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A.I. Bezzerides, 98; novelist became a screenwriter known for film noir classics

January 09, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

A.I. Bezzerides, a novelist and short-story writer who became a Hollywood screenwriter best known for the post-World War II film noir classics "Kiss Me Deadly," "On Dangerous Ground" and "Thieves' Highway," has died. He was 98.

Bezzerides died Jan. 1 at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills after a brief illness, said his daughter, Zoe Ohl.

Bezzerides was working as a communications engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power when his 1938 novel "Long Haul" was turned into "They Drive by Night," a 1940 melodrama with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as struggling trucker brothers hauling California produce.

It was only after Warner Bros. paid him $2,000 for the rights to his novel and put him under contract as a $300-a-week screenwriter that Bezzerides discovered that a script based on his book already had been written.

"I had no idea whether it was guilt or conscience, or greed to swindle more stories out of me, for peanuts, that motivated Warner Bros. to offer me a seven-year contract, with options to be exercised every six months," Bezzerides wrote in the afterword to the 1997 University of California Press republication of his 1949 novel "Thieves' Market."

"Whatever their reason, I grabbed their offer so I could quit my putrid career as a communications engineer by becoming a writer, writing scripts in an entirely new world."

Known to his friends as Buzz, Bezzerides' first film credit was "Juke Girl," a 1942 story of migrant farmworkers starring Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan.

While under contract to Warner Bros. during World War II, he did uncredited polishing of the scripts for the 1943 wartime drama "Action in the North Atlantic," starring Bogart, and for other films. "There Is a Happy Land," the second of his three novels, was published in 1942.

After leaving Warner Bros., Bezzerides wrote or co-wrote films such as "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef," "Desert Fury," "Sirocco" and "Track of the Cat."

He segued into television in the 1950s, writing for such series as "Bonanza," "DuPont Theater," "Rawhide," "77 Sunset Strip" and "The Virginian."

He also was the co-creator of "The Big Valley," the popular 1960s western series starring Barbara Stanwyck.

To film buffs, Bezzerides was best known for "Thieves' Highway," director Jules Dassin's thriller based on Bezzerides' 1949 novel; "On Dangerous Ground," Nicholas Ray's 1952 crime drama; and "Kiss Me Deadly," Robert Aldrich's 1955 crime thriller loosely based on the Mickey Spillane novel.

"Buzz was more of a pivotal figure in the development of American film noir than he has been given credit for," said writer-publisher Garrett White, who interviewed Bezzerides for the foreword White wrote for the reprint of "Thieves' Market."

In an interview with White, Bezzerides said Aldrich called him shortly before he died in 1983.

"He wanted to tell me that he had just reread my script for 'Kiss Me Deadly,' " Bezzerides recalled. When he asked why, Aldrich told him, "I wanted to see how I could've shot it in three weeks. You know what? It was all there" in the script.

White said a common thread runs through all of Bezzerides' work, "and that has to do with his constant meditation on human -- and particularly male -- destructiveness. He thought long and hard about why people do what they do to nature, to each other and to themselves. Hence, he was able to write about violence, which is often key to the crime stories that film noir tended to revolve around."

White, who knew Bezzerides for 20 years, said that "for all of his toughness and for writing about the dark side of human nature, he was simply one of the most gentle, big-hearted and generous people I've ever known. He gave away a lot of his money trying to help drug addicts and just people in need."

During his time at Warner Bros., Bezzerides was a close friend with another contract writer at the studio: William Faulkner.

"Faulkner actually stayed with Buzz and his first wife [Yvonne] in Brentwood from time to time," White said.

He said Bezzerides is quoted "in most of the Faulkner biographies," and he wrote the documentary "William Faulkner: A Life on Paper," which aired on PBS in the late 1970s.

The son of an Armenian mother and a Turkish-speaking Greek father, Albert Isaac Bezzerides was born Aug. 9, 1908, in Samsun, Turkey. He moved to America with his parents before he was 2, and they settled in Fresno, where his father worked in the fields before becoming a produce-hauling trucker.

Bezzerides, who grew up with young William Saroyan, began writing short stories while studying at UC Berkeley. His first published story, "Passage Into Eternity," appeared in a 1935 issue of Story magazine.

Three of his Fresno-set short stories from the 1930s will appear in the anthology "Forgotten Bread: Armenian American Writers of the First Generation," to be published in the fall by Heyday Books in Berkeley.

Bezzerides was the subject of two recent documentaries, "The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides" (2005) and "Buzz" (2006).

A longtime Woodland Hills resident whose first marriage ended in divorce, Bezzerides was married to film and television writer Silvia Richards until her death in 1999.

In addition to his daughter Zoe, he is survived by a son, Peter; daughter Rachel Morgan; a granddaughter; and four great-grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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