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Marvin Worth; Producer of ‘Lenny,’ ‘Malcolm X’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marvin Worth, an eclectic producer and writer best known for his biographical motion pictures “Lenny” and “Malcolm X,” has died at 72.

Worth, who had been working on the film “The James Dean Story,” died of lung cancer Wednesday night at UCLA Medical Center, his publicist said Thursday.

Adept at comedy and drama on the small and large screens, Worth won several awards, including a Peabody in 1958 for his scripts for “The Steve Allen Show,” an Emmy for other television scripts and Academy Award nominations for the films about comedian Lenny Bruce and the charismatic Malcolm X.

As a biopic producer, Worth also took on the life stories of singer Janis Joplin in “The Rose,” which starred Bette Midler, and the kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.

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His recent work included “Norma Jean and Marilyn,” a 1996 cable television series on Marilyn Monroe, and the cable movie “Gia” this year. He also produced the motion picture “Diabolique,” starring Sharon Stone and Isabella Adjani, in 1996.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Worth was promoting jazz concerts by the age of 15, booking and managing such legendary performers as Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.

Worth became manager for Bruce and arranged the comedian’s first major break--an appearance on television’s popular “Arthur Godfrey Show.”

In the 1950s, he teamed up with childhood friend Arne Sultan to become what an entertainment columnist at the time termed “the hottest writers around.”

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“One morning early in 1955 I got a phone call from Arne,” Worth told The Times in 1962. “Arne said, ‘What are you doing today?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘You want to become a writer?’ I said, ‘OK.’ And that’s how we became writers.”

After pairing up on Allen’s television show and writing material for Bruce, Buddy Hackett and other comedians, Worth and Sultan co-wrote three successful motion picture comedies: “Boys’ Night Out,” starring James Garner, in 1962; “Three on a Couch,” with Jerry Lewis, in 1966; and “Promise Her Anything,” with Warren Beatty, in 1966.

Worth achieved producing success by bringing--with great effort--the life story of his late friend Bruce first to Broadway in 1972 and then to the motion picture screen with Dustin Hoffman two years later.

The producer struggled even longer to present the story of Malcolm X, whom he knew as “Red” in the New York jazz circles of their youth. Worth obtained the rights to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as told to Alex Haley in 1967--a quarter-century before the successful film starring Denzel Washington was released in 1992. In the early 1970s, Worth produced and co-wrote a documentary on the revolutionary leader, which won an Academy Award nomination.

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“Malcolm not only made a contribution,” Worth told The Times in 1992. “I was impressed by his mind, his evolution, his learning, his open-mindedness to change. He was a great example of how someone can take himself from the place he came from and get to where he got as a human being. He’s one of our great stories.”

Among the other films Worth produced are “Flashback,” “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” “Falling in Love,” “Unfaithfully Yours,” “Soup for One” “Up the Academy,” “Fire Sale” and the black comedy “Where’s Poppa?”

Worth is survived by his wife of 44 years, artist Joan Worth; three children, Jody and Missy Worth and Danielle Worth-Ochoa; and two grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service is pending.

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