Howard Koch; Oscar-Winning Co-Writer of 'Casablanca'

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Screenwriter Howard Koch, who penned the landmark 1938 radio program "War of the Worlds" and shared an Academy Award in 1942 for co-writing the Humphrey Bogart classic "Casablanca" only to have his career interrupted in the 1950s when he was blacklisted, died Thursday. He was 92.

Koch died at a Kingston, N.Y., hospital after a bout with pneumonia, family members said.

The playwright, who held a law degree from Columbia University, first came to Hollywood's attention after he scripted Orson Welles' famous broadcast of a fictional but seemingly real invasion from outer space. The Mercury Theater drama, based on the H.G. Wells novel and done in a news bulletin style, demonstrated the power of the relatively new medium of radio, convincing thousands that Martians had landed in New Jersey.

Koch shared his 1943 Oscar for best screenplay with Julius and Philip Epstein for their work on the World War II film starring Bogart as an American expatriate bar owner and Ingrid Bergman as his lost love in Casablanca during World War II.

Last December, Koch's "Casablanca" Oscar was auctioned for $184,000 at Christie's in New York City. Koch said his Academy Award was holding up some books on a shelf, and he decided to put it up for auction to help pay for a granddaughter's graduate school studies.

"Why shouldn't it be useful?" Koch told the Associated Press in an interview last October. "To me it's just a statue."

But to millions of movie fans, "Casablanca" was more than just another movie. The story of the cynical saloonkeeper who helps his old love escape the Nazis with her fugitive husband has become a classic.

Koch told The Times in 1992 that he and the Epsteins improvised the "Casablanca" script as the movie was being made. He said script pages were written the night before or the morning of a scene and walked onto the set to the waiting actors. He credited the Epsteins with the more romantic lines and himself with the political ones.

Even the ending was up in the air, he said.

"I remember Ingrid Bergman coming up to me saying, 'How can I play the love scene if I don't know which man I'll end up with,' " Koch told another interviewer. "I didn't know either, so I couldn't help her."

In the final scene, Bergman's character gets on a plane with her husband, leaving Bogart's Rick to walk away into a foggy night with Inspector Louis Renault, played by Claude Rains.

A traditional "boy gets girl" ending would have reduced the film to "just another movie," Koch said.

Born in New York City, Koch began writing plays in the late 1920s and then turned to radio scripts. In 1988, an anonymous bidder paid $143,000 at auction for his original "War of the Worlds" script.

In 1971, Koch wrote a paperback book detailing the pandemonium surrounding Welles' Halloween drama, titled "The Panic Broadcast." The book reiterated how East Coast listeners left their homes and jammed roads in an effort to escape supposedly invaded cities.

Koch began writing for the movies in the early 1940s. In addition to "Casablanca," his screen credits include "Sergeant York," "The Sea Hawk," "Mission to Moscow," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Letter From an Unknown Woman" and "The War Lover."

In 1951, Koch was blacklisted in Hollywood in the wake of the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into alleged Communist influence in the film industry.

He moved to Europe and wrote under the pseudonym Peter Howard, resuming his own name only in the early 1960s. His last Hollywood film was "The Fox" in 1968.

Koch is survived by his wife of 54 years, Anne; a daughter, Karyl Trainor of New York City; a son, Peter Koch of Athens, Ga.; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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