Hollywood screenwriter

Born: April 12, 1927;

Died: May 9, 2019

ALVIN Sargent, who has died aged 92, was an American screenwriter for film and television whose credited career ran for nearly sixty years, from 1953 until 2012. He won Academy Awards in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for the Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave-starring Holocaust drama, Julia (1977) and Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980), and received a third nomination in the same category for Peter Bogdanovich’s Great Depression-era drama, Paper Moon (1973).

This century, while he was already in his mid-seventies, Sargent enjoyed an unexpected renaissance in the upper reaches of box-office superhero cinema as one of the writing team on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007), as well as the rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). The connection came through his wife Laura Ziskin, a producer on all four films; he was one of three writers (including the director, James Cameron,) whose contributions on the first film went uncredited, but he was a lead writer on the next two instalments and much of his work on the abortive Spider-Man 4 was used – with credit – in the 2012 reboot.

Throughout his career, what fans of Sargent’s writing most warmed to was the genuine humour and humanity of his characters, even in the toughest of circumstances. Ordinary People, adapted from Judith Guest’s book and starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, is often seen as his masterpiece, a reserved but profoundly resonant study of a middle-class family struggling after the death of a child.

Among his other key scripts were Sydney Pollack’s Al Pacino-starring Formula One drama, Bobby Deerfield (1977), Ulu Grosbard’s Dustin Hoffman-starring crime thriller Straight Time (1977), Norman Jewison’s theatrical adaptation on the subject of the financial industry, Other People’s Money (1991), starring Danny DeVito, and What About Bob? (1991), Frank Oz’s psychiatric black comedy featuring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.

Born Alvin Supowitz in Philadelphia in 1927, Sargent was the son of Russian Jewish migrants Esther Kadansky and Isaac Supowitz; his father, who sold grain during the Depression era, would take his own life at the age of 43.

Sargent’s grades at Upper Darby High School in Delaware County weren’t good, and he joined the US Navy towards the end of the Second World War in order to receive an automatic graduation from school. Despite having no artistic ambitions in his youth, he learned to type quickly while taking down Morse Code.

After his service years, Sargent moved to California with his mother, who wanted to live near her sister. He worked as a waiter, a delivery driver (dropping off suits with Hollywood figures like Cecil B. DeMille) and a prop-shifter with television companies, and studied at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). With a growing interest in becoming an actor, he joined Hollywood’s Circle Theatre - now El Centro Theatre - and was directed onstage by Charlie Chaplin.

Although his interest in acting tailed off and he moved into advertising sales for the magazine Variety, Sargent’s acting CV was still with an agent, who called him one day with the offer of a small screen part on From Here to Eternity in Hawaii; he took it and worked with the director Fred Zinnemann, who two-and-a-half-decades later directed Sargent’s script for Julia.

Yet, despite small and infrequent writing and acting gigs for television, he remained in advertising for another decade, before managing to gain traction as a full-time television writer in the 1960s on such series as Naked City, Route 66 and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

His big break as a screenwriter came through his friend Alan J. Pakula, who asked Sargent to adapt John Nichols’ novel The Sterile Cuckoo (the film was released in 1969 and won two Academy Awards), but his first film credit was as the co-writer of the Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine-starring Gambit (1966).

“I find something alive, I hope,” said Sargent of his writing once. “I think too many (writers) are too organised, they’ve got it all worked out, instead of hearing their characters. Over a period of time I begin to understand them, to think about them not only in terms of where they are in the story… I think about where these people are today, even when I’m not writing.”

At the very end of his career Sargent finally considered himself retired, and made the writerly joke: “When I die, I’m going to have written on my tombstone: ‘Finally, a plot.’”

He was married to the actor Joan Camden for 22 years, with whom he had two daughters, Amanda and Jennifer, and to Laura Ziskin after two-and-a-half decades together in 2010, the year before she died. His elder brother, whom he idolised, was the Hollywood screenwriter, Herbert Sargent.

David Pollock