Remembering Producer Edward Lewis, Golden Globe Winner

by Yoram Kahana August 31, 2019
Producer Edward Lewis and Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick

Edward Lewis with Stanley Kubrick, 1959.

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Edward Lewis was born on December 16, 1919, in Camden, N.J., and at first, planned to become a dentist, and went to college, where, ever feisty, he was on the wrestling and boxing teams. World War II intervened and he left dental school before graduating, to enlist and serve at a military hospital in England. Discharged, he moved to Los Angeles, where he met and married Mildred Gerchik, a Brooklyn transplant with a radical and social activist family background: her mother was a garment industry organizer, and a brother had fought in the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Mildred, who died earlier this year, helped develop Lewis's "deep and powerful commitment to social justice", said their daughter, Susan who recalled how the young couple became movie producers. "They went to a social gathering where someone presented a screenplay in progress. My parents went home and said to each other, ‘We can do better than that.’ ”

For their first project, they adapted a play by Honoré de Balzac into a historical comedy, The Lovable Cheat (1949). Variety panned it, saying that  it “misses on practically all counts.” Undaunted, Lewis produced for CBS  two of the first drama anthology series on TV, and soon joined Kirk  Douglas’s Bryna production company as a writer and producer. Their collaboration on Spartacus (1960) would change Hollywood's history- one of the darkest and most shameful chapters, the blacklisting. A streak of anti-communism running through American life was inflamed after the end of World War II when Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Senate and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) led relentless investigations and hearings of alleged communists. Hollywood was a prime and visible target, and the most famous victims were the Hollywood Ten - nine screenwriters and a director who refused to cooperate and charged with contempt of Congress, were jailed by the HUAC and placed by the studios on a 'do not employ' blacklist.

Mildred Lewis had recommended "Spartacus", the novel by Howard Fast (another blacklist victim), to her husband, and he brought it to Douglas's attention.

Not satisfied with author Fast's screenplay of his book, Lewis and Douglas turned to blacklisted prolific writer Dalton Trumbo, who had been working underground since 1950, having written some 18 movie scripts, all under assumed names. The studios paid little and were afraid to give him credit. Trumbo recalled earning an average fee of $1,750 per film and said, "None was very good" (Two of them, however, won the Oscar: The Brave One in 1956 and Roman Holiday in 1953).

Lewis used a subterfuge. As Trumbo produced script pages, Lewis would present them to the studio under his own name.  Douglas would later write in his memoir  “I Am ‘Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” (2012): “Every time Eddie Lewis told someone he was writing Spartacus, it embarrassed him...The revelation of Dalton Trumbo’s involvement with Spartacus could shut down the entire picture. So Eddie continued to play the producer-turned-writer, a charade he hated.”

But the zeitgeist was ready. In 1957 CBS television allowed the hiring of blacklisted talent.  By 1959 former President Harry S Truman called the HUAC  the "most un-American thing in the country today", and in January of 1960 director Otto Preminger announced that he engaged Trumbo to write the script for his forthcoming film production of Leon Uris's bestseller "Exodus". Lewis and Douglas demanded that the studio pay Trumbo and credit him. Having invested heavily in Spartacus, some $70 million in today's dollars, the studio had little choice. Exodus was released on October 1960 by Universal International which became the first major movie studio to give screen credit to a blacklisted writer. 

"When Trumbo set foot on the studio lot of Spartacus,". Douglas wrote, “the blacklist was broken.” Although its effects remained for decades, and the harm it caused was never fully repaired.

Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis, 2004

irk Douglas (L), and Producer Edward Lewis receive the Freedom Of Express Medal award from the Institute of Modern Letters, at the Institute's award ceremony at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA Campus, November 8, 2004 in Westwood, California.

michael tulberg/getty images

 

Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was the first of six Trumbo screenplays that Lewis would produce, but none packed as much dramatic and political punch. While Lewis insisted it was not intended to be overtly political it nevertheless was seen as a 2,000-year-old prequel to the Red Scare, where HUAC demanded that witnesses name names of colleagues suspected of communist sympathies or ties, and many refused to do so. Likewise, in the movie, the Roman authorities demand that Spartacus’s fellow slaves identify him. They refuse, and in solidarity, each stands to proclaim, “I am Spartacus!”. 

A grateful Trumbo gave  Lewis a copy of his book, "Johnny Got His Gun" inscribed: “To Eddie Lewis — who risked his name to help a man who’d lost his name.”

Spartacus went on to collect six Golden Globe nominations, and win the award for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Lewis's first Globe.

His next Globe nomination came soon after, for producing The Fixer (1969), Bernard Malamud's novel directed by John Frankenheimer, one of several of his movies produced by Lewis. Again, Lewis was attracted to social justice issues. An echo of the blacklisting witch hunt, this is the story of Yakov Bok, a Jew living in the Russian Empire, unjustly imprisoned and interrogated, a persecution based on prejudice and the blood libel and false accusation of having murdered a Christian boy (as happened in the Beilis Trial of 1913). In addition to Lewis's nomination for producing the Best Motion Picture Drama, The HFPA nominated Alan Bates, the lead actor, and Trumbo for his screenplay.

Lewis's third Golden Globe nomination was for Constantin Costa Gavras's Missing (1983), which he co-produced with his wife Mildred. Loosely based on a true story, it follows the father and wife  (Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) of an American journalist who went missing while on assignment in a South American dictatorship. The futile search is an indictment of American involvement in Augusto Pinochet's Chile and fits squarely in the cannon of Ed Lewis's lifelong pursuit of justice.

Last, Lewis won his second Globe for producing the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983) a torrid and tangled soaper centered on a rebel priest (played by Richard Chamberlain) exiled to an Australian sheep raising town and the women in his life. First planned as a feature, Lewis stayed to produce it for legendary hitmaker David Wolper. It was based on Colleen McCullough's all-time Australian bestseller and worldwide favorite and became the second-highest-rated U.S. miniseries of all time behind Wolper's Roots (1977). The HFPA too loved The Thorn Birds, showering it with eight nominations and four wins.

 Edward Lewis productins

A life's work (clockwise from top left): Jack Lemmon in Missing; Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus; Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds; Alan Bates in The Fixer.

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After producing The River (1984) with Mel Gibson and, again, Sissy Spacek, Lewis hung up his producer's hat and went back to his first love, writing.

“(At first) I couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I became a producer," Lewis told a reporter, discussing the musical he wrote and produced, The Good Life (1987), two years before turning 70. “But more than 30 films, I-don’t-know-how-many TV shows, and one Broadway show later, I’d gotten to a point where I decided to do what I always wanted and loved. So I started to write screenplays, a novel no one’s seen — and out of that came the idea for this ( play)". Set in the 1929 stock market crash, it follows a man who is “principled and believes in things... and even at 70, looks at life ahead...And, you know, that’s been the theme of my own life."

His daughter Susan eulogizing her father, said: "He was always upbeat and optimistic and sang “With a Little Bit of Luck” from My Fair Lady through the end."

Edward Lewis, ever the cheerful fighter, his luck ran out at 99.