Philip Yordan, the controversial and colorful Hollywood writer and producer who won an Oscar for his own work and acted as a front for blacklisted colleagues during the McCarthy era, has died. He was 88.
Yordan died March 24 at the Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla of pancreatic cancer, according to his family.
Yordan won an Academy Award in 1954 for his original story for “Broken Lance,” starring Spencer Tracy. He also was nominated for writing the screenplay of “Dillinger” (1945), which film critic Leonard Maltin called “one of the best B movies of its kind,” and as co-writer for “Detective Story” (1951) starring Kirk Douglas. Among his other writing credits are the screenplays for “House of Strangers,” “The Man From Laramie” and “Johnny Guitar.”
He was just as well-known as a mid-20th century producer, making a number of big Hollywood films like “The Battle of the Bulge,” “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and “Studs Lonigan.” During his career, he worked for almost every Hollywood mogul of his time, including Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn.
Yordan’s name is on dozens of movies in a wide range of genres, from Westerns to sci-fis to epics.
The versatile Yordan came to see his job not so much as a writer as a troubleshooter.
“There would always be three, four writers in there before me, and they’d call me up at the last minute,” he told Pat McGilligan, co-author of “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” (1997). “I enjoyed the challenges because I felt I could do anything. Nothing bothered me. Analyze it, read it, and I’ll find some way out.”
Bernard Gordon, Yordan’s friend and fellow screenwriter on many movies, told The Times this week, “He wasn’t a great writer. But he knew how to put the kind of showmanship material into films that made them financially successful and popular.”
For example, Gordon said, in 1963 when he and Yordan were co-screenwriters for “55 Days at Peking,” which was produced by Samuel Bronston and starred Charlton Heston and David Niven, the two writers got to the end of the film and needed to have “some kind of a big, spectacular battle scene.”
Gordon said he told Yordan, “But we’ve showed that both sides have used up whatever ammunition they have, so how are we going to have a big battle?” Yordan told him to “never mind all that technical stuff and just put in a lot of fireworks.”
“He said, ‘It’ll look good,’ ” Gordon said. “And, by God, we did, and it did look good.”
The two writers got to know each other during the blacklist era in Hollywood. Gordon was blacklisted; Yordan was not. Thus Yordan could provide Gordon, as well as other blacklisted writers, with a “front.”
This inevitably led to some writers thinking that Yordan took undeserved credit.
Del Reisman, a former president of the Writers Guild of America and a member of the guild panel that restored the names of blacklisted writers to 82 movies made during the era, said Wednesday that Yordan’s name came up several times during the committee’s work in 1996.
As a result, some of the film credits that named Yordan as a writer were corrected, including the writing credits on “El Cid” (1961), to which the name of Ben Barzman, who was blacklisted, was added as co-writer. Also, Gordon’s name was added to the credits on the sci-fi film “The Day of the Triffids,” released in 1953 and based on the novel by John Wyndham.
Besides Barzman and Gordon, other blacklisted writers who worked with Yordan were Arnaud D’Usseau, Ben Maddow and Julian Halevy (also known as Julian Zimet).
Yordan told McGilligan that he was not political and he didn’t “understand this whole blacklist thing.” He said it was producer Sidney Harmon who would come to him and ask him to hire a blacklisted writer who was “starving to death” or another who couldn’t pay his rent.
“I gave these people work because Sidney, in a sense, was my conscience,” Yordan said.
During the blacklist days, Yordan lived in Paris, where he employed a stable of political emigres who worked in the basement of his home. He would “throw script ideas and problems at anybody” who was available at the time, Gordon said.
Actor Mickey Knox, who also was blacklisted and who once worked with Yordan when Knox was writing a screenplay, said he went down to Yordan’s basement once to retrieve a trunk.
“There were four cubicles with typewriters and paper,” Knox told McGilligan. "[Yordan] was always writing five pictures at the same time. Everybody knew about Philip in Hollywood. But I’ll tell you this: He treated me nice.”
Although Maddow at one point claimed he wrote “Johnny Guitar” (1954), Yordan insisted that he was the key writer on what was one of his more enduring films, one that Maltin called “the screen’s great kinky Western” in which the female characters took on the violent roles.
Yordan said he was brought in to save the movie when the star, Joan Crawford, threatened to bolt the set because she didn’t like the script that was already filming. Yordan told writer Hank Rosenfeld in 2000 that he asked Crawford what it would take to make her happy.
“She said, ‘I want to have a shootout with [co-star] Mercedes McCambridge and kill her,’ ” Yordan said. “So I said, ‘You got it.’ ”
As a producer, Yordan was “a very mysterious operator who was protean in his ability to get a number of films going at one time, seemingly with a small army of invisible collaborators that he was paying to churn out his ideas,” McGilligan wrote.
“During his prime, that was the deal: He took the credit,” McGilligan told The Times this week. “But toward the end he willingly retracted or gave credit, especially to writers who were still alive.”
Gordon said that though some writers did feel exploited by Yordan, he also was well-liked.
“He had a way of not putting himself above the writer and of being not so much friendly as equal and decent and regular with people,” Gordon said.
Yordan, who was born April 1, 1914, to a Polish immigrant family, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois and a law degree at Kent College of Law in Chicago.
He began his writing career in the 1930s working for director William Dieterlie; he became known as a great pitchman of story ideas and a script doctor before moving on to producing.
Yordan, who was married four times, is survived by his wife of 39 years, Faith, of San Diego, five children and six grandchildren.
David Thomson said he included an entry on Yordan in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002) “as a buoy to mark an area of whirlpool, crosscurrents, rocks and wrecks” in Hollywood.
“Hardly a credit stands clear of dispute or doubt,” Thomson writes of Yordan. “He could have written nothing, or everything. The truth will never be known.”
In any case, Thomson concludes, reading through the list of films that Yordan claimed to either write, produce or both, “it would be hard not to see a pattern of tough loners, dangerous situations, laconic women and doomy finishes. In short, it sounds like movies.”
Yordan himself said that although he was not interested in social content, “you’ll find it in many of my pictures.”
“It’s a theme of loneliness of the common man,” he said. “But he has an inner resource that enables him to survive in society. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t beg, he doesn’t ask favors. He lives and dies in dignity.”