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Nelson Gidding, 84; Oscar Nominee Wrote for Radio, TV, Movies

May 07, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Nelson Gidding -- a screenwriter and frequent collaborator of director Robert Wise whose credits included "The Haunting," "The Andromeda Strain" and "I Want to Live!" -- has died. He was 84.

Gidding, a Pacific Palisades resident, died of congestive heart failure Sunday at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

"I Want to Live!" -- a 1958 drama -- was based on the real-life story of Barbara Graham, who was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber in 1955 after she and two accomplices were convicted of strangling and beating to death a wealthy, disabled Burbank widow.

Susan Hayward won a best actress Oscar for her performance as Graham, and Gidding shared a screenwriting Oscar nomination with Don Mankiewicz for their adaptation of newspaper and magazine articles about Graham and letters she wrote.

In his review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "The screenplay by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz contains the right kind of lean, crisp movie plotting and writing that gets ideas across with a maximum of vivid action and a minimum of useless words."

The script for "I Want to Live!" was the first of five screenplays Gidding wrote or co-wrote for Wise. The others were for "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959), "The Haunting" (1963), "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) and "The Hindenburg" (1975).

"Those are five of my favorite films of the 40 I've done," Wise told The Times this week. "He was a lovely man, a fine talent, and had a wonderful sense of humor. When you were around Nelson, he was always telling jokes. He was very lighthearted and also a very serious screenwriter."

Wise -- who received an Oscar nomination for directing "I Want to Live!" -- said they got the film's title from a letter that Graham wrote to a woman friend while Graham was appealing her death sentence.

"The working title for the film was 'The Barbara Graham Story' or something like that," Wise recalled. "In one of her letters, she said, 'I told you I don't want to live. I changed my mind; I want to live!' "

The son of a department store co-owner, Gidding was born in New York City in 1919. He once recalled that his interest in writing began during childhood, when a poem he wrote was published in the Boy Scouts' magazine.

After attending Phillips Exeter Academy, he majored in history and literature at Harvard College.

While serving as a navigator on a B-26 Marauder in World War II, Gidding's bomber was shot down and the pilot made a belly landing in the mountains north of Rome.

Gidding and the other crew members hid in caves near a village for a month before they were betrayed by an Italian fascist and handed over to the Germans, said Gidding's son, Josh.

During his 18 months in POW camps in Italy and Germany, Gidding began writing a novel based on his experiences as a prisoner. He wrote it in tiny script with smuggled-in pencils and paper, which he kept hidden from his guards, his son said.

Gidding finished the novel in Mexico after the war, and it was published as "End Over End" in 1946.

Gidding then began writing for radio, including "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," for which he later wrote the television pilot and episodes of the 1955-'58 TV series. He also wrote television scripts for "Suspense," "The Inner Sanctum," "Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents" and "Playwrights '56."

Gidding moved to the big screen as co-writer of "The Helen Morgan Story," the 1957 drama about the 1920s and '30s singer, starring Ann Blyth and Paul Newman.

Among his other screen credits were "Onionhead" (1958), "Skullduggery" (1970), "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979) and "The Mummy Lives" (1993).

Until last year, Gidding had spent more than a decade teaching a course on screen adaptations at USC.

"Nelson, aside from being the superb, Academy Award-nominated writer that he was, was a wonderful teacher," said John Furia Jr, a USC professor of writing for screen and television who brought Gidding into the writing program.

"He had a kind of mischievous, pixieish sense of humor and a very clear passion for writing well that he communicated to his students," Furia said. "He was demanding and very caring with his students and often worked with them after class to continue to help them with their work."

Hilde, Gidding's wife of 46 years, died in 1995. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Chunling, and one grandson.

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