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Recalling the Art of Screenwriter Ernest Lehman


The screenwriter Ernest Lehman died over the weekend at age 89. Lehman had many big screenwriting credits, but he'll be remembered best for writing the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film "North by Northwest." It's a thriller with more funny lines than most comedies have. Cary Grant is a harried Madison Avenue adman who's mistaken for a secret agent. He's pursued for a murder he didn't commit and responds to all crises with irony. Ernest Lehman recorded a commentary on the film for its release on DVD. He said that his favorite line was this one delivered by Cary Grant to his co-star, Eva Marie Saint.

(Soundbite of "North by Northwest")

Mr. CARY GRANT: Tell me, how does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?

Ms. EVA MARIE SAINT: Lucky, I guess.

Mr. GRANT: Oh, not lucky. Naughty, wicked, up to no good. Ever kill anyone? Because I bet you could tease a man to death without half-trying. So stop trying.

Mr. ERNEST LEHMAN (Screenwriter): I felt that I didn't write dialogue; I wrote repartee. That's what I felt it was like, whatever the difference. I'd have to look it up in the dictionary.

SIEGEL: We heard in that scene from "North by Northwest" Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Eva Marie Saint joins us now from Los Angeles with her husband, Jeffrey Hayden, who was a very close friend of Ernest Lehman.

Welcome to the program, both of you.

Ms. SAINT: Thank you.

Mr. JEFFREY HAYDEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Eva Marie Saint, first, "North by Northwest."

Ms. SAINT: Yes.

SIEGEL: What do you remember about Ernest Lehman writing it and how he approached that project?

Ms. SAINT: Well, I knew him before, right, Jeff?

Mr. HAYDEN: Oh, many, many years.

Ms. SAINT: Yeah, yeah. I never figured out when, but many years. So when I read the script, I thought, `I don't know. I don't know about this.' My character didn't come in till Page 80 or something. (Laughs)

Mr. HAYDEN: No, it...

Ms. SAINT: What?

Mr. HAYDEN: Thirty-seven.

Ms. SAINT: Thir--I don't know. But it seemed a little delayed, and I thought, `Well, let me read this again.' Of course, then I read it again and I thought, `Oh, I just love this.' And I think between Ernie and Hitch, they were--both were very stylish men, and I think that the writing was very stylish. In other words, in the love scenes, neither one of us took--Cary Grant or myself took our clothes off, and yet I think it's a very sexy scene.

SIEGEL: How do you remember him, Jeffrey Hayden? What do you think most of?

Mr. HAYDEN: Well, when I think of Ernie, he was a very quiet and shy man but with such high moral and ethical standards. And one thing comes to my mind about Ernie is that--you know, people talk about how Hollywood screenwriters seem to write for the two coasts, you know, the LA and New York crowd. Well, I spent a lot of time with Ernie, hour after hour and after, in his little radio shack, which was above his garage, as he had his ham radio. And he would contact people all over the world, in all these far, remote and quite rural places. And he would spend hours talking to these people, just talking to them about their lives and what would be of interest to them. And I always marveled at Ernie's interest in all these other people. It was so wonderful...

Ms. SAINT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. HAYDEN: ...that--he was such a sophisticated and, you know, smart guy, one of the smartest guys I ever knew. Whether we were working on his driveway to repair it or put some plants in his garden, whatever he got into, he knew all about fixing driveways if that's what we were doing. He was just that kind of guy.

SIEGEL: He took a great deal of pride in the research that he did...

Mr. HAYDEN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...for writing "North by Northwest" and other things, I assume.

Mr. HAYDEN: And all the other pictures.

SIEGEL: He said, `To write a movie in which there's a scene in the United Nations or in a train in the upper Midwest, you've got to go to the upper--you've got to go on top of Mt. Rushmore and to the United Nations to actually see them'...

Mr. HAYDEN: Well, look at the range of his pictures, from "Executive Suite" to "Somebody Up There Likes Me," the boxing picture that he did with Paul Newman and Bobby Wise.

SIEGEL: The Rocky Graziano story.

Mr. HAYDEN: And, you know, of course "Sweet Smell of Success" was Ernie's life before he moved to California. I mean, he was just the kind of guy who explored every facet of anything he got into. As I said earlier, whether we were, you know, fixing his driveway, he would learn everything there was to know about fixing driveways.

SIEGEL: Did you succeed in fixing the driveway, by the way? (Unintelligible).

Mr. HAYDEN: Yes, we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAYDEN: Well, I must say this, since you asked. I would not have said this if you hadn't asked.

Ms. SAINT: But don't.

Mr. HAYDEN: But I--well, we would fix the driveway, and I'd get a call two days later, `Jeff, could you get over here?' And...

Ms. SAINT: `There's a blade of grass coming up the...'

Mr. HAYDEN: Yeah, `There's a little grass. Jeff, let's examine this thing again.' And, I mean, he was that kind of guy. He just wouldn't let go. He wouldn't let go, but I loved him for that. I mean, that was his strength, you know. He just wanted everything to be the way it should be.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you both very much, Jeffrey Hayden, longtime very, very successful television director, and Mrs. Hayden, aka Eva Marie Saint from "North by Northwest." Thank you both for talking with us about your friend, the late Ernest Lehman.

Ms. SAINT: Yeah.

Mr. HAYDEN: You're welcome, Robert.

Ms. SAINT: It's a sad day in Hollywood, I have to say.

Mr. HAYDEN: Very sad.

Ms. SAINT: Thank you for having us.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.