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Sidney Sheldon, 89; prolific writer

January 31, 2007|Bettijane Levine and Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writers

Sidney Sheldon, a writer whose keen grasp of popular tastes fueled a string of feverishly romantic and suspenseful books that made him a perennial bestseller with millions of copies in print around the world, died Tuesday. He was 89. Sheldon died of pneumonia at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, according to his friend and publicist Warren Cowan.

A multifaceted writer, Sheldon won a screenwriting Oscar and a Tony award and had created popular television sitcoms before starting his first novel at the age of 52. But it was through the novels that he gained his overriding fame.

His books usually revolved around characters of great wealth, beauty, brilliance and bedroom prowess -- none of which protected them from infidelity, betrayal and indiscretion. Sheldon's protagonists were usually women and his plots were so artfully constructed that his books are the very definition of a page-turner.

He was one of the world's most translated authors, selling more than 300 million books in 180 countries. They were printed in 51 languages, including Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan and India, and Swahili.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Sheldon obituary: In some editions of Wednesday's California section, the obituary for novelist Sidney Sheldon said his daughter, Mary, was from his first marriage. She was from his second marriage.

With his second novel, "The Other Side of Midnight" (1974), Sheldon broke into the blockbuster ranks; the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 53 weeks -- a record at the time.

About half of his 18 novels -- with such titles as "Rage of Angels" (1980) and "Memories of Midnight" (1990) -- were turned into television movies or miniseries. Demand for his stories was so great that CBS executives reportedly paid Sheldon $1 million for the rights to make a miniseries of 1985's "If Tomorrow Comes" before they had even read it.

Some critics said his dialogue was banal and his plots were unbelievable, but many grudgingly acknowledged the author's unusual talent at producing what the Washington Post once called "good junk reading time after time."

After Sheldon's 1987 novel "Windmills of the Gods" debuted at No. 1 on bestseller lists, Charles Champlin, then The Times' arts editor, wrote that Sheldon had found "a statistically wider audience each time, evidently satisfying everyone except most literary critics, who regard popularity and quality as incompatible."

Fans admired plotlines that were amazingly complex yet easy to follow -- and the colorful characters who could never be counted on to do the expected.

"Sidney's longevity secret is that he is a great storyteller, a master of the narrative tale," his literary agent, Mort Janklow, told The Times in 2004. "Readers care about his characters, many of whom are women under threat. He has an instinctive ability to read women's emotions."

For his part, Sheldon said: "I don't write for critics. I write for readers."

From the early 1940s until almost 1970, he had written mainly for viewers.

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Wins Oscar in 1948

His wry and witty script for "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" (1947) won him a 1948 Academy Award for original screenplay. The farce, which starred Cary Grant and Shirley Temple, was "uncloyed with cuteness," the New York Times review said at the time.

Sheldon was also a screenwriter for the Judy Garland-Fred Astaire musical "Easter Parade" (1948) and the Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949). After he helped adapt the Irving Berlin hit "Annie Get Your Gun" to the big screen, the 1950 Betty Hutton-Howard Keel vehicle received generally favorable reviews.

He wrote half a dozen plays for Broadway. His biggest hit was the musical "Redhead," starring Gwen Verdon, which ran for a little more than a year from 1959 to 1960 and brought him a Tony for co-writing the book.

After working on about two dozen films, he turned toward television, writing scores of episodes for two hit sitcoms he created -- "The Patty Duke Show" (ABC, 1963-66) and "I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-70), according to Sheldon's memoir "The Other Side of Me" (2005).

Creating a show for Duke was a challenge because "she was so extraordinarily talented I did not want to waste her abilities," Sheldon wrote. He decided she should play twin sisters but changed it to look-alike cousins to explain why the characters had grown up without knowing each other.

"Jeannie," which starred Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, opened to mixed reviews but had a loyal fan base, Sheldon wrote. One episode, "Bigger Than a Bread Box and Better Than a Genie," featured Sheldon's wife, Jorja, as a fortuneteller and his mother as a character in a seance scene.

He also created the glamorous "Hart to Hart" series, starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, that aired on ABC from 1979 to 1984.

He was born Sidney Schechtel on Feb. 11, 1917, in Chicago, the son of Otto, a salesman, and Natalie, a homemaker. Unable to pay the rent, the family kept moving and Sheldon attended about a dozen schools.

Sheldon later remarked that his career as a writer was rather improbable considering his background.

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Becoming a writer

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