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Obituaries

Alfred Levitt, 87; Screenwriter Was Blacklisted During 1950s

November 21, 2002|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Alfred Lewis Levitt, a Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted for his involvement with the Communist Party, died Saturday in Los Angeles of heart failure. He was 87.

Levitt was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 but was not charged with any crime. The subpoena was so damaging to his career, however, that he used an assumed name, Tom August, for almost 20 years after his hearing.

Long after the McCarthy era, Levitt led the effort to correct the screen credits on dozens of Hollywood scripts whose writers, like him, were forced to use a pseudonyms in the 1950s.

Despite his frequent grumblings about television writing -- "It grinds you down and has nothing to offer but money," he once said -- Levitt is best known for his work in popular television series. He wrote for "The Donna Reed Show" in the 1950s, "The Brady Bunch" in the '60s and "All in the Family" in the '70s. He often wrote scripts with his wife, Helen Slotte Levitt, who died in 1993.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 18 inches; 658 words Type of Material: Correction
Levitt obituary -- A quote that ran above the Alfred Levitt obituary in Thursday's California section was from a statement that Levitt had prepared for his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee but was not allowed to read. The attribution line on the quote implied that he made the statement during his appearance before the committee.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 26, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 318 words Type of Material: Correction
Levitt obituary -- The obituary of screenwriter Alfred Levitt in Thursday's California section gave his age as 87. He was 86. The obituary also misspelled the name of his late wife, Helen Slote.

His first movie credit was, "The Boy With Green Hair," in 1948. He shared the credit with Betsy Beaton and Ben Barzman. He also wrote feature film scripts with his wife, including "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964) and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965). He signed them Tom August; she signed them Helen August.

In 1968, after Levitt began to put his own name on his work again, he helped form the Hollywood Blacklist Writers Credits Committee. Its members gradually corrected the script credits for dozens of movies for which writers had used an assumed name, or a "front," a borrowed name that actually belonged to one or another recognized Hollywood screenwriter.

In 1995, the Writers Guild of America West honored Levitt for this revisionist work. By then the Blacklisted Writers Credits Committee had restored accurate screen credits to 82 films, including those of the Levitts.

"Al stuck his neck out," said George Kirgo, a former president of the Writers Guild of America West who helped form the Hollywood Blacklist Writers Credits Committee with Levitt. "We wanted to help set the record straight. Many in Hollywood behaved dishonorably during the blacklist era. They were terrified. But the [credits] committee was a great spur. It showed us writers at their best."

Levitt was born in New York City and began his writing career as the sports editor for the school paper at New York University's Bronx campus. He joined several political groups as a student, including the Young Communist League in 1932.

"He saw communism as a way to achieve an egalitarian society," Levitt's son, Tom, said this week. By 1951 Levitt was disenchanted with the party but when he was subpoenaed he believed that he could not quit. "He didn't want to leave the party when it might appear he left out of fear," said Levitt.

He finally did quit in 1956 and from then on he rejected all political ideologies and called himself a political agnostic, his son said.

Levitt came to Hollywood to work as a script reader in the late 1930s. He was drafted in 1942 and a year later he was sent to England.

At the end of the war Levitt was sent to France where he met and worked with Henri Cartier-Bresson, already a famous photographer, who was making a film about the repatriation of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors. It was called "Reunion" ("Le Retour" in French). Levitt helped write the film's narration and later said he used the film to help get script-writing work in Hollywood.

By 1950, several of the Hollywood producers Levitt had worked with had been subpoenaed by the House committee and dropped by the studios. He went through a similar experience when the movie "Dream Wife" was in production in the early 1950s. Levitt's name is one of three writers credited. (Sidney Sheldon and Herbert Baker are the others.) But he was dropped from the project when he was subpoenaed.

Rather than try to hide that he had been called by the House committee, he decided to advertise it. "I might as well announce it because ... they know anyway," he recalled in an interview for the book, "Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist" (1999).

Levitt's ad began, "Like most of you I have been opposed to the Un-American Activities Committee for a long time." No one would print it.

His hearing was in Los Angeles, where members of the House Un-American Activities Committee came to listen to testimony. He brought a statement to read, but he was not allowed to do so. In it he defended the right to freedom of speech and expression of individual conscience.

He declared, "Every man has the right to be unpopular or even to be wrong in these areas without suffering the consequences of official censure, blacklisting or jail." And he concluded, "I shall offer no cooperation to the evil purpose of these hearings, except that which the force of law compels. I shall resist the committee in every way that the Constitution provides."

Soon after his own hearing, Levitt got calls from several Hollywood colleagues who had been subpoenaed. They asked him for help, and he wrote a speech for them to deliver at their hearings. He never revealed their names.

In recent years, Levitt taught script-writing classes at several schools, including Cal State Northridge. He worked on a Writers Guild project to supplement the pensions of blacklisted writers. He served on the guild's board from 1981-84 and was secretary-treasurer from 1985-89.

In addition to his son Tom, Levitt is survived by his daughter, Ann, two grandchildren and a brother.

Donations in his name can be made to the Alzheimer's Assn., 5900 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1700, Los Angeles, CA 90036.

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