Harriet Frank Jr., Oscar-nominated screenwriter of ‘Hud’ and ‘Norma Rae,’ dies at 96

Harriet Frank Jr. with her husband, Irving Ravetch
Screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. with her husband, Irving Ravetch.
(Los Angeles Times)

Harriet Frank Jr., an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who with her husband and lifelong collaborator Irving Ravetch explored the social crosscurrents of postwar America in such films as “Hud” and “Norma Rae,” has died at her home in Los Angeles.

Frank, who was the daughter of a Hollywood story editor who began her career in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s young writers program, died Jan. 28, her nephew Michael Frank told the New York Times. She was 96.

Frank and her husband were a sought-after writing combo who wrote more than a dozen film scripts, dipping into the novels of Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard and William Faulkner for inspiration.

Although they sometimes adapted the story as written, they just as often used it as a starting point for a far different story — villains would be recast as heroes, minor characters reshaped as the script’s protagonist, multiple characters melted carefully into one complexity.

Sally Field appears in a scene from the 1979 film "Norma Rae." Field won a best actress Oscar for her role as a gritty worker who attempts to unionize a Southern textile mill.
Sally Field appears in a scene from the 1979 film “Norma Rae.” Field won a best actress Oscar for her role as a gritty worker who attempts to unionize a Southern textile mill.
(Associated Press)

The two met at the MGM studios and soon were writing the script for “The Long, Hot Summer,” the story of a crafty drifter who stumbles into a small Mississippi town and endears himself to the town’s most powerful businessman. The script was culled from three different Faulkner stories.

In “Hud,” which starred Paul Newman as a hard-drinking, trouble-making womanizer, Frank and Ravetch bent and twisted McMurtry’s “Horseman, Pass By” to fit their script, which was nominated for an Academy Award for screenwriting.

In “Norma Rae,” the 1979 Academy Award-winning film for which Sally Field won best actress as a fiery union organizer, the two turned to the real-life story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a much-harassed union organizer at a textile plant in the Deep South. It too was nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting.

Born Harriet Goldstein on March 2, 1923, she and her two siblings were raised in Portland, Ore., where her father ran a shoe store and her mother hosted a radio show.

Her mother eventually took a job in Hollywood as a story editor, changed the family’s last name to Frank and adopted her daughter’s first name as her own — minting herself Harriet Frank Sr.

In a 2003 interview with Michigan Quarterly Review, Frank and Ravetch said their collaborative process was built on “talking through” every screen and every line in a script. Frank said the two would draft a single-page outline listing 35 to 45 scenes that would form the skeleton of the script.


“Once we’re ready to begin, we start ‘talking’ the screenplay to each other. Out loud. It’s a line-for-line conversation,” Frank said.

“In truth, we get so involved that we can’t even tell who starts a line or who finishes it. It’s a very animated, running conversation where we act out the lines along with running commentary.”

Martin Ritt, the award-wining director who had been blacklisted by Hollywood for his purported communist sympathies, worked with the couple eight times.

“I don’t know of any better screenwriters in America,” said Ritt, who died in 1990.

Other film scripts by Frank and Ravetch included “The Sound and the Fury,” “Reivers,” “Hombre,” “Conrack” and “Stanley & Iris.”

Ravetch died in 2010.