Obituary: Richard Condon

Peter Guttridge
Wednesday 10 April 1996 23:02 BST

Richard Condon started out promoting Snow White and Dumbo, went on to act as press agent for some of Hollywood's biggest stars then, at the age of 43, turned himself, with The Manchurian Candidate, into a best- selling novelist. And a best-selling writer he remained, with over 25 novels to his credit over a career which spanned almost 40 more years. His most recent novel, Prizzi's Money, the fourth in a highly acclaimed black comic series which began with Prizzi's Honor (1982), was published in 1993 when he was 78.

Born in Manhattan in 1915, Condon spent over 20 years as a Hollywood publicist, first for Walt Disney (he saw Fantasia 43 times) then for just about every other major studio. Based in New York, his job was to take care of visiting Hollywood stars in town to promote their films. "It was the publicist's responsibility to see that they were entertained, a euphemism for pimping," he once remarked.

That kind of experience gave him a healthy cynicism and an understanding of corporate systems where the power is never where it appears to be. In 1957, after three ulcers, he quit his high-pressure job to become a writer. "I was 42 and I decided I had to get out - that publicity work is so will-o'-the-wisp".

Two years later he caught the mood of the time superbly with a mesmerising thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, which married Cold War paranoia with Freudian and behaviourist psychology in its story of a United States war hero brainwashed to assassinate his stepfather, a presidential candidate.

The release in 1962 of the award-winning film starring Laurence Harvey as the war hero and Frank Sinatra as his army buddy assured the book's world-wide success. Sinatra also owned the rights to the film and after President Kennedy was assassinated withdrew it, supposedly for its prescient foretelling of the Kennedy assassination (it was 25 years before it was seen on the cinema screen again).

Condon's writing often attracted that kind of controversy. The Manchurian Candidate bore no relation to the Kennedy assassination but he later wrote three novels based on that event. The best known, Winter Kills (1974), was in 1979 made into an ingenious film starring Jeff Bridges and directed by John Huston. Although it got rave US reviews it was pulled from cinemas after a couple of weeks and simply disappeared.

Condon believed that "Senator Edward Kennedy's dislike of the film was made known". Coincidentally or not, the company behind the financing of the film also got $90m of defence contracts each year.

A satirist and black humorist, Condon was dubbed "the American Balzac" for his prolific output of books either about US politics or, later, the Mafia. He distinguished between them in this way: "If you're writing about the Mafiosi it's based on a rock bed of reality. If you're writing about politicians you're writing about marshmallows and smoke." Money, however was the unifying theme of all his books.

A proponent of what one critic called the "Higher Corn", he understood exactly what he was doing. "Satire can only survive by holding a very slippery thin edge of reality. You have to try to make people believe in what you're writing about, even if you're mocking what they have accepted." But he could be vicious, as he was in Emperor of America (1990), his satire on Ronald Reagan and Ollie North. He genuinely disliked Reagan, referring to him on another occasion as a "turd-kicking actor cowboy" who was perfectly cast as an idiot.

He was almost 70 when he shifted his attention away from politics to the Mafia with Prizzi's Honor, an original, inspired tale of a hit-man who falls for a hit-woman. It re-established him, especially when in 1985 John Huston made a successful film from it starring Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar for her performance as the scorned woman.

Condon wanted Robert De Niro to play the part of the hit-man and bitterly opposed Huston's choice of Jack Nicholson on the grounds that Nicholson looked "too German". He later admitted he had been wrong. "Never ask a writer for advice on casting. Nicholson was wonderful."

He went on to write three more novels about the Prizzi family (family motto: "Fear was the first creator of Gods in the world"), Prizzi's Family (1986), Prizzi's Glory (1988) and Prizzi's Money (1993).

Condon lived away from America for many years: he moved to Mexico City on the proceeds of the film rights to The Manchurian Candidate in the early 1960s, and later lived in Switzerland and for 10 years in a Georgian mansion in Ireland. He moved back to America in the late 1980s - to the suburbs of Dallas - to be near the grandchildren on whom he doted. He claimed Dallas was the most foreign of all his homes.

He was married for almost 60 years to Evelyn Hunt Condon, a former model. She was first editor of each of his manuscripts. Her job was to correct what he admitted was his "lousy" punctuation. He also wrote a Mexican cookbook, Ole, Mole, with Wendy Bennet, one of his two daughters. He claimed it was the only Mexican cookbook "written, test-cooked and eaten" in Ireland, and that it has the longest introduction (55 pages of autobiography) ever written for such a work.

A solemn-looking but very jovial man, Condon was a gifted raconteur despite the fact that he suffered all his life from a bad stammer. He thought it had been induced by his father, who shouted all the time. He considered his father "a negative force", his mother a "benevolent" one in his life, but it was his father he credited with his writing skills. "My father used to write me three postcards a week because he wasn't able to communicate emotion verbally. My ease with writing comes, I'm sure, from that."

Although he took his writing seriously, he also had fun with it. He invented the International Confederation of Book Actors: "comprising people who would have acted in movies, radio or opera if we hadn't been too busy writing." All that meant in practice was that he used his friends' names for characters in his novels. He would send these friends certificates of performance when he borrowed their names in this way.

Condon admitted to only three of the seven deadly sins: greed, wrath and gluttony. However, in his seventies, a pacemaker notwithstanding, he wondered if he was also getting slothful - he wrote for "only" five hours a day. There was nothing else he preferred to do. "I honestly love writing. I can't understand those writers who say they suffer so much when they're writing. I think it is the best recreation possible."

Richard Thomas Condon, writer: born New York 18 March 1915; married 1938 Evelyn Hunt (two daughters); died Dallas 9 April 1996.

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