Lonne Elder III, award-winning writer for screen, stage and television who wrote the insightful motion picture “Sounder” about a black sharecropping family in the Depression and the play “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” about a Harlem family in the 1950s, has died. He was 69.
Elder, whose two most famous works earned him nominations for the Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize respectively, died Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills of a chronic illness.
The writer of such screenplays as “Melinda” and “Bustin’ Loose” was inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame in 1979.
His most famous film was the 1972 movie “Sounder” starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield as Southern sharecroppers who grow and change during years of poverty.
“All the scenes in ‘Sounder’ came from some grueling, tormenting emotional moments of Lonne Elder III,” the Georgia-born author noted in a 1973 letter to The Times shortly after his screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.
“It was the first film that broke the mold of blaxploitation,” said Robert B. Radnitz, producer of “Sounder” and its sequel. “We went through eight drafts, and Lonne was wonderful to work with and a real artist. He will really be missed.”
The “Sounder” script also earned Elder the USC Film Conference Award of Merit, the Christopher Award, the Atlanta Film Festival Silver Award and an Image Award.
Elder also wrote prolifically for television, most memorably the miniseries “A Woman Called Moses,” about the life of Harriet Tubman. That script earned him the Writer’s Guild of America Award, the Christopher Award, the America Historical Society Award and the NAACP Image Award.
Elder, a civil rights advocate, was asked in 1990 to rewrite the book for a London-produced musical titled “King” about the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in Americus, Ga., Elder was brought up in Jersey City, N.J., and began his writing career as a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York. Later he became head of the playwrights unit of the Negro Ensemble Company.
He acted, too, appearing off-Broadway and in the original Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also played a detective in the film “Melinda.”
When the Negro Ensemble Company produced Elder’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” during its premiere season in 1969, a New York Post critic lauded Elder: “At one bound he is revealed as one of the most important playwrights in America and an author of rare integrity and creative strength.”
Considered an American theater classic, “Ceremonies” has enjoyed many revivals, including one in 1994 at the Ensemble Theater in the city of Orange.
In addition to the Pulitzer nomination, the play earned Elder the Stanley Drama Award, the Outer Drama Critics Circle Award, the Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award, the Stella Holt Memorial Playwrights Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and the Christopher Award.
Elder’s other plays include “A Hysterical Turtle in a Rabbit Race” in 1961, “Kissing Rattlesnakes Can Be Fun” in 1966 and “Splendid Mummer” in 1988.
Content that he had accomplished all he intended in theater, Elder used a fellowship to study filmmaking at Yale University and then moved to Los Angeles to write for the large and small screens.
His writing strongly illustrated the struggles of African Americans in the United States.
“How did we as black Americans,” he once said, “survive so many years of psychological and physical brutality perpetrated by American racism and yet remain a people, a glorious and beautiful lot?”
In addition to the accolades within his profession, Elder earned an Award of Merit from the California Assn. of Teachers of English.
Divorced from director and writer Judyann Johnson Elder, he is also survived by their children, David, Christian and Loni-Christine, and two sisters and two brothers.