William W. ‘Bill’ Norton dies at 85; screenwriter became gunrunner
William W. (“Bill”) Norton, a successful screenwriter whose post- Hollywood life took a turn as dramatic as the fast-paced action movies he once wrote when he became a gunrunner for rebels in Northern Ireland, died Oct. 2 in Santa Barbara. He was 85.
FOR THE RECORD: The obituary of screenwriter William Norton in the Oct. 10 California section said he had died Oct. 2. He died Oct. 1.
The cause of death was a heart aneurysm, said his son, television director Bill L. Norton.
Norton was best known for writing “The Scalphunters” (1968), a comedy-western directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis. He went on to write several movies for actor Burt Reynolds, including “Sam Whiskey” (1969), “White Lightning” (1973) and “Gator” (1976).
He also wrote the low-budget horror flick “I Dismember Mama” (1972, originally titled “Poor Albert and Little Annie”), and “Big Bad Mama” (1974), a caper movie starring Angie Dickinson and William Shatner. Both movies have drawn cult followings.
In 1985, Norton, an ex-Communist, retired from show business and rededicated himself to the leftist ideals of his youth. He began aiding rebel groups in Central America by procuring guns for them. Later, he and his wife, Eleanor, moved to Ireland, where they became involved with an offshoot of the Irish Republican Army.
Their activities eventually led to their arrest, imprisonment and several years of exile.
“He really was like one of his movie characters, an outlaw on the run,” his son said.
Norton was born on Sept. 24, 1925, in Ogden, Utah. When the Depression hit, he and his parents moved to California, settling first in Berkeley and later in El Monte, where he attended El Monte High School and became student body president. A journalism teacher there encouraged his interest in writing.
In his senior year, he conceived a child out of wedlock and was thrown out of school along with his soon-to-be-wife, Betty Conklin. (They later divorced.) Drafted into the Army, he saw combat in Europe during World War II.
After the war, he worked briefly as a reporter for an El Monte newspaper but found small-town journalism unchallenging. Proud of his working-class roots, he switched to construction work. At 21, he joined the Communist Party and was an active member for five years, until about 1950. In 1958 he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to name names, his son said.
He worked for the California State Park Service for 11 years and wrote short stories and plays on the side. A few of his plays were made into low-budget movies, such as “The Farmer’s Other Daughter” (1965), a bawdy comedy.
In 1968 he moved from the fringes of the movie business to the big leagues with “The Scalphunters,” which featured Lancaster as an illiterate trapper and Davis as a well-educated escaped slave victimized by a band of scalp-hunters led by Telly Savalas. The script veers from comic to gruesome — not always successfully, critics said. But reviewers found much to like about it, including The Times’ Charles Champlin, who pronounced the movie a “lively, ribald and unpredictable pleasure.” Norton went on to write an additional dozen screenplays, including “Brannigan” (1975) with John Wayne. In 1985, when Norton turned 60, he decided to retire from screenwriting, partly out of a desire, his son said, to “do something important with his life.”
He supported a number of Central American charities, which brought him into contact with an activist who asked him to help obtain guns for a revolutionary group in Guatemala. Norton began buying arms at local gun shows and delivering them to contacts in various parking lots around Los Angeles.
Norton, whose mother was Irish, was also sympathetic to the IRA’s campaign against British rule and decided to participate in their struggle. He and his wife moved to Ireland and, using his own money, began buying guns in Southern California and smuggling them into Northern Ireland for an IRA splinter group called the Irish National Liberation Army.
On their second smuggling trip, in June of 1986, the Nortons picked up a van that had been shipped to the French port city of Le Havre from Los Angeles. They intended to drive it to Ireland, but they were apprehended by French authorities in the shipping office. Inside a hidden compartment of the van police found two submachine guns, 12 rifles, 23 revolvers and more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition. The Nortons and three Irish nationalists were arrested and convicted on gun-smuggling charges.
Norton was unrepentant. “If you could witness as I have the tragic results of attacks upon homes and upon whole families by masked civilian hit squads because the families were under suspicion of favoring the IRA, I think you might well be moved to the same action,” he said in a 1987 L.A. Weekly article when he was incarcerated in France.
His wife was released after five months for medical reasons, but Norton served 19 months of a four-year sentence, including several months in solitary confinement. He was freed in early 1988 and was being extradited to the U.S. when Nicaragua granted him asylum. He and his wife moved to Managua and later to Cuba. He lost his ardor for communism there after watching Fidel Castro’s government’s failure to cope with famine. Although still fearful of prosecution in the U.S., he reentered the country in 1990, smuggled in via Mexico by his ex-wife Betty and daughter Sally.
He lived underground until he became convinced that federal authorities were no longer interested in his case and eventually settled down in Santa Barbara, where he spent his final years writing cranky letters to politicians. He had little money, having given most of it away to various causes. “He had no regard for wealth,” his son said. “He drove crappy cars even when he had money and dressed in old clothes. He was not the typical Hollywood hustler.”
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Norton is survived by three other children: Joan Norton, Theresa Wolverson and Jonathan Norton; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. He asked that his ashes be spread in Northern Ireland.