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Melville Shavelson, 90; veteran writer, director, producer

August 09, 2007|Amy Kaufman | Times Staff Writer

Melville Shavelson, a comedy writer, producer and director who worked with stars such as Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and garnered two Academy Award nominations for his original screenplays, died Wednesday. He was 90.

Shavelson died of natural causes at his home in Studio City, said Warren Cowan, Shavelson's longtime friend and publicist.

A self-proclaimed writer by choice, producer by necessity and director in self-defense, Shavelson was a triple-threat, a rarity in the industry, writing more than 35 feature motion pictures either alone or in collaboration, directing 12 of them and creating two Emmy Award-winning television series, "Make Room for Daddy" and "My World and Welcome to It."

"Reed-thin and quietly reflective . . . he is a perpetual-emotion machine, a glib Vesuvius of insightful stories and wry commentary about humanity," a 1978 Times story said of Shavelson.

Kirk Douglas, who acted alongside John Wayne, Yul Brynner and Frank Sinatra in the 1966 film "Cast a Giant Shadow," which Shavelson wrote, produced and directed, remembered him as "a great guy" and "an excellent juggler."

"He never dropped an actor. I loved working with him," Douglas said in a statement released Wednesday.

Shavelson told Times columnist Patrick Goldstein this year that he and Douglas bickered so much on the Israeli set of that film that the director walked off for a day, prompting Douglas to send him a letter after the movie wrapped that Shavelson still had hanging on his office wall.

"Mel, I think it was a good picture," the letter read. "It could have been better if I had paid more attention to you."

Shavelson famously loved recounting the antics of Hollywood stars -- claiming, for example, that Cary Grant's pursuit of Sophia Loren on the set of their 1957 comedy, "Houseboat," caused the director to develop an ulcer.

"Very often the people who have the most talent are the most troublesome to deal with," he told The Times in 1978. "Maybe trouble and talent are interconnected. Maybe it takes a strong, demanding personality to stand in front of a camera and recite lines."

Shavelson began his career in Hollywood as a gag writer for Bob Hope's 1938 "Pepsodent Show" on the radio. In 1947, he would go on to write for Hope's first foray into television.

The relationship between the two was long-standing, with the friendship earning Shavelson the opportunity to make his directing debut on "The Seven Little Foys," a 1954 film in which Hope played vaudevillian Eddie Foy. Shavelson's screenplay for that film earned him his first Academy Award nomination; he got another for "Houseboat."

Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch," began a lengthy friendship with Shavelson while the two young men were both working for Hope in 1938.

"He was a good, bright guy; dependable. He was quite something," he told The Times on Wednesday.

Schwartz credits Shavelson with playing a key role in the success of "Gilligan's Island": He allowed Schwartz to record the show's iconic theme song at his home studio on a Sunday when other recording studios were closed. It was the song that clinched the deal with CBS, Schwartz said.

"My world got a lot colder when Mel's fire went out last night," said Hal Kanter, an Emmy-winning television writer who also met Shavelson while working for Hope. "He was one of the most generous people I've ever known. He leaves a big body of work, and I will miss him because I loved him."

Shavelson, born April 1, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y., began crafting jokes as a child while working at his father's general store.

In 1937, he graduated from Cornell University, where he was a humor columnist at the campus paper and produced a radio program for the school station.

Shortly after leaving college, he was hired by a Broadway press agent to write jokes for syndicated humor columnists. He moved to Hollywood in 1938, and that year he married his first wife, Lucille T. Myers. She died in 2000, and in 2001 he married Ruth Florea.

Among the films that he both wrote and directed were "It Started in Naples," "On the Double," "Yours Mine and Ours" and "The War Between Men and Women."

In 1969, Shavelson was elected president of the Writers Guild of America, West, where he served three terms and was the recipient of the organization's highest honor, the Laurel Award for Screen Writing.

Shavelson wrote several books, including "How to Make a Jewish Movie," "Don't Shoot, It's Only Me: Bob Hope's Comedy History of the U.S." (co-written with Hope) and an autobiography released on his 90th birthday this year, "How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying: P.S. -- You Can't!"

In recent years, Shavelson served on the faculty at USC's master of professional writing program.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth Shavelson, children Richard Shavelson and Lynne Joiner, and grandchildren Karin Salim, Amy Kurpius and Scott Joiner.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be sent to help animals via either Defenders of Wildlife, the Hollywood Office of the Humane Society of the United States or the Pet Adoption Fund.

Memorial services are pending.

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