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Ken Hughes; Screenwriter and Director of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Hughes, a veteran screenwriter and director probably best known for the popular children’s movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” has died. He was 79.

In failing health for some time, Hughes died Saturday at a nursing home in Panorama City, according to his wife, Charlotte.

Born in Liverpool, England, Hughes set his sights early on a movie career, winning an amateur film contest at the age of 14. A few years later, he began making documentaries and short features, including a series of well-received movies for the BBC: “A.K.A. Scotland Yard.”

Those films led to well-received features like “Joe MacBeth,” Hughes’ gangster variation of the Shakespeare saga starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman, and “The Small World of Sammy Lee,” starring Anthony Newley as a small-time con man and gambler.

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Released in 1968, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was loosely based on the novel by Ian Fleming. It was the story of an eccentric inventor, played by Dick Van Dyke, and his magical automobile. And although critics gave the film mixed reviews, audiences loved it, and it became a family favorite.

But according to Hughes, it was not his favorite.

“I did ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ and I didn’t enjoy making it. The film made a lot of money, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better about it. On the other hand, I’ve made pictures that got awards at Berlin and places and didn’t make any money, and that doesn’t make me feel any better either.”

Hughes’ favorite film, the one that he said he didn’t make any concessions on, was “The Trials of Oscar Wilde.”

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Called an “exceptionally handsome production” by Times film critic Kevin Thomas when it was re-released in 1980, the film starred Peter Finch in the title role and told the story of Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry and the tragic turn Wilde’s life takes because of it.

Hughes, who wrote the script for “Wilde,” also made a version of “Of Human Bondage,” with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey. He was also one of five directors to work on the James Bond spoof “Casino Royale,” which got poor reviews despite its cast of David Niven, Woody Allen, Peter O’Toole and Orson Welles.

He had better success with the 1970 period film “Cromwell,” which then-Times film critic Charles Champlin called “an admirable and interesting piece of history,” but noted that it did not have “the same power to affect us” as the earlier period piece “A Man for All Seasons.” Champlin applauded the performance of Richard Harris as Cromwell and the fine supporting role of Alec Guinness as King Charles I.

Hughes also directed Mae West in what was to be her last film role, the 1978 movie “Sextette.”

Hughes, who shared a best writing Emmy award in 1958 for the television movie “Eddie,” starring Mickey Rooney, decried the lack of respect screenwriters received in Hollywood.

“Writers aren’t highly regarded in this industry, and original scripts are hard to get off the ground. If I really wanted to put across an idea, I’d bring it out as a book first, even if it didn’t sell. Movie producers are impressed by hardcovers because it shows that someone else had some confidence in the writing. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true.”

In addition to his wife, Hughes is survived by a daughter, Melinda, an opera singer.

No services were planned.

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