Joseph Stefano, 84; Was Screenwriter Behind ‘Psycho,’ ‘Outer Limits’

Times Staff Writer

Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Psycho” and was the influential first-season producer-writer of the 1960s science-fiction anthology TV series “The Outer Limits,” has died. He was 84.

Stefano, who underwent surgery for lung cancer in 2001, died of heart failure Friday at Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, said his wife of 52 years, Marilyn.

A former composer-lyricist who turned to writing screenplays and TV plays in the late 1950s, Stefano’s earliest credits included “The Black Orchid,” a 1958 movie drama directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn; and a “Playhouse 90” production about racial prejudice, “Made in Japan.”


After Hitchcock optioned Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel “Psycho,” Stefano was given a copy of the book the night before meeting with the director to discuss adapting it to the screen.

In a 1990 interview for Media Scene Prevue magazine, Stefano said that, with the exception of the ending, he thought that the story was “weak in writing and characterization.”

The novel, he said, starts with Norman Bates, the mother-dominated motel owner, “and focuses on him too much. I was sure that no audience was going to like Norman enough to stay with him throughout an entire movie.”

But as he was driving to Paramount for his meeting with Hitchcock, Stefano came up with a solution: begin the screenplay with the character of Marion Crane, who steals $40,000 from her Phoenix employer to begin a new life with her lover but is murdered after stopping at the Bates Motel.

“Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person,” Stefano said. “They would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the $40,000. When she dies, the audience would be the victim.”

And that’s just how it worked, he said.

“With so much early emphasis on Marion, no one dreams she’ll get killed,” he said. “When it happens, people are blown away.... The idea excited Hitch. And I got the job. Killing the leading lady in the first 20 minutes had never been done before.


“Hitch suggested a name actress to play Marion because the bigger the star the more unbelievable it would be that we would kill her.”

“Psycho,” starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane and Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, was a sensation, shocking audiences when Leigh’s character was stabbed to death in the famous shower scene.

“I think ‘Psycho’ bothered people on a level that the horror films that came before and after never even attempted,” Stefano told The Times in 1990.

After “Psycho,” most of the screenwriting offers Stefano received were for suspense films, including Gary Cooper’s last movie, “The Naked Edge,” in 1961.

Among his other credits are the 1969 horror film “Eye of the Cat,” the 1987 sci-fi horror film “The Kindred,” the 1972 TV-movie mystery-thriller “Home for the Holidays,” with Jessica Walter and Sally Field, and the 1995 film drama “Two Bits,” starring Al Pacino. He also revisited Norman Bates with the 1990 TV-movie “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” starring Perkins.

“I think doing the screenplay for ‘Psycho’ has done me more harm than good,” Stefano said in 1990. “Through the years it has made it very difficult for me to get some of the other kinds of pictures that I would have liked to have gone on to.”


Stefano was a part owner of “The Outer Limits,” which originally aired from 1963 to 1965 and was revived on Showtime in the 1990s.

He produced the original series, which was created by Leslie Stevens, in its first season and wrote many of the episodes.

“He took the show that was begun as a fairly straight science-fiction show and turned it into gothic horror, with heavy Freudian undertones,” freelance film journalist Steve Biodrowski, who conducted the Media Scene Prevue interview with Stefano, told The Times this week.

Among the young actors who appeared in various episodes of “The Outer Limits” were Robert Culp, Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen, Martin Landau, Bruce Dern, William Shatner and Sally Kellerman.

Kellerman, in fact, credits Stefano with discovering her.

She was still working as a waitress when Stefano saw her in a play and, noting the progress that she had made since he had last seen her on stage, told her that he might do a TV series and would find a role for her.

“Six months later, without ever knowing the man or seeing him, I get this script [for ‘The Outer Limits’] in the mail,” Kellerman told The Times this week. It included a note from Stefano that said, “The part is Ingrid; the magic is yours.”


“It was unbelievable. When does that sort of thing happen?” said Kellerman, who remained friends with Stefano. “Joe was so kind and so darling. If Joe said something, he really meant it.”

Stefano was born May 5, 1922, in Philadelphia. He sang and danced -- and wrote his own material -- for high school and little theater productions. Dropping out of high school a few weeks before graduation, he moved to Manhattan to start his career.

After touring the country as a singer and dancer in operettas, he returned to New York City and wrote an off-Broadway musical-comedy, “It’s Your Move.”

Stefano, whose broken eardrum exempted him from military service during World War II, later wrote songs for nightclub performers and for director-choreographer Donn Arden’s revues. Among his songs that were recorded are “One Dream Tells Me” and “Heartbeat.”

For half a dozen years in the 1950s, he also wrote musicals for Ford and other car manufacturers as a way to introduce the new models to car dealers from across the country in an amusing and entertaining way. The productions, which were staged in a theater in Detroit, starred Chita Rivera, Phyllis Newman and other big names in musical comedy and featured such songs as “Comfort, Convenience and Safety.”

In addition to his wife, Stefano is survived by his son, Dominic.

A memorial service is pending.