Sunday, June 22, 2003
Los Angeles Playwright George Axelrod, who anticipated the sexual revolution with "The Seven Year Itch" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and later wrote screenplays for such films as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Manchurian Candidate," died Saturday. He was 81.
Axelrod died in his sleep of heart failure, said his daughter, Nina Axelrod.
"He ended his life very peacefully in his home overlooking Los Angeles," she said. "He was very happy."
A radio and television writer, Axelrod hit the jackpot in 1952 with "The Seven Year Itch." It was a laugh-filled play about a man whose wife and children had gone to the country, and who pursues the luscious young beauty who lives above his apartment.
The play lasted almost three years on Broadway and was filmed by 20th Century Fox as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, with Tom Ewell repeating his role in the play. The movie was a box-office hit, aided by the classic photo of Monroe's skirt being blown into the air.
Axelrod, who collaborated with Billy Wilder on the script, declared in 1955 "we didn't make a very good picture." The industry censor forbade the sexual innuendo contained in the play and would not allow the two characters to sleep together.
His next play, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" a satire on Hollywood, lasted more than a year on Broadway and also was filmed by Fox, with Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield as stars.
Axelrod steadfastly refused to see it. "They didn't use my story, my play or my script," he said.
He wrote another script for Monroe, "Bus Stop," based on William Inge's play. His next assignment, "Breakfast at Tiffany's," was marked by acrimony with director Blake Edwards.
Axelrod, who still lived in the East then, was advised by Wilder: "You can't sit in New York, see the finished project, then raise hell about it."
Taking the advice, Axelrod moved to Hollywood and became the highest-paid writer in films.
He was born June 9, 1922, in New York City and started working early; becoming an omnivorous reader "to make up for my lack of formal education."
After three wartime years in the Army Signal Corps, he returned to New York and wrote scripts for radio, then television. He calculated that he had written more than 400 broadcasts.
"The Manchurian Candidate," in 1962, based on Richard Condon's novel about wartime brainwashing and subversive politics, may have been Axelrod's best achievement. He declared in 1995 that the script "broke every rule. It's got dream sequences, flashbacks, narration out of nowhere ... Everything in the world you're told not to do."
He considered "The Manchurian Candidate" a comedy, but critics, audiences and pressure groups were offended by the tale of an American POW in Korea who returns home and kills a powerful politician. After President Kennedy's assassination, it was shelved. When the film was rereleased in 1987, critics proclaimed it a classic.