Composers and their stage works 


Playwright George Axelrod Dies at Age 81


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 on Saturday. He was 81.

Axelrod died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home 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 he pursues his longing for the luscious young beauty who lives above his apartment. After much conscience-dueling, he achieves his goal.

The play lasted almost three years on Broadway and was filmed by 20th Century Fox as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe. Tom Ewell was hired to repeat 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 of the play and would not allow Ewell to sleep with Monroe.

His next play, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?", a satire on Hollywood, lasted more than a year on Broadway and was also 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, was advised by Wilder: "Look, the time has come. You can't sit in New York, see the finished project, then raise hell about it. If you want to be involved in the making of the picture, you've got to be out here to do 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." He also haunted Broadway theaters.

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. His first attempt at playwrighting - "Small Wonder" in 1948 [a musical] - failed. Four years later, "The Seven Year Itch" changed his life.

"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) based on Richard Condon's novel about wartime brainwashing and subversive politics, may have been Axelord'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."

Axelrod considered "The Manchurian Candidate" a comedy, but critics, audiences and pressure groups were offended. After President Kennedy's assassination, it was shelved. When the film was rereleased in 1987, critics proclaimed it a classic.

Another of Axelrod's plays, "Goodbye, Charlie," became a movie starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis. His other films as writer include "Phffft," "Paris When It Sizzles," "How to Murder Your Wife," "Lord Love a Duck" (also directed), "The Secret Life of an American Wife" (also directed). He also wrote three novels.

Sick of Hollywood, Axelrod moved to London in 1968 with his second wife, Joan Axelrod. (He was married to Gloria Washburn from 1942 to 1954 and they had two sons). The Axelrods lived in a six-story house and sometimes entertained 60 people at dinner parties. He wrote scripts and struggled with his longtime alcoholism. In January 1986, he entered the Betty Ford Clinic.

In 1987, Axelrod was saluted at the New York Film Festival. He told the admiring crowd: "I always wanted to get into the major leagues, and I knew my secret: luck and timing. I had a small and narrow but very, very sharp talent, and inside it, I'm as good as it gets."

Axelrod's wife Joan died in 2001. He is survived by four children, seven grandchildren and a sister.