Ernest Lehmanlehman ernest

Class of 1937

Inducted 2000

Ernest Lehman was a screenwriter who left behind a body of work that was as critically acclaimed as it was box office magic. He was nominated for four Oscars as a writer and two more as a producer. He worked with some of the best-known directors in Hollywood history, including Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, and he turned out scripts for three of the most memorable films of the 1950s and 1960s: “Sweet Smell of Success,” “North by Northwest” and “The Sound of Music.” In 2001, he received an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work.” He was the first screenwriter to be so honored.

Lehman was known as one of the industry’s best adapters of Broadway shows. In addition to “Sound of Music,” he wrote or co-wrote the scripts for the musicals “The King and I” and “West Side Story” as well as “Sabrina” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Lehman also produced “Virginia Woolf” and “Hello, Dolly!” — both of which were nominated for Best Picture Oscars — and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” His other Oscar nominations were for writing “Sabrina,” “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story” and “Virginia Woolf.” In addition, he won awards from the Writers Guild of America; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the Golden Globes; and the Mystery Writers of America. He was president of the Writers Guild West from 1983 to 1985. City College presented him with a Townsend Harris Medal in 1969.

lehman ernest making north by northwest

With Alfred Hitchcock (right), making “North by Northwest.”

Born in Manhattan on Dec. 8, 1915 and raised in Woodmere, Lehman has attributed much of his professional success to the writing courses he took at the College. Following graduation, he was a freelance fiction writer for such magazines as Colliers, Esquire, Liberty, Redbook, American Mercury and Scribners. He also went to work as a writer for a Broadway press agent named Irving Hoffman. His job was to plant items in gossip columns. In 1949, Cosmopolitan magazine published “Tell Me About It Tomorrow,” a Lehman novella based on his experiences in press agentry. It was the genesis of 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” for which he shared screenplay credit with Clifford Odets after falling ill during the shooting. Lehman was also a producer of a Broadway musical version of the movie. It opened in March, 2002 and closed three months later.

lehman ernest honorary

An honorary Oscar in 2001

Lehman’s fiction attracted the attention of Hollywood and in the mid-1950s, he was signed to a writing contract by Paramount Pictures. His first screenplay was “Executive Suite” in 1954, followed by “Sabrina,” which was directed by Wilder. In 1959, Lehman worked with Hitchcock on “North by Northwest,” starring Cary Grant as an ad man mistaken for a government agent. It was a huge hit that Lehman said he intended to be “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He worked with Hitchcock again on “Family Plot” in 1976. The following year marked Lehman’s last feature film screenplay, for “Black Sunday,” based on a Thomas Harris novel about a terrorist plot at the Super Bowl.

Lehman wrote two novels, “The French Atlantic Affair” in 1977 and “Farewell Performance” in 1982, as well as a collection of essays, “Screening Sickness and Other Tales of Tinsel Town,” also published in 1982.

He died on July 2, 2005, at the age of 89.