Lorenzo Semple Jr. dies at 91; successful Hollywood screenwriter in 1970s and ‘80s
Lorenzo Semple Jr. was one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1970s and ‘80s, working on star-studded films such as “Papillon,” with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman; “Three Days of the Condor,” headlined by Robert Redford; and “Never Say Never Again,” Sean Connery’s last movie as James Bond.
But, rare in the trade, Semple didn’t much mind if he was not the sole writer on a film. “Almost all the good scripts I’ve been involved in, I’ve been fired off of for one reason or another,” he said in a 2011 video interview conducted by the Writers Guild Foundation. Semple simply loved the craft of writing, and he had little use for the rest of what went into moviemaking, except as fodder for hilarious stories he would tell about star egos and meetings with studio executives.
In fact, one of his favorite projects came before any of the blockbuster movies. He was the first writer and executive story editor on the wacky, highly irreverent and wildly successful “Batman” TV series that made its debut in 1966. “I think ‘Batman’ in general was much the best thing I ever wrote,” Semple said of the show, which was done without a lot of oversight by executives. “‘Batman was a lot of fun. But already, when I got to doing a couple other things, you had to have meetings and talk to people, and it wasn’t any fun.”
Semple died Friday of natural causes at his home in Brentwood a day after his 91st birthday, said his wife, Joyce. After not being active in the movie business for a couple of decades, he experienced a new surge of popularity in 2007 in front of the camera on “Reel Geezers,” a series of online shows he did with veteran agent Marcia Nasatir in which they would review current films and bicker. “He could always make you laugh,” Nasatir said Friday of her friend of more than 40 years.
Despite Semple’s disdain for much of the inner workings of Hollywood, Nasatir said he was assigned to big movies for two reasons: “Fabulous dialogue and great storytelling. And isn’t that what movies are supposed to be?”
Semple was born March 27, 1923, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., to a family with theatrical ties. His uncle was playwright Philip Barry, who wrote “The Philadelphia Story,” among other works. Semple wanted to follow in his footsteps. He attended Yale for a couple of years but left in 1941 to drive an ambulance for the Free French Forces in the Middle East. After a year, he returned to the U.S., where he was drafted and sent back to the war front. During his military service, he earned a Bronze Star.
Finishing his degree at Columbia University, Semple wrote for magazines and penned two plays that made it to Broadway, including “Golden Fleecing” in 1959, which ran for about 80 performances. He wrote some episodic TV and teamed with producer William Dozier to try to get on the ground floor of a TV series. They had little success until Semple, who was living in Spain, got a cable from Dozier to meet in Madrid.
Dozier told him with derision that the ABC network wanted them to create a live series based on the “Batman” comic books. Semple recognized that the show could be done in a flippant, satirical manner by making the main character a supremely naive good guy trying to set an example for young sidekick Robin. Semple’s Batman hardly resembled the brooding, dark characterization of recent movies. “Our Batman was unbelievably innocent,” he said on an episode of “Reel Geezers.” “For example, when they’d be chasing the [arch-villain] Joker, he would refuse to park if there was a ‘No Parking’ sign. He’d drive around the block and let the Joker get away.”
With the show’s runaway success, Semple leaped into films. His first assignment on a major project was to adapt the thriller novel “Six Days of the Condor.” “We cut it down to ‘Three Days of the Condor’ because there wasn’t that much to happen,” he said in the Writers Guild interview. “There wasn’t enough for six days.” In a pattern that was to play itself out in several movies, Semple became disengaged when the director, in this case Sydney Pollack, wanted major changes. “I like writing a great deal,” Semple said. “But when it got to arguing with directors and talking to people, I rapidly lost interest.”
Though he sometimes agreed with critics who panned films on which he received credit, he felt reviewers were too dismissive of his 1976 remake of “King Kong,” which starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. “It’s a losing game, remaking a classic,” Semple said.
His career slowed after the mid-1980s. He commuted to New York for several years to teach screenwriting at New York University. If he had a major regret, it was that he never wrote a novel. But a personal standard got in the way. “I wouldn’t want to write a novel I wouldn’t want to read,” he said in the video interview, “and I didn’t want to read many novels. So I killed myself before starting.”
In addition to his wife, Semple is survived by daughters Johanna and Maria; son Lorenzo; and six grandchildren.
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