Bloch's book. Stefano contributed dialogue mostly, no ideas."

Bloch conceded, though, that Stefano's conception of Norman Bates as a likeable young man contributed to the visual surprise that would not have existed had he been faithful to the book, in which Bates is a pudgy, bespectacled, middle-aged voyeur.

Stefano next adapted a thriller he found more intractable, Max Ehrlich's First Train to Babylon (1955), a convoluted tale, with many red herrings, that became The Naked Edge (1961), the last movie for its star, Gary Cooper.

In 1963 Stefano was lured back to television when Leslie Stevens, a producer-playwright and friend from his Greenwich Village days, conceived a fantasy series entitled The Outer Limits and signed him as a supervisory writer and producer, to run the show on a day-to-day basis. They were a well- contrasted pair, with Stevens favouring high-tech science fiction and his partner specialising in eerily Gothic melodrama.

Stefano's first episode as a writer, "A Feasibility Study" (1964), is considered one of the best of the series. Aliens transport a six-block area of Beverly Hills bodily to another planet, and, when the humans realise they are being studied for their potential as slaves, they sacrifice themselves to spare the human race. The climax caused problems for the network censors, who saw it as mass suicide and delayed its transmission for nearly a year. Stefano described the series's set-up as "little kook groups making the films they really wanted to make"', and 14 of the first season's episodes were made by the talented threesome of writer Stefano, director Gerd Oswald and photographer Conrad Hall.

In Stefano's 1963 episode "Nightmare", which featured a young Martin Sheen, humans play mind games in an alien prisoner-of-war camp, and his "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" (1963) is remembered for its vacuum-cleaner monster. "I didn't do treatments or outlines," said Stefano, "I just made them up as I went along."

His scripts nevertheless attracted first-class players. "Don't Open Till Doomsday" (1964) featured the veteran star Miriam Hopkins as an ageing lady sexually enslaved to a monster, and "The Bellero Shield" (1964), a reworking of Macbeth, had a highly impressive cast, including Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman and Chita Rivera. Stefano's "The Form of Things Unknown" (1964) featured the final performance on film of Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who replaced Peter Lorre and Joseph Schildkraut, both of whom died before they could take up the role. Stefano said, "I asked for, and got, people who were not working much in TV or movies any more; people with fabulous faces, types and styles, like Sidney Blackmer, Neil Hamilton or George MacReady, with his great scar."

In 1988 Stefano penned an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Skin of Evil", and in 1990 he wrote Psycho IV, having been contemptuous of the first two Psycho sequels. It largely depicted Bates's early life and the Freudian aspects of his personality.

Stefano returned to the big screen rarely - he wrote The Eye of the Cat (1969), remembered for the sequence in which the wheelchair-bound Eleanor Parker loses control on the downward inclines of San Francisco, and another semi-autobiographical memoir, Two Bits (1995), about a young man growing up with his widowed mother and garrulous grandfather (Al Pacino) in Philadelphia during the Depression.

In 1990 Joseph Stefano reflected, "I think doing the screenplay for Psycho has done me more harm than good. Through the years it made it very difficult for me to get some of the other kinds of pictures that I would have liked to have gone on to."

Tom Vallance

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