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Peter Stone, 73; Wrote Books for Musicals and Scripts for Films, TV

April 29, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Peter Stone, who became one of Broadway's premiere writers of books for musicals, winning three Tony Awards -- for "1776," "Woman of the Year" and "Titanic" -- has died. He was 73.

Stone, who also won an Oscar and an Emmy for his work and served as the longtime president of the Dramatists Guild, died of pulmonary fibrosis Saturday in a hospital in Manhattan.

Stone launched his career with a teleplay for "Studio One" in 1956, earning his Emmy in 1962 for an episode of the dramatic TV series "The Defenders."

His first screenplay, "Charade," a 1963 romantic thriller, became a box-office hit starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

He won his Oscar for best original story and screenplay (with S.H. Barnett and Frank Tarloff) for "Father Goose," a 1964 World War II comedy starring Grant as a beach bum who is recruited by the Australians to watch out for enemy planes and finds himself guarding a group of schoolgirls and their teacher (Leslie Caron).

Stone amassed more than a dozen screenplay credits, many of them adaptations, including "Sweet Charity," "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "Mirage," "Arabesque," "The Secret War of Harry Frigg," "Skin Game," "1776," "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" and "Just Cause."

He wrote the TV adaptation of "Adam's Rib," an ABC series starring Ken Howard and Blythe Danner (1973-74); created "Ivan the Terrible," a 1976 CBS situation comedy starring Lou Jacobi; and adapted George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" for NBC in 1968.

But it was as a musical book writer that Stone may have been best known.

In addition to "1776," "Woman of the Year" (starring Lauren Bacall) and "Titanic," he wrote the books for, among other musicals, "Sugar" (an adaptation of Billy Wilder's movie "Some Like It Hot"), "My One and Only" and "The Will Rogers Follies."

Over the years, a somewhat exasperated Stone lamented that "nobody knows what a [musical's] book is."

"People think it's the jokes, the dialogue, but that's the smallest part," he told The Times in 1999.

"It's really concept and structure. And without that, there's no musical. You can have the best score in the world, but if the book is weak, it won't work."

"1776," a historical comedy-drama dealing with the events surrounding the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, became Stone's first major Broadway hit.

When composer Sherman Edwards, a former history teacher, proposed the idea for the musical to him, Stone said in an interview for "Contemporary Authors," he dismissed it as "the single worst idea I ever heard."

Stone, however, said he changed his mind after hearing Edwards' score.

A patriotic historical musical produced at the height of the Vietnam War seemed destined for box-office failure when it hit Broadway in 1969.

Instead, "1776" was greeted with a standing ovation on opening night, and it generated more than $500,000 worth of advance ticket sales within a week.

In his review, New York Times critic Clive Barnes said he recommended it "without reservation."

"This is a musical with style, humanity, wit and passion," Barnes said. "Mr. Stone's book is literate, urbane and, on occasion, very amusing."

Stone was born Feb. 27, 1930, in Los Angeles, where his family had moved in the 1920s. His father, John Stone, was a former history teacher who had become a screenwriter and producer of Tom Mix westerns and other films at Fox Studios. Stone's mother, Hilda, also wrote several films.

"I learned to read on scripts, and I really did read scripts as a child and [studied] the structure of scripts," Stone told Associated Press in 1998. "Strangely, my interest was theater. I don't know why. There wasn't any out there then."

After earning a bachelor's degree from Bard College in 1951 and a master's from Yale School of Drama in 1953, Stone moved to Paris, where he worked for a number of years as a writer and news reader for CBS radio and television.

His first play, "Friend of the Family," was produced in St. Louis in 1958.

Stone is survived by his wife of 42 years, Mary; and his brother, David of Los Angeles.

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