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Obituaries

Norman Wexler; Oscar-Nominated Writer

August 26, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Norman Wexler, a screenwriter who earned Academy Award nominations for his "Joe" and "Serpico" scripts and was remembered for his screenplay of "Saturday Night Fever," which made John Travolta a star, has died. He was 73.

Wexler died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C.

Consistently praised for his gritty, street-wise dialogue, Wexler had grown up in a blue-collar family in Detroit. But he went on to graduate from Harvard and establish himself in New York City.

After beginning his career in advertising, he soon turned to writing plays and had several produced in small New York theaters. "Red's My Color, What's Yours?" won the Cleveland Playhouse Award, and his most recent work, "Forgive Me, Forgive Me Not," was staged in Los Angeles three years ago.

Wexler became known as a screenwriter--and garnered his first Oscar nomination--in 1970 with "Joe," a dark drama starring Peter Boyle and introducing Susan Sarandon. The script also earned Wexler a Writers Guild nomination, the Yugoslavia State Film Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Only three years later, he again garnered an Oscar nomination for his adaptation, along with Waldo Salt, of Peter Maas' book "Serpico." The true story of an undercover New York policeman trying to remain honest in the face of departmental corruption starred Al Pacino.

Wexler continued his string of successes with Travolta's classic "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977. Originally titled "The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," the highly successful film solidified Wexler's growing reputation, and John Badham said he signed on as director specifically because of the "marvelous" script.

Travolta hired Wexler to write the 1983 sequel, "Staying Alive," directed by Sylvester Stallone. But the film, in which Wexler wound up sharing writing credits with Stallone, attracted far less critical acclaim and box office totals than the original.

Equally unsuccessful, although they tackled the serious issues of racism and slavery, had been Wexler's scripts for "Mandingo" in 1975 and its sequel, "Drum," in 1976. Film historian Leonard Maltin went so far as to pronounce the latter "a new and dreadful low in lurid characters and incidents."

Along with Gary M. Devore, Wexler co-wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1986 "Raw Deal," but it did not do well. Wexler devoted most of the last decade to writing plays.

Diagnosed as manic-depressive, he occasionally found himself in trouble. He was arrested and jailed in San Francisco in 1972 for causing a disturbance during a flight there from New York. FBI agents said Wexler cursed at flight attendants and passengers and held up a magazine cover featuring President Richard Nixon, saying he would shoot him.

Wexler denied advocating assassination, saying he was merely discussing ways of "saving the country" and suggesting that one was to kill the president.

"You've heard of street theater. Well, this is airplane theater," he said. "Why not theater in the air?"

Wexler is survived by two daughters, Erica and Merin of New York; a sister, Janet Rosen of Detroit; and one granddaughter.

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