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Irving Sorkin, 88; dentist saw Hollywood dream come true as award-winning producer

October 25, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When Arleen Sorkin was a struggling young actress and landed her first job as an extra on the 1979 Al Pacino movie ". . . And Justice for All," her dentist-father stopped her as she headed out the door of her family's Washington, D.C., home and handed her a movie treatment he had written.

"Give it to Al Pacino," he told her.

Dr. Irving Sorkin's movie treatment never went anywhere, but over the years he never gave up on his dream of seeing one of his many story ideas -- mostly about historical figures, whose stories he felt had to be told -- make it to the screen.

"He'd come out to Los Angeles with a giant plaid suitcase filled with concepts, treatments, scripts and books he wrote," recalled Arleen Sorkin, who served as her father's agent and is now a writer, producer and actress.

"Since 1981," she said, "I'd ask everybody that I met to 'please take a meeting with my father,' not really expecting anything other than it would make him happy that he was actively working on his dream."

Sorkin, who died of lymphoma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Oct. 18 at 88, finally saw his dream come true three years ago, with the 2004 HBO movie "Something the Lord Made."

The movie was primarily based on a 1989 article Sorkin had read in Washingtonian magazine and then championed to see that the tale got turned into a movie: Katie McCabe's National Magazine Award-winning story about the unlikely segregation-era partnership between white surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and his brilliant black laboratory assistant Vivien Thomas.

Together, the two men devised the operative techniques that led to the world's first "blue baby" operation and the advent of modern heart surgery.

The Emmy Award-winning historical drama, starring Alan Rickman and Mos Def, earned Sorkin his first screen credit -- as co-producer. And, as one of the film's producers, he won a Peabody Award for the film, which was recognized "for exploring the anatomy of the human heart and the 'heart' of human exchange."

The story of the interracial partnership between Blalock and Thomas was first pitched to NBC and then was in development at Paramount for many years, Arleen Sorkin said, but the studio eventually passed on it.

"My father wouldn't let me give up, and I didn't give up," she said.

McCabe said this week that Irving Sorkin was "the critical person" in seeing that the story of Blalock and Thomas made it to the screen.

"He was the linchpin in the whole thing," she said. "He's the first set of eyes that fell in love with the story and said, 'This could be a movie.' He really was a very unusual man. He had a real eye for unsung, unheralded heroes."

Sorkin was born Dec. 14, 1918, in Utica, N.Y. He received a bachelor's degree from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1940 and his doctor of dental surgery degree from the University of Pennsylvania Dental College in 1944. During World War II, he served in the Army Dental Corps in numerous hospitals around the country.

Sorkin, who originally dreamed of becoming a history professor, wrote several historical plays, one of which, "Solomon and Sheba," was produced in Silver Spring, Md. He also co-wrote an unpublished book about the alleged Spanish-Judaic ancestry of Christopher Columbus.

Recalling her father's first show-business pitch meeting in the early 1980s, with an off-Broadway producer concerning a play about legendary entertainer Josephine Baker, Arleen Sorkin said he suddenly grew quiet.

"He stopped mid-pitch, and he looked around the room and said, 'I can't believe somebody's finally listening to me.' "

At the 2004 Emmy Awards ceremony, when "Something the Lord Made" won for outstanding made-for-television movie, actor Kelsey Grammer helped Sorkin on stage to join all of the film's producers.

It was an emotional moment for Arleen Sorkin.

"I lived my whole life in fear he'd die and never be able to see his dream," she said. But more important was that "all of his friends lived long enough to see my father get his dream. That was the miracle. It was not so much that my father lived to see it, but his friends lived to see, 'Irv did it.'

"For me, seeing him go up on the stage, I thought, 'My God, I've crossed the finish line.' "

But, she said, "it had the opposite effect" on her father. "He wanted more. He moved out to California, left my mother in Washington, and spent the last years developing his projects."

At the time of his death, she said, her father had four projects in development: a mini-series, a Broadway musical and two movies.

In addition to his daughter, who is the wife of producer Christopher Lloyd, Sorkin is survived by his wife of 60 years, Joyce; his sons Dr. Arthur Sorkin and Robert Sorkin; and four grandchildren.

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