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Obituaries

John Michael Hayes dies at 89; screenwriter wrote 4 films for Hitchcock

John Michael Hayes, a two-time Academy Award-nominated screenwriter best known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on four films, including “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” has died. He was 89.

Hayes, who taught screenwriting at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in the late 1980s and the 1990s, died in his sleep of age-related causes Nov. 19 at a retirement community in Hanover, said his daughter, Meredyth Hayes-Badreau.

A former writer for radio series, Hayes had four screenwriting credits when he began his Hitchcock collaboration with “Rear Window.”

The 1954 suspense drama starred James Stewart as a photographer who is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg and, while idly spying on his neighbors across the courtyard of his Greenwich Village apartment building, comes to believe that one of his neighbors has committed a murder.

The screenplay, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, earned Hayes his first Oscar nomination.

Hayes based the character of Stewart’s elegant fiance, played by Grace Kelly, on his wife, Mildred, who was known as Mel.

“The thing was, in the story of ‘Rear Window,’ there was no woman, and Hitch wanted a woman,” Hayes recalled in a 1999 interview with the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette. “He had done ‘Dial M for Murder’ with Grace Kelly and said, ‘We have to have a girl, and I want to use Grace Kelly.’ ”

Hitchcock, Hayes recalled, “told me to spend a week or two with her to get to know her, which I did. My wife was a very beautiful girl, a high-style fashion model, so I used the world I knew and I made Grace Kelly a model.”

“Rear Window,” Hayes believed, was “technically and every other way” Hitchcock’s best film.

“It still has a life of its own,” he said in the 1999 interview. “I brought dialogue, character and humor to Hitch. He had the suspense, and we melded very well. He liked my sometimes flippant dialogue, and so did the audience.”

The success of “Rear Window” propelled Hayes to the top echelon of screenwriters.

And for Hitchcock, “the collaboration marked the beginning of his most successful period, critically and commercially,” Steven DeRosa wrote in his 2001 book “Writing With Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes.”

Hayes’ screenplays for Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “The Trouble With Harry” (1955) and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) followed.

DeRosa told The Times on Tuesday that the screenplays that Hayes “wrote for Alfred Hitchcock became much more character-driven than strictly plot-driven or device-driven.”

“In ‘Rear Window,’ for instance, you have a wheelchair-bound hero who never sets foot out of the apartment, and he made an exciting motion picture out of that. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films.”

Drew Casper, the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Professor of American Film at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, told The Times on Tuesday that what Hayes “did for Hitchcock, is he brought a deeper humanity to his films, particularly in terms of warmth and in terms of humor.”

Despite the success of the Hitchcock-Hayes collaboration, the attention Hayes received in the press for his screenwriting put a dent in his relationship with the iconic film director.

When Hayes won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for “Rear Window,” he brought the small ceramic statuette into Hitchcock’s office. After examining it, Hitchcock told Hayes, “You know, they make toilet bowls out of the same material.”

“I felt that he resented my receiving an award when he didn’t,” Hayes told Donald Spoto, author of the 1983 book “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.”

Although Hayes later said he considered Hitchcock “a joy and a pleasure to work with,” their relationship soured over a screen credit dispute on “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which Hayes prevailed.

But the collaboration ultimately ended over money: Hitchcock moved to Warner Bros. to do a film for only a percentage of the profits, with no salary, and thought that Hayes should do the same.

“He said I owed it to him, because he had made me famous, taken me out of obscurity and made me a film writer,” Hayes told Spoto. “But I couldn’t afford to work without pay.”

After working with Hitchcock, DeRosa said, Hayes became known as one of the best adapters of novels in Hollywood -- someone “who could bring what was taboo material to the screen and make it tasteful, mainstream entertainment.”

Hayes’ adaptation of “Peyton Place,” Grace Metalious’ bestselling novel of love, lust, incest and murder in a New England village, earned him his second Oscar nomination.

Among his other screen credits are “Butterfield 8,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Carpetbaggers,” “The Chalk Garden,” “Where Love Has Gone,” “Harlow” and “Nevada Smith.”

In 2004, Hayes received the Screen Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America for his outstanding contributions to the profession.

Born in Worcester, Mass., on May 11, 1919, Hayes as a teenager became editor of the Boy Scout Journal and a cub reporter for the Worcester Telegram.

A 1941 graduate of what is now the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he wrote and performed in stage shows to entertain the troops while serving stateside in the Army during World War II.

In Hollywood after the war, he wrote for radio series such as “Inner Sanctum Mysteries,” “My Favorite Husband” and “The Adventures of Sam Spade” before launching his screenwriting career.

Hayes’ wife died in 1989. In addition to his daughter Meredyth, he is survived by another daughter, Rochelle Hayes Skala; two sons, Garrett Michael Hayes and Corey Hayes; and four grandchildren.

McLellan is a Times staff writer.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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