Don McGuire; Actor, Screenwriter, Director Created ‘Tootsie’ Story

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Don McGuire, a screenwriter, actor and director probably best known for writing the cult movie hit “Bad Day at Black Rock” and for creating the story that eventually became the movie “Tootsie,” has died at the age of 80.

McGuire won Screenwriters Guild awards for “Bad Day” and “Tootsie,” directed the film “Johnny Concho,” starring Frank Sinatra, and wrote another film for Sinatra, “Meet Danny Wilson.” As an actor, McGuire was Red Skelton’s straight man in “The Fuller-Brush Man” and appeared in several other movies in the 1940s.

Born in Chicago, McGuire joined the Army during World War II, but his service was cut short when he suffered severe back injuries in a jeep accident.

After his discharge, he was, for a time, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune. But he decided to try his fortune in Los Angeles in the mid-'40s. One of his first jobs was as a publicist for Western actor Smiley Burnette.


McGuire got into acting somewhat by accident. He took a woman to Warner Bros. for a screen test, and the studio officials thought more of his potential than they did of hers. He was signed to a contract.

He appeared in several films, including “Pride of the Marines,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Double Dynamite” and “Three Guys Named Mike.” In the late ‘40s, he starred in the 15-part Columbia serial “Congo Bill.”

By the early 1950s, his attention had turned to screenwriting. McGuire’s story “Meet Danny Wilson” became what the movie critic Leonard Maltin called a “minor but engaging” musical, starring Sinatra, Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr in 1952.

He adapted the suspense thriller “Bad Day at Black Rock” from a magazine piece he had read. The movie starred Spencer Tracy as a one-armed stranger who gets off a train in a quiet desert town only to find hostility from the townsfolk who have something to hide. The film, directed by John Sturges, had a powerhouse cast that included Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.


After “Bad Day,” McGuire wrote and directed Jerry Lewis’ first film after his partnership with Dean Martin ended. The movie, “The Delicate Delinquent,” has Lewis playing a juvenile delinquent who becomes a cop with the help of co-star Darren McGavin.

McGuire then turned to writing and directing Sinatra in the Western “Johnny Concho,” which Maltin said “had the novelty” of portraying Sinatra as a coward who must build his courage for a gunfight.

In the late ‘50s, McGuire went into television. With the onetime child actor Jackie Cooper, he created, wrote and directed the sitcom “Hennessey,” which ran from 1959 to 1962 on CBS. In it, Cooper played a Navy doctor, Lt. Charles J. “Chick” Hennessey. Stationed in San Diego, he falls in love with nurse Martha Hale, played by Abby Dalton. The show was one of the few sitcoms in its time that did not use a laugh track.

McGuire’s lasting fame, however, will probably be for his work on the story that became “Tootsie.”

According to Larry Gelbart, who shared story credit on the film, McGuire wrote an original comedy in the mid-'70s about an out-of-work actor who was performing in a drag club. He is desperate for a better job, and his agent lands him a role playing a woman on a popular TV soap opera.

“All the seeds for ‘Tootsie’ were there,” Gelbart said in his 1998 book, “Laughing Matters.”

According to the book, financial backing for the project came from Charles Evans, the brother of former Paramount executive Robert Evans. Buddy Hackett and George Hamilton committed to playing the parts of the agent and the actor, Gelbart says.

After another writer took an unsuccessful go at the script, Dustin Hoffman became interested in the project. According to Gelbart, the title, “Tootsie,” was Hoffman’s mother’s pet name for her son.


McGuire, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness, is survived by a niece, Mary Beth Rose.

In lieu of flowers, the family says donations in his name can be made to the Foundation for the Junior Blind.