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R.I.P. Leigh Chapman, actress and pioneering screenwriter

Leigh Chapman, an actress who found her niche as a writer of action-adventure movies including Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, has died after an eight-month battle with cancer. She was 75.

Chapman was born Rosa Lee Chapman in Kannapolis, N.C., in 1939, and moved out to Los Angeles in the early ’60s, where she got her first job as a secretary at the William Morris agency. That job eventually led to a series of TV gigs on shows like McHale’s Navy and The Monkees; her most famous TV role was as Napoleon Solo’s secretary Sarah on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


But Chapman soon discovered that her true talent lay in writing, and in 1964 she penned her first TV script, an episode of the ABC detective series Burke’s Law. (Ironically, she had appeared on the show in a tiny part as “2nd Ad Lib Girl” the year before.) That led to gigs writing episodes of My Favorite Martian, Mission: Impossible, It Takes A Thief, and The Mod Squad, as well as five episodes of The Wild Wild West.

After an early gig writing the beach party movie A Swingin’ Summer in 1965, Chapman worked in TV until 1974, when she wrote the treatment for what became the 1974 Isaac Hayes blaxploitation film Truck Turner. She then wrote one of her most famous films, the 1974 Peter Fonda/Susan George car chase flick Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Chapman wrote screenplays in many genres, including comedies (How Come Nobody’s On Our Side?, 1975) and dramas (Boardwalk, 1979) but some of her biggest successes were in the action-adventure genre, including the 1979 Lee Majors movie Steel and the 1980 Chuck Norris ninja flick The Octagon.

Chapman’s last feature film credit was the 1990 female-cop drama Impulse, and her last TV gig was writing the pilot and one early episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, although she ended up removing her name from the credits due to a creative dispute. Throughout her career, Chapman was a rare female presence in the world of action movies, a world that continues to be male-dominated to this day. But it was very much her calling, as she described in a 2010 interview: “I couldn’t write a romantic comedy or a chick flick if my life depended on it,” she said. “I could write a love story, but it would have to be a Casablanca-type of love story, and some people would have to die.”

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