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Denne Bart Petitclerc, 76; Journalist and Screenwriter Befriended by Hemingway

Times Staff Writer

Denne Bart Petitclerc, whose fan letter to Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s led to him becoming close friends with the writer and adapting “Islands in the Stream” for the screen, has died. He was 76.

Petitclerc, a former journalist who created the television series “Then Came Bronson” in the late 1960s, died Feb. 3 at UCLA Medical Center of complications from lung cancer, said his wife, Wanda.

“He was a master at translating, keeping the essence of Hemingway’s attitudes and ideas but framing them into lines that an actor could speak on the screen,” said Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety and a producer of the 1977 film “Islands in the Stream.”

As a young reporter at the Miami Herald, Petitclerc became incensed over a review that asserted that the only contribution Hemingway made to the English language was a short sentence.

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On impulse, he wrote Hemingway in Havana to tell him that wasn’t true and to thank him for his inadvertent creative writing instruction. The self-taught Petitclerc had studied the craft by copying Hemingway’s novels longhand.

When Hemingway called the newsroom a week later, Petitclerc thought it was a practical joke. Hemingway told him he had written a good letter and invited him to go fishing in Cuba.

Not until Petitclerc spotted the gray-haired legend at the airport the next morning was he certain the caller had been Hemingway.

On one of their many fishing trips, Hemingway alluded to an unfinished book that he thought would make a great movie: “Islands in the Stream,” which was not published until nine years after his death in 1961.

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Hemingway’s widow, Mary, asked Petitclerc to adapt the novel, Wanda Petitclerc said.

The Los Angeles Times’ review of the movie in 1977 pointed out that the screenplay freely adapted the book but praised it for being “absolutely faithful” to its spirit.

While living in Sonoma and working at the San Francisco Chronicle, Petitclerc wrote his first script, for “Bonanza,” at a neighbor’s urging and was soon working for the long-running NBC series.

“Then Came Bronson” (1969-70), the series he created for NBC, was about a motorcycle-riding former reporter searching for the meaning of life. He also helped launch “The High Chaparral” (1967-71), writing the pilot and other episodes.

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“He was a very tough guy but a very warm person,” said Bart, a longtime friend. “He was in some ways the consummate Hemingway character who loved adventure.”

After Hemingway introduced Petitclerc to Ketchum, Idaho, he and his wife kept a home there and, for many years, in Marina del Rey.

He was born May 15, 1929, in Montesano, Wash., to Edmund Petitclerc and the former Grace Myers.

When he was 5 his father took him to the Bon Marche in Seattle, ostensibly to see the angel atop the department store’s Christmas tree. His father told him to watch the angel and said he would be right back. He never returned.

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Left abandoned with two children, his mother placed Petitclerc and his older sister in an orphanage in San Jose so she could go to school. His mother earned a doctorate, taught at UC Berkeley and wrote books about educating handicapped children.

As a screenwriter, he was drawn to stories with a strong father-son bond “because he had no idea what that was like,” his wife said.

At about 13, he moved in with a foster family, and after dropping out of school around ninth grade, he worked in San Jose’s oil fields.

He dreamed of becoming a writer and persuaded the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to let him cover local sports. The poor spelling in his first story infuriated his editor, who told him he was fired.

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Petitclerc argued that he couldn’t be fired because he wasn’t getting paid. He kept the job and bought a book on spelling.

At 21, he became a Korean War correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. Petitclerc bounced between the Chronicle and the Miami Herald, covering the Cuban Revolution for both.

“Denne was a superb newspaper reporter who had a distinguished record,” said Bart, who co-wrote a novel, “Destinies” (1981), with him.

Petitclerc’s other books included “Rage of Honor” (1966) and “Le Mans 24" (1971), a novelization tied to the Steve McQueen film “Le Mans.” He also wrote several movies for television and the screenplay for the 1972 feature film “Red Sun” with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune.

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His final screenplay, “Papa,” in pre-production at the time of his death, was based on Petitclerc’s life. It tells the story of a young journalist searching for a father figure against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution. He finds him in Hemingway.

From a previous marriage that ended in divorce, Petitclerc had three daughters and a son, all of whom survive him. In addition to Wanda, his wife of 35 years, he is survived by their son, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.


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