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Frederick Knott, 86; Wrote ‘Dial M for Murder,’ ‘Wait Until Dark’

Times Staff Writer

Frederick Knott, a playwright whose short but admirable string of credits included two long-running Broadway shows -- “Dial M for Murder” in 1952 and “Wait Until Dark” in 1966 -- died of undisclosed causes Tuesday at his home in New York City. He was 86.

Knott wrote only three plays, but all were successful.

“Dial M” was a thriller about a woman who slowly comes to realize that her husband is plotting her death. It was an immediate hit in London, then ran for 552 performances on Broadway, with Maurice Evans in the lead. Director Alfred Hitchcock turned it into spine-tingling cinema two years later with a cast led by Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings.

“Wait Until Dark” ran for 373 performances on Broadway before moving to the London stage for an even longer engagement. The Broadway production starred Lee Remick as a blind woman pursued by criminals who think she possesses a doll concealing a cache of drugs. Her performance earned a Tony nomination. In the 1967 movie, directed by Terence Young, Audrey Hepburn played the woman while Alan Arkin was the lead henchman who terrorized her.

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Knott’s third play, “Write Me a Murder,” also reflected his fascination with homicidal themes. Revolving around a writer and her lover who plot a murder, it ran for 25 weeks on Broadway in 1961.

Knott, the son of Quaker missionaries, was born in Hankow, China, in 1916. Sent to England for his education, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1938, then served in the Royal Artillery during World War II.

After the war, he was struggling to make a living as a screenwriter when he decided to try his hand at writing a play. He gave himself a year to write one, but took 18 months instead and wound up nearly broke. The end result, however, was “Dial M for Murder,” whose suspense turns not on what the murder plan is and who will execute it but whether it will actually work.

“I was always intrigued with the idea that somebody would plan a crime, and then you see that everything doesn’t turn out right,” Knott, who won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for the play, told the Baltimore Sun in 1995.

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“You can plan a murder in great detail and then put the plan into action, and invariably something goes wrong and then you have to improvise. And in the improvisation you trip up and make a very big mistake.”

But when Knott shopped the manuscript around to theatrical managers, he got only rejections. He was ready to lock it away in a drawer when a friend told him the BBC was hungry for new material. The BBC wound up producing Knott’s play for television, where it was seen by London producer James P. Sherwood.

Sherwood had just lost a play, but still had a theater to fill. After just three weeks of rehearsal, he opened “Dial M” in London to rave reviews. It set off a bidding war among American producers, and Hollywood also called.

Knott wound up selling the film rights for only $2,800. Hitchcock was chosen to direct, and invited Knott to Hollywood to adapt the play for the screen.

Fifty years later, “Dial M for Murder” is still performed around the world, a standard of summer stock and school plays.

After “Dial M,” Knott did not intend to write another suspense play. “I don’t want to get into a rut,” he told an interviewer in 1952 after “Dial M” opened on Broadway. His muse was stuck on murder, however.

But he basically hated writing and wrote only for the money, his wife, Ann Hillary Knott, told the New York Times. He had plotted out in his mind two other plays -- one about an elderly couple confronted by a gang, and the other about a brothel. But he never committed one word of either play to paper, despite numerous offers of advances over the years.

In addition to his wife, Knott is survived by a son, Dr. Anthony Frederick Knott of Kayenta, Ariz., and two grandsons.

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