‘Ordinary People’ and ‘Spider-Man’ screenwriter Alvin Sargent dead at 92

Academy Award winner Alvin Sargent, who penned an extraordinary number of popular and critically successful films, from “Paper Moon” and “Ordinary People” to the “Spider-Man” sequels of the 2000s, died Thursday, his talent agency Gersh confirmed to Variety. He was 92.

Sargent won adapted screenplay Oscars for “Julia” in 1978 and “Ordinary People” in 1981 and was also nominated in the category in 1974 for “Paper Moon.” (He also received Writers Guild awards for all three films.) The writer worked with many of Hollywood’s top directors over the course of his career, including Alan J. Pakula, John Frankenheimer, Paul Newman, Peter Bogdanovich, Sydney Pollack, Fred Zinnemann, Robert Redford, Martin Ritt, Norman Jewison, Stephen Frears and Wayne Wang.

Sargent started as a writer for television but broke into features with his screenplay for 1966’s “Gambit,” a Ronald Neame-directed comedy thriller starring Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine and Herbert Lom and sporting an interesting, somewhat unusual tone. (The Coen brothers remade the film in 2012.)

Next for Sargent were Gregory Peck Western “The Stalking Moon,” directed by Robert Mulligan; Alan J. Pakula’s eccentric love story “The Sterile Cuckoo,” which earned star Liza Minnelli an Oscar nomination for best actress; and John Frankenheimer’s “I Walk the Line,” also with Peck.

The scribe returned to television for a while in the early 1970s, penning two telepics, “The Impatient Heart” and “Footsteps,” as well as an episode of “Norman Corwin Presents.”

But Sargent soon returned to bigscreen work, penning an adaptation of Paul Zindel’s play “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” for director Paul Newman and star Joanne Woodward. In 1973 he reunited with Pakula for “Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing,” the tale of an oddly matched couple played by Maggie Smith and Timothy Bottoms.

Also in 1973, Sargent struck gold with the delightful, charming “Paper Moon,” his adaptation of a novel by Joe David Brown directed by Bogdanovich. Sargent picked up his first Oscar nom for the effort. He also penned two episodes when “Paper Moon” was adapted into a brief 1974 ABC series.

Sargent did uncredited work on the 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born” that starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

In 1977 came “Julia,” Sargent’s adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s book “Pentimento,” directed by Zinnemann and starring Jane Fonda, Jason Robards and Vanessa Redgrave, among others. The film, about Hellman’s dangerous mission into Nazi Germany during WWII, scored 11 Oscar nominations and won three, including adapted screenplay for Sargent.

Sargent next contributed to the script for “Straight Time,” a film best known today for Dustin Hoffman’s performance in it.

He adapted Judith Guest’s novel “Ordinary People” for director Redford. This powerful 1981 film about a troubled teen with a bitter, repressed mother scored six Oscar noms, winning four, with Sargent again picking up the adapted screenplay statuette.

Sargent did not have another script produced until 1987’s Streisand starrer “Nuts,” a court drama based on Tom Topor’s play that drew mixed reviews. “Dominick and Eugene,” a relatively small film, drew decent reviews, while May-December romancer “White Palace,” with Susan Sarandon and James Spader, garnered largely positive reviews.

Sargent and his life partner, producer Laura Ziskin, devised the story for the 1991 comedy “What About Bob,” which was then scripted by Bob Schulman. (After 25 years together, Sargent and Ziskin married in 2010, but she died of breast cancer in June 2011.) The film, starring Bill Murray as a nutcase hounding psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss, was both a commercial and critical success.

In 1992, Sargent and Ziskin teamed again on the story for “Hero,” with David Webb Peoples also contributing and writing the script. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, aimed to resurrect the comedy of Preston Sturges.

The 1999 mother-daughter road movie “Anywhere But Here,” starring Sarandon and Natalie Portman, drew positive reviews; the New York Times credited Sargent with improving upon the novel upon which it was based.

In 2002, the steamy thriller “Unfaithful,” which Sargent and William Broyles Jr. adapted from the Claude Chabrol film “La Femme infidele,” was a popular success, earning $120 million worldwide.

Then came a significant shift in Sargent’s career.

Ziskin, producer of four “Spider-Man” films, brought Sargent onto the first one, released in 2002, to do a rewrite. The extent of the contributions of the long list of writers on this movie has long been a subject of controversy, and Sargent was not credited on the project. But the film grossed more than $800 million worldwide, and he subsequently collaborated on the screenplays for “Spider-Man 2,” “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The success of the “Spider-Man” pics helped spur the production of a dizzying array of other comic book films in the 2000s.

Sargent, born Alvin Supowitz in Philadelphia, began his Hollywood career with a brief uncredited role in “From Here to Eternity.” As a writer he first worked in television, penning episodes of “Chevron Hall of Stars” in 1956 and “G.E. True Theater” in 1960. He got busier in the 1960s, scripting multiple episodes of “Naked City,” “Ben Casey,” “Route 66” and “The Doctors and the Nurses,” among other credits.

Sargent’s brother, television writer and producer Herb Sargent, died in 2005. Before Ziskin, Alvin Sargent was married to actress Joan Camden from 1953-75. She died in 2000.

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