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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism