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Norman Panama, 88; Screenwriter, Director Specialized in Comedies

January 25, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Norman Panama, a writer, director and producer whose long collaboration with Melvin Frank resulted in a string of memorable film credits that includes "The Road to Utopia," "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "White Christmas," has died. He was 88.

Panama, whose career began in radio when he and Frank worked as comedy writers for Bob Hope in the late 1930s and encompassed not only movies, but television and the Broadway stage, died Jan. 13 at UCLA Medical Center from complications of Parkinson's disease.

"Panama and Frank were one of the most successful writing teams in Hollywood history, maybe one of the most successful teams in show business," said show business historian Jordan Young, adding that Panama and Frank in the late 1940s "helped open the doors to other writers to produce and direct their own pictures."

The team's screenwriting earned them three Oscar nominations -- "The Road to Utopia" (1945), one of the popular "Road" comedies starring Hope and Bing Crosby; "Knock on Wood" (1954), a spy comedy starring Danny Kaye; and "The Facts of Life" (1960), a sophisticated comedy starring Hope and Lucille Ball as middle-aged married people who have an affair.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 527 words Type of Material: Correction
Panama obituary -- An obituary of writer-director-producer Norman Panama in Saturday's California section incorrectly listed Fred Astaire as Bing Crosby's co-star in the movie "White Christmas." Danny Kaye co-starred.

Panama and Frank produced and co-wrote the book for the 1956 Broadway musical "Li'l Abner," based on the popular Al Capp comic strip; and they produced the less successful 1959 film version, which Frank directed.

Although most associated with comedies, the duo also wrote (with Norman Krasna) the popular Crosby and Fred Astaire musical classic "White Christmas," and they co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced "Above and Beyond," a movie biography of Paul Tibbetts, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

But, said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, "comedy was obviously their strong suit."

"I think it's fair to say 'The Court Jester' is just about as perfect a movie as you're ever going to see," said Maltin, referring to the 1956 comedy starring Kaye, which Panama and Frank co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed.

"That film was not only a great showcase for Danny Kaye," said Maltin, "but a great showcase for Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, because they were able to put some very funny routines and set pieces into the larger context of a really good screenplay, where everything fits together. That's why it holds up so well."

Maltin said Panama and Frank also took Bob Hope into "new territory" in the 1950s and '60s.

"They persuaded him to try a more sophisticated style of comedy in 'That Certain Feeling,' and then took him and Lucille Ball -- two wholesome American icons -- into uncharted territory in 'The Facts of Life,' which was considered a daring experiment in adult comedy."

One of the duo's best collaborations as screenwriters and producers, Maltin said, is "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," the 1948 adaptation of the Eric Hodgins novel that starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

"It's important because it was not a jokey comedy; it was a comedy that was inspired by realistic characters dealing with real situations slightly exaggerated for comic effect and very much emblematic of that prosperous postwar period," Maltin said.

"When you've written or directed a handful of the best comedies ever made," he said, "that's not a bad resume to take with you."

Born in Chicago in 1914, Panama was studying law and political science at the University of Chicago when he met classmate Frank.

Frank had already written a novel and Panama had dabbled in playwriting in high school and college when they collaborated on writing a play while sharing an apartment one summer.

The experience convinced them to head to Hollywood and try to break into the movies.

Within a few months of their arrival in 1938, they landed jobs -- $80 a week for both of them -- writing for Hope, then an up-and-coming comic launching the first season of "The Pepsodent Show."

The radio show opened with one of Hope's patented monologues, but Panama and Frank specialized in writing the guest spots for Hope and guests such as Judy Garland and Groucho Marx.

Panama and Frank left the show to accept higher paying radio jobs writing for comedian Phil Baker and Rudy Vallee until making the transition to movies. They signed with Paramount Pictures after writing an original story treatment for Hope that became the 1942 comedy "My Favorite Blonde."

After half a dozen years, with time out for Panama to write for Armed Forces Radio during World War II, MGM's chief of production, Dore Schary, gave Panama and Frank the opportunity to produce and direct their own scripts.

Panama summed up his collaboration with Frank as one "in which we never knew or took credit for each other's work. It was kind of a magic machine to give and take.

"Mel and I had different strengths," Panama said, "but we sublimated our egos to what was coming out on the written page. We were a composite of almost the same personality, strangely enough -- a composite talent."

In 1966, after nearly 30 years and as many movies, Panama and Frank amicably broke up as a team.

Panama, who had directed and co-written the final Hope and Crosby "Road" picture, "The Road to Hong Kong" in 1962, directed Hope and Jackie Gleason in "How to Commit a Marriage" and Dan Rowan and Dick Martin in "The Maltese Bippy."

Panama's last film as a director was the 1976 Elliott Gould and Diane Keaton feature "I Will, I Will ... For Now," which he co-wrote with a new partner, Albert E. Lewin, who teamed with Panama on various television projects.

Panama is survived by a son, Steven; a daughter, Kathleen Williams; and two grandchildren.

A private memorial service has been held.

The family suggests that donations in Panama's name be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 4777, New York, N.Y. 10163.

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