Edward Lewis, ‘Spartacus’ Producer Who Defied Blacklist, Dies at 99

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Edward Lewis, an award-winning producer who hired the banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the movie “Spartacus” and then demanded that he be publicly credited, heralding the end of Hollywood’s anti-Communist blacklist, died on July 27 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 99.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Susan.

“Spartacus,” which was released in 1960, received four of the nine Oscars awarded to films produced by Mr. Lewis, as well as a Golden Globe. All told, his 33 movies received 21 Academy Award nominations.

His producing credits included nine movies directed by John Frankenheimer (among them “Seven Days in May” in 1964) as well as films by John Huston (“The List of Adrian Messenger,” 1963) and Louis Malle (“Crackers,” 1984).

With his wife, Mildred Lewis, who died in April, he shared an Academy Award nomination for best picture for “Missing,” the 1982 political thriller directed by Costa-Gavras.

Mr. Lewis produced five more films written by Trumbo, including “Lonely Are the Brave” in 1962 and “Executive Action” in 1973, but none packed more punch than “Spartacus,” which was directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Mr. Lewis insisted that the movie, which was based on a novel by Howard Fast, another blacklisted writer, was never intended to be overtly political. It nevertheless climaxes with what amounts to a 2,000-year-old prequel to the Red Scare, in which members of Congress demanded in hearings that witnesses identify colleagues or associates suspected of Communist ties.

In the film, the Roman authorities demand that Spartacus’s fellow slaves identify him; instead, in solidarity, each stands to proclaim, “I am Spartacus!” Trumbo later said that the scene evoked the refusal by many congressional witnesses to name names. But Mr. Lewis maintained that “Spartacus” was simply a story “about slaves who are overthrowing the yoke of oppression.”

Mildred Lewis had recommended the novel to her husband, who brought it to the attention of the actor Kirk Douglas, his boss at the time at the film company that Mr. Douglas had established, Byrna Productions. Mr. Douglas would star in the title role.

Dissatisfied with a script by Fast, he and Mr. Douglas hired Trumbo, who had not received a screen credit since 1950 after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist infiltration of the film industry.

The script was submitted piecemeal to the studio, Universal International, under Mr. Lewis’s name while Trumbo churned out page after page, writing in his bathtub with a wooden tray across the top. The tray “preserved his modesty and gave him a place to put his typewriter, an ashtray, and an ever-present glass of bourbon,” Mr. Douglas wrote in “I Am ‘Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” (2012).

“Every time Eddie Lewis told someone he was writing ‘Spartacus,’ it embarrassed him,” Mr. Douglas wrote, adding. “The revelation of Dalton Trumbo’s involvement with ‘Spartacus’ could shut down the entire picture. So Eddie continued to play the producer-turned-writer, a charade he hated.”

Once Universal had invested heavily in the film (more than $70 million in today’s money), making it too late to halt production, Mr. Lewis demanded that the studio credit Trumbo and pay him.

When “Spartacus” was released in October 1960, Universal International became “the first major movie studio to give screen credit to a blacklisted writer,” The New York Times reported. (Otto Preminger had announced in January 1960 that his forthcoming film “Exodus,” released by the smaller studio United Artists, would be written by Trumbo.)

When Trumbo set foot on the studio lot of “Spartacus,” Mr. Douglas wrote, “the blacklist was broken.”

Edward Lewis was born on Dec. 16, 1919, in Camden, N.J., to Max and Florence (Kline) Lewis. His father worked for his own father’s furniture company; his mother was a homemaker.

Edward attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and enrolled in a dental school program. But before graduating he served as an Army captain in World War II at a military hospital in England.

After the war he moved to Los Angeles, where he met and married Mildred Gerchik, the sister of an Army buddy. She was a Brooklyn transplant whose mother had been a garment industry organizer. She had another brother who had fought in the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

“He developed his deep and powerful commitment to social justice under her influence,” Susan Lewis said, referring to her mother.

He is survived by another daughter, Joan Lewis, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Lewis was enterprising early on, starting ventures to provide housing for returning veterans and health insurance for pets. Both failed, but Hollywood beckoned.

Ms. Lewis said of her parents: “At some point I remember them telling me that they went to a social gathering where someone presented a screenplay in progress. My parents went home and said to each other, ‘We can do better than that.’ ”

They adapted Honoré de Balzac’s novel “The Lovable Cheat” into a 1949 movie, though of the two only Mr. Lewis received a screenwriting credit, as well as a producing credit. (In a pan, Variety wrote that it “misses on practically all counts.”)

Mr. Lewis went on to work for CBS producing two of the first drama anthology series on TV, “The Faye Emerson Show” and “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.” He joined Mr. Douglas’s company as a writer and producer in 1956.

“I couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I became a producer,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987.

As to what he actually did as a producer, Mr. Lewis recalled a few examples. On one occasion he assured animal rights advocates that no potential prey would be injured in a fox hunting scene in “The List of Adrian Messenger.” Another time, after the filming of “Spartacus,” he quibbled with studio censors over whether a slave’s preference for both oysters and snails implied that the slave was bisexual.

In other ventures, he collaborated with David Merrick on the 1963 Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and was an Emmy winner as executive producer of the television mini-series “The Thorn Birds” in 1983.

He and his wife also wrote “Brothers” (1977), a fictionalized account of the relationship between the black activist Angela Davis and George Jackson, a prison inmate.

After decades of producing, Mr. Lewis returned to writing, in one case the book and lyrics for a musical called “The Good Life,” which was staged briefly in a Hollywood theater.

“The main character is a man who’s principled, believes in things — and, at 70, remains a militant, optimistic person involved in what’s going on in the future,” he said in 1987, two years before his 70th birthday. “And, you know, that’s been the theme of my own life.”

Sticking to his principles, as he did during the making of “Spartacus, defined much of Mr. Lewis’s professional life.

“I am most grateful to you,” Trumbo wrote him after being recruited to ghostwrite “Spartacus.” “By way of recompense, I want the quality of my work to make you grateful to me. And then, nothing but love, gratitude, money, success, increment earned and unearned, glamour, six-hundred dollar whores and a torrent of good pictures.”

In 1959, Trumbo presented Mr. Lewis with an autographed copy of his book, “Johnny Got His Gun.” It was inscribed: “To Eddie Lewis — who risked his name to help a man who’d lost his name.”


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