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Fay Kanin dies at 95; screenwriter was former Academy president

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Fay Kanin, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the 1958 Clark Gable-Doris Day comedy "Teacher's Pet" and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, died Wednesday. She was 95.

In a writing career that spanned more than four decades, Kanin penned screenplays for movies such as the 1954 Elizabeth Taylor romantic drama "Rhapsody" and television specials such as "Tell Me Where It Hurts," for which she won two Emmy Awards in 1974. She won another Emmy in 1979 for producing "Friendly Fire," a critically acclaimed Carol Burnett TV movie based on the true story of an American soldier killed in the Vietnam War.

Kanin served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1979 to 1983, and was its second female president after actress Bette Davis. Kanin also was a longtime chairperson of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress and served on the board of the American Film Institute.

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She died of natural causes at her home in Santa Monica, said caretaker Monique West.

The Academy said in a statement that Kanin had been instrumental in expanding the organization's public programming and was committed to its preservation work.

"A tireless mentor and inspiration to countless filmmakers, Fay's passion for film continues to inspire us daily," the Academy said.

As a screenwriter who got her start in the early 1940s, Kanin was a pioneering figure in an industry then dominated by men. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she and husband Michael Kanin, the late Oscar-winning screenwriter, were placed on a so-called gray list — a less formal and severe version of the anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist. The Kanins, who were friends with Communist Party members, were denied work for about two years in the early 1950s until director Charles Vidor asked them to write "Rhapsody."

In 1986, upon receiving an honor from the Genii Awards, which recognize the achievements of women working in the entertainment business, Kanin said that it was important to "choose projects you believe in, and fight whatever battles are necessary to get them realized.

"You can work with people you respect and forge relationships with people who mean something," she told attendees, according to a 1986 Los Angeles Times article.

Kanin often collaborated on scripts with her husband, who shared the Oscar for best original screenplay with Ring Lardner Jr. in 1942 for "Woman of the Year." The Kanins shared the best original screenplay Oscar nomination for "Teacher's Pet," which centers on an ornery newspaper editor played by Gable who falls for an idealistic journalism instructor played by Day.

Kanin told The Times in a 2001 interview that "Teacher's Pet" was originally written as a serious film, but she and her husband found no takers for the script. Rewritten by the couple as a comedy, the project sold to Paramount Pictures. When actors Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were unavailable, the film's producers asked the Kanins about Gable.

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"We said that happens to be the perfect casting," she said. "Nobody could do this better than Gable."

Born in New York to Bessie and David Mitchell on May 9, 1917, Kanin grew up in Elmira, N.Y., where she won the New York State Spelling Championship as a teenager. She went on to attend Elmira College, and completed her course work at USC after the Mitchell family moved to Los Angeles, according to "Encyclopaedia Judaica."

After graduating from USC in the late 1930s, Kanin decided to pursue a career in Hollywood with the help of an uncle who had contacts in show business. She got a job as a reader in RKO's story department.

While there, Kanin met her future husband, then a writer in the company's B movie unit. The Kanins married in 1940 and had two sons, Joel and Josh. Joel died of lung cancer in 1958 at age 13.

The couple formed half of a formidable Hollywood family. Michael Kanin's younger brother Garson Kanin was a screenwriter and his wife Ruth Gordon won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her turn in "Rosemary's Baby." In 2001, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art put on a two-week film festival called "The Kanins — A Remarkable Family," that honored the work of the foursome.

Kanin's writing credits also include the 1949 Broadway comedy "Goodbye, My Fancy," the 1959 Broadway adaptation of "Rashomon" and other TV movies such as "Heartsounds" and "Hustling."

Kanin's husband died in 1993. She is survived by her son Josh, two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

daniel.miller@latimes.com

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