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R.I.P. Stewart Stern, screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause

Stewart Stern—the independent-minded screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause, The Outsider, The Ugly American, and The Last Movie—has died. Stern, a two-time Oscar nominee, quit Hollywood in the 1970s to focus on teaching. He was 92.

Stern was born in New York City in 1922 into a film industry family. His father, a doctor, ran the medical department at Paramount, the studio founded by Stern’s uncle, Adolph Zukor. Growing up, Stern was close with Arthur Loew, Jr., his cousin and the grandson of Marcus Loew, founder of MGM and the Loews theater chain. (Though technically competitors, the Zukors and the Loews were related by marriage.) Artistically inclined, the teenage Stern became good friends with his classmate Diane Nemerov, the future Diane Arbus.


Stern served in the 106th Infantry Division in World World II, fighting in the Battle Of The Bulge and earning a Purple Heart. After the war, he found work as a dialogue director, working on a string of movies helmed by the great Anthony Mann, including Railroaded! and T-Men. Stern’s first produced screenplay—for the Fred Zinnemann-directed Teresa—earned him an Oscar nomination in 1951. Like many ambitious screenwriters of the period, he also wrote teleplays for shows like Goodyear Playhouse, Gulf Playhouse, and Playhouse 90.

It was through an invitation from childhood friend Arthur Loew, Jr. that Stern ended up at a 1954 Christmas party at Gene Kelly’s house, where he met Nicholas Ray, with whom he would end up working on Rebel Without A Cause, arguably the most iconic depiction of teenage disaffection and anger to come out of Hollywood.

Stern put a lot of his own feelings toward his status-conscious parents into the script, and would, in later years, often say that he’d felt cheated when Ray got nominated for an Oscar instead of him. (At the time, the Oscars gave separate awards for Best Screenplay and Best Story; Ray was nominated for the latter.) After the death of the movie’s star, James Dean, Stewart was brought to script Warner Bros.’ quickie, clip-packed, cash-in documentary The James Dean Story, which ended up being the first major studio assignment of a young director named Robert Altman.

Stern’s Hollywood career was defined by close collaborations with actors. His other major screenplays included The Outsider, a Tony Curtis-led biopic of Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine who was one of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima; The Ugly American, an adaptation of Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s bestselling novel, starring Marlon Brando as the American ambassador to a fictional Southeast Asian country; Paul Newman’s directorial debut, Rachel, Rachel, which earned Stern his second Oscar nomination; and Dennis Hopper’s notorious, self-devouring freak-out The Last Movie.


In the 1970s, Stern effectively left Hollywood, citing his own anxieties about writing and work. He wrote a handful of TV scripts—including, most famously, the miniseries Sybil, which played a significant role in shaping the pop-cultural perception of dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personality disorder, as it was then known).

He spent the last few decades teaching screenwriting and living in Seattle with his wife, the ballet dancer, choreographer, and artist Marilee Stiles, who drew on her own struggles with dissociative identity disorder for her work. Stern died of brain cancer on Monday, February 2 at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, though his death wasn’t announced until Friday. He was the subject of the 2005 documentary Going Through Splat: The Life And Work Of Stewart Stern and the upcoming Stewart Stern Unwritten.


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