The script Julius Epstein and his twin brother Philip were writing just before the outbreak of World War II was a typical assignment for the Warner Bros. contract writers. The romantic drama was based on an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.”
Years later, Julius Epstein commented that the screenplay for the film, released under the title “Casablanca,” contained “a great deal of corn, more corn than in the states of Kansas and Iowa combined. But when corn works, there’s nothing better.”
The corn in “Casablanca” was among the best Hollywood ever culled. The film brought the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch a shared Academy Award for its screenplay, and was also named the best picture of 1942.
Epstein, a highly visible and respected figure in the Hollywood writing community over the last 60 years, died Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, according to his son James, a prominent Los Angeles attorney. Epstein was 91.
A penchant for a clever turn of phrase was Epstein’s forte, which he demonstrated in approximately 50 produced screenplays (including several uncredited turns such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) over half a century, both with Philip, who died in 1952 of cancer, and later on his own.
“Wit, more than anything else,” is Julius Epstein’s contribution to American film, said Aljean Harmetz, who explored the making of “Casablanca” in her book “Round Up the Usual Suspects.”
Hal Wallis, the producer of “Casablanca,” once told Harmetz that clever dialogue was one reason film lovers cherish the movie. The Epsteins, who claimed they finished each other’s thoughts, created such delicious epigrams as “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “We’ll always have Paris” and “Round up the usual suspects,” which have endured over the intervening decades, finding their way into the vernacular.
However, screenwriter and past Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Fay Kanin maintained that Julius Epstein’s writing abilities went far deeper. As she told Harmetz in a 1984 interview for the New York Times “Julie’s more than a writer of good dialogue. He’s a good constructionist. His stories have good bones.”
Epstein’s credits include such films as “The Strawberry Blonde,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Mr. Skeffington,” “Four Daughters,” “My Foolish Heart,” “The Male Animal” and, in later years, “Fanny,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie,” “Send Me No Flowers” and “Reuben, Reuben,” his last feature film in 1983 and his personal favorite, which he also produced.
Despite its enduring popularity Epstein frequently disparaged “Casablanca,” which didn’t actually achieve the cult status it now enjoys until the late 1950s, and most of the films that he was assigned to write during his 17-year tenure as a contract writer for Warner Bros.
“You did three or four pictures a year on average, and if you had one hit you were very secure,” he told a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent in 1992. “But you had to do a lot of things you didn’t want to. My brother and I were placed under suspension several times for refusing to do pictures.”
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Aug. 22, 1909, Epstein was the son of a livery stable owner. Both brothers matriculated at Pennsylvania State College (later University), where Julius was captain of the boxing team and planned a career as a sportswriter. When he graduated in 1931, however, the country was in the throes of the Depression and there were few writing jobs available. For a time he worked as a publicist for orchestra leader Nat Brusiloff and wrote a couple of one-act plays.
He first came to Los Angeles in 1933 to ghost-write a script, “Twenty Million Sweethearts,” for a couple of friends. After dashing off several screenplay ideas, he sold one to Warner Bros., and was placed under contract in 1935. His first credited screenplay was “Living on Velvet” (with writer Jerry Wald) that same year, and in 1938 he received his first Oscar nomination for co-writing (with Lenore Collee) the musical drama “Four Daughters,” which featured John Garfield in his screen debut.
The sequel to that film, “Daughters Courageous,” was the first collaboration between Julius and Philip, a fruitful pairing that would continue even beyond his brother’s death. (Their adaptations of “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris” were produced in 1958 and 1954, respectively.)
Celebrated for their witty dialogue, the brothers Epstein were very much in demand in the years preceding World War II, during which they wrote and contributed to dozen of scripts, including “No Time for Comedy,” “Saturday’s Children,” “The Bride Came C.O.D.” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
Their 1944 script “Mr. Skeffington,” starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains, was one of the first Hollywood films to deal, even obliquely, with anti-Semitism, according to Harmetz.
The brothers’ tenure at Warner Bros. was tumultuous. Studio head Jack Warner was a stern taskmaster, and they frequently clashed. During the war they worked with director Frank Capra on his “Why We Fight” documentaries. When they returned to Warner Bros. after the war, the situation quickly deteriorated until they finally struck a bargain to extricate themselves from their contract by agreeing to write the musical “Romance on the High Seas” in 1948.
From then on Epstein and his brother worked strictly on a freelance basis, starting with an assignment from producer Samuel Goldwyn to adapt J.D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” which became the romantic drama “My Foolish Heart.”
In the years after his brother’s death, Epstein tried to collaborate with other writers, including Billy Wilder, but nothing came of their efforts. His style and sophistication carried him through the next two decades, during which he wrote sparkling comedies like “The Tender Trap” starring Frank Sinatra, “Kiss Them for Me,” which starred Cary Grant, “Tall Story” and “Any Wednesday,” both starring Jane Fonda, and the Doris Day comedy “Send Me No Flowers.” Other adaptations included the musical “Fanny” and such dramas as “Light in the Piazza” and “Take a Giant Step.” In 1978, he collaborated with writer Max Shulman on the hit comedy “House Calls,” starring Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau. The film spawned a TV series for which he and Shulman wrote the pilot. Epstein also adapted Harold Robbins’ “The Pirate” for television in 1978.
Epstein referred to some of those assignments as “take the money and run” projects, particularly his adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s “Once Is Not Enough.” He also claimed that the character of Julian Blumberg in Budd Schulberg’s classic show business novel “What Makes Sammy Run?"was based on him.
The two films of which Epstein was most proud were adapted from novels by Peter de Vries, both of which he also produced: the 1972 comedy/drama “Pete ‘n’ Tillie,” starring Matthau and Carol Burnett, and his last produced script, “Reuben, Reuben,” starring Tom Conti, in 1983. Both films brought Epstein Academy Award nominations, and he won the Writers Guild award for the latter.
Another script, a remake of Sinclair Lewis’ “Dodsworth” for actor Gregory Peck, however, was never produced. Epstein also tried his hand at writing plays. A couple of his comedies, such as “Chicken Every Sunday” in 1944 and “But Seriously” in 1969, reached Broadway but failed to impress audiences or critics.
Frequently active in liberal causes, Epstein and his brother were early champions of the screenwriters guild. As a result, according to Harmetz, they were later questioned about their political affiliations. Though Epstein was an outspoken critic of communism, because of his ties to the writers union and left-wing causes, he was asked whether he had ever been a member of a subversive organization, to which he replied: “Yes, Warner Bros.”
Epstein was presented with the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Career Achievement Award in 1998, as was Abraham Polonsky.
In addition to his son, Epstein is survived by his wife, Ann, and daughter Elizabeth Schwartz. Another son, Philip, died in January 2000 of a brain tumor at the age of 46. Other survivors include two nephews, novelists Leslie Epstein and Richard Epstein; a grandniece, screenwriter Anya Epstein; and grandson Tim Schwartz.
Funeral services will be held Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Hillside Memorial Park, 6001 Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.