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George Axelrod, 81; Wrote for Radio, Stage and Screen

June 22, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

George Axelrod, the writer perhaps best known for his witty examinations of 1950s social mores, most notably in his play "The Seven Year Itch," died Saturday morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Axelrod, who also became a sought-after scriptwriter, adapting literary works like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Bus Stop" and "The Manchurian Candidate" for the big screen, died in his sleep of heart failure, his actress daughter, Nina Axelrod, told the Associated Press.

His success in theater and films was early and large. A radio and television writer in New York City in the late 1940s, Axelrod had one unsuccessful play to his credit, "Small Wonder," when he penned "The Seven Year Itch" in about six weeks in 1952.

The three-act play is about a husband who has an affair with a beautiful young woman while his wife and children are in the country for the summer, and then has to deal with the guilt. The production was an enormous hit, running on Broadway for nearly three years.

" 'Itch' is really heartfelt in a way," Axelrod said in an interview with film historian Patrick McGilligan some years ago. "It was a comedy, but I was madly in love with a young actress while I was married, and I used to go through agonies about it. I took a lot of her dialogue, her chatter, almost word for word, and put in into the play. Later, this lady played 'Itch' on tour, and she told me, 'God, that dialogue is so real.' She had no idea it was stuff she had said."

Billy Wilder collaborated with Axelrod on the film script and directed the 1955 movie, which starred Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.

Born in New York City, Axelrod told interviewers that he grew up haphazardly there, never staying in school very long. He became a voracious reader to make up for his lack of formal eduction. He began his career in the theater as a stage manager and sometime actor in summer stock productions.

After serving in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, Axelrod found work writing scripts for radio programs, including "The Shadow," "Midnight" and "Grand Ole Opry," eventually branching into television. He said he contributed to or collaborated on more than 400 TV and radio scripts, and wrote for a number of top comedians, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

Then came the one failed play and the enormous success of "The Seven Year Itch."

Axelrod would later call the motion picture version less than a success because of the morality codes in the film industry at the time. "In the movie, he couldn't have an affair, but he felt guilty anyway, so the premise didn't make any sense," he told McGilligan.

Axelrod's next stage hit was "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" a satire on the movie business, which ran for more than a year on Broadway in the mid-1950s. It, too, was turned into a film, starring Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield.

Axelrod was contemptuous of the 1957 movie, however, saying he didn't go see it because the studio, 20th Century Fox, "never used my story, my play or my script."

Through the late 1950s and early '60s, Axelrod became known for delivering screenplays with craft and sophistication, and was one of the top-paid writers in Hollywood. He adapted Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for the screen in 1961, earning an Academy Award nomination.

The next year, he adapted "The Manchurian Candidate," the Richard Condon novel about brainwashing and subversive politics. He also co-produced the film with John Frankenheimer.

Axelrod, who considered the movie a black comedy, told McGilligan that it was the best adaptation he ever wrote.

In the midst of Cold War tensions, the film -- starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury -- faced resistance from political groups angered by the idea that an American war hero could be brainwashed into carrying out the will of a foreign government.

After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, the movie was taken out of circulation and wasn't re-released until 1988, when it became a box office hit and was deemed by critics to be a classic of American cinema.

Other highlights of Axelrod's career include the two-act play "Goodbye Charlie," three novels and his film directorial efforts "Lord Love a Duck" in 1966 and "The Secret Life of the American Wife" in 1968. He wrote the screenplays for both films, and, although neither did particularly well critically or commercially, "Lord Love a Duck," which starred Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall, has become something of a cult favorite over the years.

In addition to his daughter, Axelrod is survived by sons Jonathan, a film producer; Peter; and Steven; seven grandchildren; and sister Connie Burdick.

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