Obituary: Leslie Stevens

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The Independent Online
CREATOR of the cult television series Outer Limits, writer, director and producer, Leslie Stevens achieved success on Broadway and in Hollywood as well as television. He wrote the hit play The Marriage-Go-Round and his films as writer-director include Private Property and Incubus, the latter the only known film in which the entire dialogue is spoken in Esperanto.

He was born in Washington DC in 1924 to a wealthy family - his father was a Vice- Admiral, his mother a lecturer. When his father was attached to the American Embassy in London in 1935, the 11-year-old boy attended performances of Shakespeare at the Old Vic as part of his schoolwork and decided to become a playwright.

Back in the States four years later he sold a play, The Mechanical Rat, to Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and ran away from home to join the troupe. Truant officers tracked him down and he finished schooling with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and ended his service as the youngest captain (aged 20) in the US Army. Still determined to have a theatrical career, he moved to Greenwich Village and formed a short-lived song-and-dance team with the aspiring songwriter Joseph Stefano (who was to write the screenplay for Psycho) while studying at Yale's drama school and later the American Theatre Wing, where his tutors included Moss Hart and Howard Lindsay. Stevens later commented:

As a playwright, I achieved the rank of night clerk in a hotel at 22, night-ward attendant in a New York psychiatric hospital at 25 and the exalted status of copy boy for Time magazine at 28. These jobs paid my room rent while I was writing plays.

While he was working as a copy boy in 1954 his play Bullfight opened off-Broadway. Starring Hurd Hatfield as the corrupt and domineering son of a famed bullfighter, destroying all who fall under his evil spell, the play was described by the New York Times as "in the first rank of off-Broadway work", but ran for only 56 performances.

The following year Stevens had a play in a Broadway theatre, The Champagne Complex, but the flimsy comedy about a girl who has an uncontrollable desire to disrobe whenever she drinks champagne lasted for only 23 performances. His next play, The Lovers (1956), which marked the Broadway debut of Joanne Woodward, was a lavishly produced period melodrama based on the medieval custom of droit du seigneur. Called "a work of art" by the Times but "dramatically ineffectual and given to an unintentional air of pretentiousness" by the New York Post, it closed after four performances, though nine years later it was successfully filmed as The War Lord.

In 1958 he at last had a major Broadway hit with the comedy The Marriage- Go-Round, in which a pair of happily married college professors have their values and confidence tested when a Swedish beauty asks the husband to father her child so that it will have his brains and her physique. The statuesque Julie Newmar won a Tony for her supporting role, and the play benefited enormously from the charm and skill of its stars Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert ("a charade played by experts" said the Times).

The play was less successful both in London and in its 1961 film version, which had to censor some of its spirited naughtiness, with the stars Susan Hayward and James Mason generally considered less happily cast than their predecessors.

Stevens first worked in Hollywood when he scripted Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun (1958), based on Gore Vidal's teleplay which presented Billy the Kid as a repressed homosexual. Stevens introduced some tentative female love interest but the offbeat approach (Stevens's friend Hurd Hatfield played an epicene chorus-like figure with a bizarre attachment to Billy) made the film more popular in Europe than America.

In 1960 Stevens directed, wrote and co-produced the mildly scandalous independent feature Private Property (refused a censor's certificate in England), made on a budget of only $60,000 and starring his wife, Kate Manx. With an emphasis on fetishism and mainly concerned with the art of seduction (a hoodlum seduces a beautiful housewife so that his homosexual friend can have a woman for the first time), it was shot by the ace cameraman Ted McCord in a mannered artiness that made Stevens a brief favourite of the American cinema's New Wave, but his next film Hero's Island (1962, co-produced with James Mason) made little impact. Manx, who was to commit suicide after their 1963 divorce, again starred, as a woman whose island home is attacked by marauding fishermen, and Mason, over-playing to compensate for the vapidity of Manx, was Blackbeard the Pirate, who aids her.

In 1965 Stevens wrote and directed the unique occult thriller Incubus, but his principal medium had become television, where he created, produced and directed such series as Stoney Burke, It Takes a Thief, McCloud and The Name of the Game. When, in 1963, he sold ABC the idea for a science- fiction series called Please Stand By, he was too busy to produce it, so suggested his old friend Joseph Stefano.

With the title changed to Outer Limits, and a concept that insisted scripts were consistent with scientific knowledge but primarily about character, the show attained such high ratings that for the second season the network slotted it against the top-rated Jackie Gleason Show. Stefano resigned in protest and was proved right - the show lost its audience and was cancelled, but has maintained its popularity through the years and recently spawned a new series.

Sometimes attacked for his many-faceted adaptability, Stevens once told Time magazine:

There is nothing wrong with being a hack writer. I would point with pride to the inspired hacking of Shakespeare, Michelangelo - you can go through a big list.Leslie Stevens, film and television scriptwriter, producer and director: born Washington DC 3 February 1924; married 1958 Kate Manx (deceased; one son; marriage dissolved 1963), secondly Shakti Chen (three daughters); died Los Angeles 24 April 1998.