Vincent Sherman, 99; Director for Warner Bros. in the 1940s

Times Staff Writer

Vincent Sherman, who directed Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn during their 1940s heyday at Warner Bros. and was one of the last surviving studio-era contract directors, has died. He was 99.

Sherman died Sunday night of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital, his son Eric Sherman told the Associated Press.

An actor-turned-screenwriter, Sherman began his directing career at Warner Bros. in 1939 with the low-budget "The Return of Dr. X," which is memorable only as Bogart's sole foray into the horror genre: He played a criminal who died in the electric chair and was brought back to life by a doctor who restores life to corpses.

Working on pictures assigned by the studio, Sherman quickly established a reputation as a competent technician with a flair for melodrama.

Among his credits are "All Through the Night" (1942), starring Bogart; "The Hard Way" (1942) starring Ida Lupino and Jack Carson; "Mr. Skeffington" (1944), starring Davis and Claude Rains; "The New Adventures of Don Juan" (1948), starring Flynn; "Goodbye, My Fancy" (1951), starring Joan Crawford; "Lone Star" with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner (1952) and "An Affair in Trinidad" (1952) with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.

Sherman later directed Paul Newman in "The Young Philadelphians" (1959) and Richard Burton in "Ice Palace" (1960). In the 1960s, after the demise of the studio system, he turned to directing for television.

"He was a very capable craftsman whose theater training and upbringing stood him in good stead in the Hollywood system," film historian Leonard Maltin told The Times a few years ago.

Sherman was born Abraham Orovitz in Vienna, Ga., on July 16, 1906. (Sherman said his Russian-born father, who ran a small dry-goods store, changed the name from Horovitz to "Americanize it.")

Sherman graduated from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in 1925 and planned to become a lawyer. But in 1927, while working as a newspaper police reporter in Atlanta and studying law at night, he and a former classmate wrote a play and decided to move to New York City to seek fame and fortune in the theater.

When they failed to sell their play, Sherman, who had gotten his first taste of acting while at the university, began looking for work as an actor.

Renamed Vincent Sherman by a receptionist at a talent agency, he began landing small roles in Theater Guild productions. During the summers, he worked as a social director at a camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he acted in and directed dramatic and musical shows.

In 1932, Sherman was hired for a role as a young communist in the Chicago company of Elmer Rice's play "Counsellor-at-Law."

A year later, he was brought out to Hollywood to re-create the role in director William Wyler's film version, starring John Barrymore.

Sherman stayed in Hollywood six months, playing small gangster parts in a few films before returning to New York, where he appeared in and directed numerous plays, including playing a role in Clifford Odets' "Waiting For Lefty." He also continued to write his own plays.

In 1937, a part in the road company of Sidney Kingsley's "Dead End" brought Sherman back to Los Angeles, where he met Bryan Foy, head of the B-picture unit at Warner Bros., who asked him if he would like to try writing for films.

Assigned to Foy's B-unit, Sherman began by rewriting old screenplays into new movies.

"I rewrote a Jimmy Cagney flick, 'Mayor of Hell,' and they filmed it as 'Crime School,' " he told the Toronto Star in 1997. "It became the studio's most profitable movie of the year. I took a Paul Muni picture, 'Dr. Socrates,' changed the lead to a woman, got Kay Francis [to star] and we shipped it out as 'King of the Underworld.' "

One day Foy asked Sherman to shoot a brief scene of a radio broadcast of a sporting event with a young actor the studio had recently signed: Ronald Reagan, whom Sherman later directed in "The Hasty Heart" (1949).

"I absolutely hated directing Ronald Reagan, who had a huge ego and little talent," Sherman told the Toronto Star in 1997.

After directing "The Hard Way" -- the 1943 film earned Ida Lupino the New York Film Critics Award as best actress of the year -- Sherman established a reputation as a women's director.

His next assignment was taking over as director of "Old Acquaintance," a 1943 drama starring Bette Davis and her Warner's nemesis, Miriam Hopkins.

"The director Teddy Goulding faked a heart attack rather than have to go through directing Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins once more," Sherman told the Toronto Star in 1997. "Miriam made faces in the background during every close-up of Bette.

"The day Bette had to hit her [in a scene], the gallery was filled with onlookers. Everybody hated [Hopkins] so. Bette smacked her so hard Miriam's head bobbled and everybody cheered."

In a 1995 interview with Daily Variety, Sherman looked back on those early years at Warner Bros. with mixed emotions.

"It was very contradictory," he said. "We were always [complaining] about the scripts and money and conditions. But it was like a family. You went from one picture to another, and with each success you had a little bit more power. In some ways, it was wonderful, because when you went to work on a script you pretty much knew who would act in it."

Sherman wrote about those days in his 1996 book "Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director" (University of Kentucky Press). The title refers, in part, to his affairs with Davis and Crawford, as well as a fling with Hayworth.

In his book, Sherman praised his late wife of 53 years, Hedda, who put up with his occasional unfaithfulness. "She was very understanding and a truly sophisticated human being," he told the San Jose Mercury News.

During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, Sherman was "gray listed" in Hollywood for a number of years, losing what "should have been my best, most productive years as a director."

"I wasn't a communist, but I knew people like John Garfield who'd been blacklisted and I stood beside them," he told the Toronto Star.

When the gray list was lifted, he returned to Warner Bros. to direct several more pictures. After turning to television directing, he worked on numerous series such as "Medical Center," "Baretta," "The Waltons" and "Trapper John M.D."

He also directed such TV movies as "The Last Hurrah" (1977) starring Carroll O'Connor; "Women at West Point" (1979); "Bogie: The Last Hero" (1980) and "The Love Goddess" based on the life of Rita Hayworth (1983), as well as the syndicated miniseries "The Dream Merchants" (1980) with Mark Harmon and Morgan Brittany.

Late in life, Sherman received a degree of critical attention from film scholars and film buffs who came to appreciate his talent for storytelling and for eliciting strong performances from actors.

At the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in 1996, Sherman's "The Hard Way" was screened as part of a series of forgotten masterpieces.

Sherman, who appeared at the festival, had a clear sense of his place in film history.

"Of the 30 films that I made, I really liked only 10 or 12 of them," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "The rest were what we called bread-and-butter pictures."

In addition to his son Eric, Sherman is survived by his companion Francine York, daughter Hedwin Naimark, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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