Throughout John Paxton's screenwriting career of more than 40 years, such distinguished scripts as "Murder, My Sweet," "Fourteen Hours," "The Wild One," "On the Beach" and "Kotch" were written on time grudgingly taken from work on his Laurel Canyon "Hill House." He was happiest in his carpenter's apron, hanging kitchen cabinets, mixing mortar for a retaining wall, repairing a roof leak or drawing plans for a new bathroom, his own or a friend's.
"His advice on how to build my desk wasn't enough," his friend and colleague, Robert Lees, recalled on a recent afternoon when John's friends overflowed a West End mortuary chapel for a memorial service rich in reminiscences. "He damn near built it himself showing me the way it should be done. The same went for pruning my grapevine."
John, born in Kansas City, on the first day of spring, 1911, was graduated from the University of Missouri in 1934 with, as he put it, "a spurious degree in journalism." He found writing classes less interesting than campus theatricals, which were "more social and there were pretty girls around." In New York a few years later he stumbled onto the ideal combination of journalism and theater when he was put to work writing reviews for Stage magazine. He shared a "dungeon" work-hole with another young apprentice writer, Adrian Scott.
"We started having lunch together," John remembered when he was guest of honor at a Friends of the UCLA Library dinner in 1978. "We had immediate rapport and it never ended."
In the early 1940s, after Stage had folded, John headed for Hollywood, where he worked at odd jobs, including ghost-writing. One day he happened to mention his need for temporary shelter to his dentist, Bill Goodley. By chance Dr. Goodley had just the place for him, a little farmhouse in an eight-acre walnut grove in Northridge belonging to two of his patients, Sam Goldwyn's press agent, Johnny Miles, and his wife, Sarah Jane. There was, Goodley added, one hitch: John would have to look after some baby chicks co-owned by Miles and Goodley. Each had acquired 500.
"It was a cold wet winter," Sarah Jane remembers. "The heating was inadequate and Paxton caught pneumonia. He moved to the Goodleys' house, but continued to look after the chickens--even after Johnny Miles died." One day, as Paxton was crossing the Mileses' front porch, he fell through it--termites.
He promptly set to work on a new brick porch. Meanwhile, the success of Adrian Scott's 1943 film, "Mr. Lucky," had put him in the right spot at the right time for John. When Adrian, now a producer at RKO, called John and said he had a novel he wanted him to adapt, John said, "Yes" without bothering to ask the name of the book. It was Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely." The 1945 film, retitled "Murder, My Sweet," has, in John's words, "influenced a flood of private eye nonsense that followed in movies and TV."
While in England filming their adaptation of James Hilton's novel "So Well Remembered," John and Adrian started blocking out their next picture, "Crossfire," based on a novel by Richard Brooks. John's ground-breaking script attacking anti-Semitism earned him an Academy Award nomination. It seems also to have aroused the FBI's interest in Adrian Scott, who went to jail after pointing out that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was waging a "cold war" against film writers, directors and producers who treated "Negro and Jew with dignity and justice as free men."
By Dec. 4, 1948, when he married Sarah Jane Miles, John was hard at work on his Hill House. He continued to take an occasional script that interested him, but he was happier with his table saw than with his typewriter. He was deaf to his agent's reminders that he could hire a contractor for a fraction of the money he was losing by turning down proposed assignments.
The most satisfying film work of his latter years came in the late 1960s, when he adapted Katharine Topkins's novel, "Kotch," for producer Richard Carter, his old friend and fellow carpenter-plumber-bricklayer on the Hill House. John's most personal script and his favorite, it won the Writers Guild Award in 1971. Richard's obsession with "Kotch" and John's with the Hill House exemplified John's belief that every writer should have "an idea, a dream of some sort, worth several years of your life."
In his last months, suffering from angina and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, John was dependent on a portable oxygen tank. It was a nuisance, but it didn't keep him from pressing ahead on the Hill House. He had almost completed the installation of an elevator by the end of the Christmas holidays, when he and Sarah Jane repaired to a friend's beach house for a brief vacation. In the late afternoon of Jan. 4, Sarah Jane returned from a walk along the beach and found John slumped in a chair.
"I'm dying," he said. "I've run out of breath. I called the paramedics. It's been a good life. Thank you."