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David Newman, 66; Screenwriter's Credits Include 'Bonnie and Clyde,' 'Superman' Films

June 30, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

David Newman, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the initially controversial "Bonnie and Clyde," has died at the age of 66.

Newman, whose credits also include the "Superman" trilogy, starring Christopher Reeve, died Thursday in a New York City hospital, five days after suffering a stroke.

The eclectic writer penned a dozen movies, several Broadway plays, a book and magazine articles and columns. But none was as famous as the script that made him famous -- "Bonnie and Clyde," for the 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

The screenplay, co-written with long-time partner Robert Benton, earned the duo awards from the Writers Guild of America, New York Film Critics and National Film Critics; the Oscar nomination; and a three-picture contract at Warner Bros.

Nevertheless, "Bonnie and Clyde" -- about a pair of Depression-era bank robbers -- was denounced by many critics, including the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, for making heroes of criminals and encouraging violence. But Pauline Kael, writing for the New Yorker, correctly recognized the script as a turning point in writing for American movies.

Newman and Benton, with a penchant for history, meticulous research, and stories about actual criminal and social happenings in America's development, subsequently won recognition from Los Angeles Times contributor Estelle Changas for their "sensitivity to the changing climate of America, which they have both mockingly satirized and seriously explored."

Born in New York City, Newman earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Michigan, where he won two Avery Hopwood Awards: one for short stories and the other for writing plays.

He began his career in 1960 as a writer and editor for Esquire magazine, and soon met Benton, then the magazine's art director.

"David was a good friend of mine, and David was a great writer, so I spun these stories about the glories of being a screenwriter, and we wrote," Benton told Associated Press in 1991. He said they were inspired to write "Bonnie and Clyde," which they wrote at night while working for Esquire, when they saw a footnote on the actual Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who had been shot to death in a police ambush in 1934.

Despite the initial outcry over its violence, audiences flocked to the film. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best screenplay, and won two (best supporting actress for Estelle Parsons and best cinematography).

Together, Newman and Benton wrote scripts for "Hubba, Hubba," "There Was a Crooked Man," "Bad Company," "Stab" and "Still of the Night," and shared credits with others including Mario Puzo and Newman's wife Leslie, on the initial "Superman" in 1978.

The team also wrote the original draft of "What's Up, Doc," which starred Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, in 1972. Buck Henry completed the script, and all three shared the best-written comedy award from the Writers Guild of America.

Newman and Benton scripted the 1966 Broadway play "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," and the hilarious wife-swapping sketch for "Oh, Calcutta" in 1969; wrote the 1964 book "Extremism: A Non Book"; and penned a regular column, "Man Talk," for Mademoiselle magazine from 1964 to 1974.

They wrote for several magazines, including McCall's, Look, New York, Glamour and Esquire, where they created the Dubious Achievement Awards. Newman coined the now-popular satirical phrase "Why is this man laughing?" for that feature, originally to accompany a picture of Richard M. Nixon.

With his wife, Newman went on to write the two Superman sequels. On his own, he wrote the book for the Tony-nominated musical "The Life" and the script for the 1985 Dudley Moore film "Santa Claus."

Newman is survived by his wife; two children, Nathan and Catherine; a brother, Martin of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned in July at Elaine's, the Manhattan nightclub where celebrities congregate, a favorite of Newman's.

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