Obituary: Murray Burnett

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The Independent Online
Murray Burnett, writer; born 1911; twice married (one daughter); died New York 23 September 1997.

It's not that Murray Burnett felt he should have been a household name. After all, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch are hardly household names, even though they've been credited for 54 years with writing Casablanca. Burnett's name is also on the film - as co-author of the play on which it's based - but, unlike Koch and the Epsteins, whose careers were enhanced by the enormous success of the movie, in his case his film career began and ended with Casablanca.

In the summer of 1938, Burnett, a stage-struck young English teacher at the Central Commercial High School in New York, made a trip to Europe with his wife. What he saw in Vienna so horrified him that, on his return to New York, he decided to write an anti-Nazi play. After some false starts, he and his writer friend Joan Alison collaborated on Everybody Comes to Rick's, a play that was set in Lisbon before they decided on Casablanca. A Broadway management took an option on it, but cancelled production plans when the authors refused to rewrite a key scene. When no other management showed interest, their agent sent copies of the play to various Hollywood studios.

On 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Warner Brothers story analyst read Everybody Comes to Rick's. His written report was sufficiently enthusiastic to interest the producer Hal Wallis, who thought the role of the expatriate American night-club owner Rick Blaine ideal for Humphrey Bogart. Another day that will live in infamy was 12 January 1942; on that date Burnett and Alison innocently signed a contract that ensured them $20,000, but obliged them to "give, grant, bargain, sell, assign, transfer and set over" to Warner Brothers all rights "of every kind and character whatsoever, whether or not now known, recognised or contemplated, for all purposes whatsoever". Forty-nine years later, Burnett said ruefully, "We made the kind of deal that went out with D.W. Griffith."

Casablanca (1943), with a script by Howard Koch, the Epsteins and many uncredited writers, was one of the year's highest grossing films, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

No award went to Burnett's play Hickory Stick (1944), which was based on his experiences as a teacher. It had a brief Broadway run, but Adrienne Bayan, who was in the cast, became the by now divorced Burnett's second wife. Soon he was writing, producing and directing such radio shows as True Detective Mysteries (1944 ), and two series starring Marlene Dietrich: Cafe Istanbul (1952) and Time for Love (1953).

The Dietrich shows were right up his street as both were set in an exotic night-club, where spies, refugees and black marketeers were as common as throatily sung ballads. In 1983, after Warner Brothers produced Casablanca, a feeble television series starring David Soul as Rick, Burnett filed a $60m lawsuit against the studio to regain control of the characters he'd created. "These characters are part of me," he said. "And I want them back." (Joan Alison was ill and took no part in the litigation; she died in 1992 at the age of 91.) In 1986 the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favour of Warner Brothers.

Earlier, Burnett had sued Howard Koch, after the screenwriter said in a 1973 magazine interview that Everybody Comes to Rick's "provided an exotic locale and a character named Rick who ran a cafe, but little in the way of a story adaptable to the screen". That Burnett lost the suit is surprising, as the play also provided a corrupt Vichy French Prefect of Police, a black pianist named Sam, a Czech Resistance leader named Victor Laszlo whose wife once had an affair with Rick, an arrogant German officer named Strasser, and two black marketeers named Ferrari and Ugarte - all characters who appear in the film. Burnett and Alison had even specified Herman Hupfeld's 1931 ballad "As Time Goes By" as the lovers' theme song in their play.

At long last, by threatening to sever all connections with Warner Brothers when it came time to renew their copyright in 1997, Burnett and Alison were each given $100,000 plus the right to produce Everybody Comes to Rick's in the West End. In 1991 Burnett came to London to see Leslie Gran- tham play Rick in a production renamed Rick's Bar - Casablanca. It ran for less than a month.

That same year, Howard Koch had second thoughts; in a letter to the Los Angeles Times he wrote: "Having read the play more recently, I believe that Mr Burnett's complaint was, to some extent, justified."

- Dick Vosburgh