Robert Lees

Screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950s

"I guess I was a comedy writer from the word go," said Robert Lees, looking back on a career that began in the 1930s, but ended abruptly in the 1950s when he fell victim to the notorious Hollywood blacklist. Before that, he wrote for such comedians as Abbott and Costello, contributing to eight of their funniest films.

Robert Lees, screenwriter: born San Francisco 1912; married 1939 Jean Abel (died 1982; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 13 June 2004.

"I guess I was a comedy writer from the word go," said Robert Lees, looking back on a career that began in the 1930s, but ended abruptly in the 1950s when he fell victim to the notorious Hollywood blacklist. Before that, he wrote for such comedians as Abbott and Costello, contributing to eight of their funniest films.

The third and last child in his middle-class Jewish family, Robert Lees got a taste for show business while acting in school plays in his native San Francisco. He cut short his studies at the University of California when his father, whose clothing business suffered during the Depression, asked him to work in his office. Thanks to a family connection with a film producer at MGM, Lees became an extra, graduating to bit parts. After playing a boatman in the Greta Garbo/Erich Von Stroheim film As You Desire Me and a bellboy in the all-star Grand Hotel (both 1932), he was given a screen test, for which he wrote his own material.

More impressed with his script than with his acting, MGM asked him to join its new Junior Writers Department. Also in the unit was a young New Yorker named Fred Rinaldo, and he and Lees soon began collaborating. When the department was disbanded, Rinaldo and Lees joined MGM's Short Subjects Department. Here they wrote for the "Crime Does Not Pay" series, as well as Pete Smith specialties, historical featurettes and such classic Robert Benchley mock lectures as How to Train a Dog (1936), How to Start the Day (1937), and How to Sleep, which won the 1935 Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

1n 1940 Lees and Rinaldo's first feature-length screenplay, Street of Memories, was filmed by 20th Century-Fox. In 1941 they were signed by Universal Pictures, and worked on five films that year, the most successful of which was Abbott and Costello's first starring vehicle, Buck Privates. They wrote seven more films for the team, including Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which the two comics were pitted against the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and the wolf man. When Lon Chaney Jnr warns Costello, "In half an hour the moon will rise and I'll turn into a wolf!", Costello replies: "You and 20 million other guys!"

Lees had joined the Communist Party in 1939, and on 10 April 1951 the actor Sterling Hayden named him to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). His film career instantly over, Lees sold his house and moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he became the maître d' at a hotel restaurant.

In 1952 Paramount Pictures unearthed a 10-year-old Rinaldo/ Lees comedy script about paratroopers, and decided it was an ideal vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. As Rinaldo too was blacklisted, the studio removed both the writers' names from the credits of Jumping Jacks (1952), but were forced to restore them by the Screenwriters Guild. Lees later told the authors of the book Tender Comrades: a backstory of the Hollywood blacklist (1997):

All Paramount could do was take out a big ad in the trade papers, explaining that, totally against their

wishes, they were forced to allow our names to remain on the screenplay. So while I was playing maître d' in the dining room of the Hotel Westerner, Jumping Jacks was playing in a theatre up the street, and so was an old Abbott and Costello film, both of them with our names in plain view. I think the situation was a lot funnier than the pictures.

Lees later returned to Los Angeles where, under various pseudonyms, he wrote for such television shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Daktari, Flipper, Land of the Giants, Lassie, Rawhide and the English series Robin Hood. He never forgot the blacklist years; in 1999, when the HUAC informer Elia Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar, Lees joined the protesters, carrying a placard reading "Don't Whitewash the Blacklist!"

Robert Lees's long life ended suddenly and horrifically. On Monday, Los Angeles police arrested a man suspected of entering his home early the previous morning and decapitating him. Carrying the elderly writer's severed head, the murderer then entered the home of a neighbour, stabbing him to death.

Lees's friend Helen Colton discovered his mutilated body. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was like a movie, not real life."

Dick Vosburgh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea