Obituary : Steve Tesich; Won Oscar for 'Breaking Away' Screenplay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Tesich, prolific screenwriter, playwright and novelist who won an Academy Award for the coming of age film "Breaking Away," has died. He was 53.

Tesich, who had homes in New York City and suburban Denver, died Monday of a heart attack in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where he was vacationing with his family.

The 1979 Oscar-winning screenplay was Tesich's first, and came from the heart and from his own history. The film, which illustrated his trademark theme of subtle humor and joyous survival, focused on the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University in Bloomington. It reflected Tesich's own coming of age in the small town with the big school.

"The first of anything . . . always means the most, so 'Breaking Away' is my favorite," the writer told The Times in 1994.

The film was later turned into a short-lived television series, with the first seven scripts by Tesich. In addition to the Oscar, "Breaking Away" won a Writers Guild of America Award for best written comedy written directly for the screen and the New York Film Critics Circle Award.

Tesich went on to write scripts for "Eyewitness" in 1980, "Four Friends" in 1981, the film adaptation of the book "The World According to Garp" in 1982, and "American Flyers" and "Eleni," adapted from Nicholas Gage's book, in 1985.

Tesich steadfastly refused to write screenplays involving murder, rape or other violence, and turned down assignments to write formulaic fare for money-making blockbusters.

Born Stoyan Tesich in Uzice, Yugoslavia, in the middle of World War II, Tesich spent his early life in a bombed-out village with his mother and sister.

"You learned that you could live through anything," he said later, "as long as the spirit was there."

Obsessed with America, the young boy told fantasy stories about the place, earning the nickname "Truman" and boosting villagers' morale.

"Things were so bad," he said, "everyone wanted to hear happy lies."

When Tesich was 14, fantasy became reality: His long-missing father summoned the family to join him in East Chicago, Ind. Eventually the family settled in Bloomington, and Tesich became a U.S. citizen in 1961.

"As soon as I started learning English," he once said, "it was almost as though I had a tuning fork in me that could respond to the language and country."

Tesich attended Indiana University on a wrestling scholarship, studying Russian literature and switching his sport to bicycling. He went on to Columbia University intending to get a doctorate, but stopped after a master's degree in Russian literature. Living in New York, he later explained, triggered an urge to write.

In the 1970s, Tesich churned out six off-Broadway plays: "The Carpenters," "Baba Goya," which won a Drama Desk Award for best play in 1973, "Lake of the Woods," "Gorki," "Passing Game" and "Touching Bottom."

When he returned to playwriting after the film-writing streak, Tesich created "Division Street" for Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. His most recent play, "Arts and Leisure," ended its run a month ago in New York.

Tesich also wrote a novel, "Summer Crossing" published in 1982, and a few television scripts, including the 1990 special "Bob Fosse: Steam Heat" and the 1978 series "Apple Pie."

"I became a writer to survive as a human being," Tesich told students when he was screenwriter in residence at Chapman College in Orange in 1994. "I write out of necessity, not compulsion. I do it so I can be decent to everybody else, including my family. It really keeps me together and happy."

Tesich is survived by his wife, Becky, whom he met when both were social workers in New York, and their daughter, 8-year-old Amy.

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