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

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