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Obituaries

Edward Lewis, ‘Spartacus’ producer who helped break Hollywood’s blacklist, dies at 99

Producer Edward Lewis, who helped break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for “Spartacus,” has died at 99.
Producer Edward Lewis, shown in 1967, helped break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for “Spartacus.” He died July 27 at his home in Los Angeles at 99.
(Family photo)

In the late 1940s and ’50s, a group of prominent Hollywood creatives became the target of a witch hunt fueled by post-World War II anti-communist sentiment.

Known as the Hollywood Ten, they were charged with contempt of Congress, fired from their jobs and served time in prison. The entertainment industry — under mounting political pressure to prove its good faith — caved in and self-imposed a blacklist barring dozens of entertainment professionals believed to be communist sympathizers from working.

The blacklist was enforced for more than a decade — until producer Edward Lewis helped break it by bringing the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo on board for “Spartacus” and giving him full credit for his work.

Lewis died on July 27 in Los Angeles, his daughter Joan confirmed. He was 99. Mildred, his wife of 73 years and a frequent collaborator, died April 7. She was 98. No cause of death was given for either.

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Together they shared an Oscar nomination for producing the 1982 film “Missing,” about an American journalist who died in Chile. That movie also shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

Lewis’ film career started in the 1940s and eventually took him to the heights of Hollywood, working with greats like John Frankenheimer, John Huston and Louis Malle. “Spartacus,” his 1960s blockbuster directed by Stanley Kubrick and executive produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, was among the films that brought him 21 Oscar nominations over his career.

Lewis also dabbled in script writing and produced television, including the comedy series “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.”

It was the costly “Spartacus,” adapted from a Howard Fast novel brought to Lewis by his wife, that helped give voice back to Hollywood’s shunned.

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Lewis and his team secretly hired Trumbo, an admired and in-demand writer before being blacklisted, to write the screenplay.

After serving almost a year in prison for being uncooperative in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Trumbo had continued to write under pseudonyms, winning Oscars for “The Brave One” and “Roman Holiday.”

Edward Lewis, right, with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1967.
Producer Edward Lewis, right, with screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1967 in Budapest, Hungary.
(Trumbo family photo)

But in 1960, the tide turned.

“Exodus” director Otto Preminger had revealed in January that Trumbo had written the script for that movie and would get full screen credit. The New York Times called it “the first open defiance by a producer-director of Hollywood’s ‘blacklist.’”

Later that year, Lewis and company followed suit with “Spartacus.”

Lewis, who had been serving as Trumbo’s front man, was being credited for the script, until he told Universal Studios the truth.

Trumbo later wrote that Lewis had “risked his name to help a man who’d lost his name.”

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For years afterward, however, Douglas often said he deserved sole credit for breaking the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo’s family criticized that claim as an exaggeration. “No single person can be credited with breaking the blacklist,” wrote Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, in a 2002 Los Angeles Times letter to the editor.

Lewis was born in Camden, N.J., on Dec. 16, 1919, to a homemaker and traveling salesman. He briefly attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania when he was 16. He dropped out and went to dental school before serving as an Army captain during World War II. He settled in Los Angeles after the war, where he met Mildred Gerchik, who would later serve as executive producer of the dark 1971 comedy “Harold and Maude.” They married in the mid-1940s.

Together they wrote a screenplay adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s “The Lovable Cheat” (1949), which was Lewis’ first producing gig. Their 1982 film “Missing,” starring Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture, and they co-wrote the 1977 film “Brothers,” based on the relationship between black rights activist Angela Davis and prison inmate George Jackson, who was killed in an escape attempt.

Edward and Mildred Lewis
The screenwriting and producing team of Edward and Mildred Lewis.
(Family photo)

“They both had no interest in the limelight,” Joan Lewis said. “My mother brought projects, materials, ideas to my father who had the connections .... No one saw his drafts unless my mother had seen them.” They wrote together, she said, but Mildred was often the editor.

And they were activists, Joan said, who both worked with Cesar Chavez to establish the United Farm Workers of America’s headquarters in Kern County.

He went on to produce or executive produce numerous Frankenheimer films like “Seven Days in May” (1964) and “Grand Prix” (1966).

After several more years producing and executive producing a play and the 1983 miniseries “The Thorn Birds,” for which he shared an Emmy nomination, Lewis devoted himself to writing. He produced novels, stories, plays and the musical “The Good Life.”

“I couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I became a producer,” Lewis told The Times while discussing the musical in 1987. “But more than 30 films, I-don’t-know-how-many TV shows and one Broadway show later, I’d gotten to a point where I decided to do what I always wanted and loved. So I started to write screenplays, a novel no one’s seen — and out of that came the idea for this show.”

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“The Good Life” starts during the 1929 stock market crash and follows a man who is “principled and believes in things” and even at 70, looks at life ahead. It is a character much like Lewis, who was always upbeat and optimistic and sang “With a Little Bit of Luck” from “My Fair Lady” through the end, his daughter said.

He is survived by daughters Susan and Joan and two grandchildren.


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