Back From Never Never Land -- Stewart Stern Wrote The Scripts That Helped Make Stars Of Dea, Newman And Woodward. After A 10-Year Retreat To Seattle, He Has Found His Voice Again.
FOR HIS 70TH BIRTHDAY, Stewart Stern craved just one gift. He wanted to fly.
His wish came true - but not until 1994, two years later. That winter, the vigorous, balding writer harnessed up at Seattle's Intiman Theatre and was hoisted aloft on sturdy steel wires. As technicians worked the weights and pulleys used for the Intiman production of "Peter Pan," Stern soared over the auditorium and up toward the rafters, smiling gleefully as friends below cheered him on.
Stern had yearned to sail through space ever since his wistful New York boyhood, when his idols were the spritely Peter Pan and the yodeling tree-swinger Tarzan. Now, an eventful 60-something years later, he had finally reached midair.
Ten years ago, Stern quit the Hollywood fast track and moved to Seattle. But few who have come to know this wry, shy man from his stage roles with Pacific Northwest Ballet, or his avid work as a Woodland Park Zoo docent, realize what visions Stern has captured on celluloid and what demons drove him to the Northwest.
Great screenwriters rarely attain the celebrity of top actors or directors. But inside the movie industry, within the growing community of Seattle filmmakers, and among the many students he has mentored at University of Washington, Stern is recognized as a master of his craft and author of a strikingly potent body of films, starring some of America's most celebrated actors.
"Stewart is the best screenwriter of our generation," states actress Joanne Woodward, one of Stern's closest friends and the star of three of his best films: "Rachel, Rachel," "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," and the TV miniseries, "Sybil."
Woodward's husband, press-shy superstar and food purveyor Paul Newman, is also eager with his praise. "Stewart's words give an actor a kind of emotional depth that you can just ride on, like a wave. He certainly stacks up as one of the best in our business," Newman says. "And he's one of the most beloved people I've ever known."
Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Sally Field - each prospered from searching, psychologically intricate roles Stern sculpted. Icon James Dean owes much of his screen immortality to "Rebel Without a Cause," Stern's classic study of teenage angst and a talisman for generations of disaffected American youth.
"Stewart has been a formidable and formative influence on American screenwriting," says Seattle International Film Festival director Darryl Macdonald, who hosted a 50th-anniversary tribute to "Rebel" in 1995.
"He's been involved with so many superb scripts, and his strong suit was always creating fully developed, believable characters - a shortcoming in most films.
"Anyone can come up with a plot. But to make flesh and blood human beings of the written word, in such vivid and specific ways? That is a God-given talent."
Yet in the mid-1980s, Stern dropped out of moviemaking, cashed out of his luxurious Mandeville Canyon home and left Hollywood for an uncertain future in Seattle.
Why did he retreat so far, from a talent in such demand? And how, at 74, has he been able to come back, starting again to spin stories for the dream factory?
In his softly emphatic voice, Stern says the clues to his retreat are embedded in his remarkable upbringing in an extended clan of immigrant Jewish movie moguls, and within the deeply personal films that tell "the story of who I am."
The clues to his inner renewal lie in the natural beauty, the new friendships, and the sense of self he has found in Seattle.
INSIDE THE MOCK-TUDOR Madison Valley home Stern shares with his wife Marilee, mementos abound. Dozens of scrapbooks and thickly notated scripts in black binders fill a closet in Stern's upstairs study. A letter sent to him as a child by silent-film star Mary Pickford hangs on the wall, near autographed photos of actress Eva LaGalliene as Peter Pan and ballet star Rudolph Nureyev.
But the most telling image is the painting of a child gazing in wonder at cows in a meadow.
Imagine that boy as a much younger Stewart Stern, communing with nature at Mountain View Farm. The baronial upstate New York spread where he spent his early summers had livestock, a golf course, tennis courts and 15-suite guest house. It belonged to "Uncle Adolph" Zukor, the brother-in-law of Stern's mother, Frances, and co-founder of Paramount Pictures.
Stern remembers Mountain View as "the most serene, beautiful place, full of the most elegant and brilliant people," where the glittering guests included Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and other Hollywood royalty.
The circle of wealth, fame and genius also included the Sterns' close relatives, the Loew family, owners of a movie-theater chain. Little Stewart and his sister Marjorie had nannies, attended private schools, and shared an upscale Manhattan flat with their parents. But the elegant facade was misleading.
"We lived in the shadow of our rich relations," Stern says. "My mother was intent on keeping up with the people she was raised with, which was impossible. My father was a physician who wanted to be a rabbi but was weighed down by a great sense of obligation to support his family in style. He worked for Uncle Adolph, as head of Paramount's medical department."
Dr. Emmanuel Stern's dreamy-eyed son "felt the depression in our household, and thought it must be my fault. There was no demonstration of love I could read as a little boy."
Decades later, the psychological motifs of his youth - the yearning for love from a glamorous, aloof mother and a deflated father, the desire for a masculine role model of both sensitivity and strength - would send Stern to a "parade of extremely brilliant psychiatrists," and fuel his writing.
But as a star-struck boy, Stern felt happiest in Broadway balconies, watching his matinee idols, LaGalliene ("I saw her `Peter Pan' over 20 times") and Bea Lillie.
At 18, Stern staged a small rebellion by going off to study art at the University of Iowa - "as far away from my family on both coasts as I could get." Yet acting in summer stock and visiting movie sets with well-connected relations lured him into the family business.
BUT FIRST, WORLD WAR II - an event that shaped Stern and his generation.
When his ROTC unit was called up, Stern entered the Army. In the freezing Belgian winter of 1944, the timid, sheltered 22-year-old led a rifle squad in the Battle of the Bulge. As thousands around him perished, Stern killed three German soldiers, suffered severe frostbite and was briefly missing in action. He survived and earned a Bronze Star.
The ordeal strengthened and haunted Stern - and helped make him a writer. He funneled his war experiences into a play, "Thunder Landscape," and years later re-examined them in the 1973 film, "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams," in a scene where a World War II veteran visits a Belgian battlefield and recounts the comradeship and horror of combat.
"The war taught me that writing comes out of life, and that people's defenses disappear in the dark," Stern explains. "The voice from the dark is the voice of confession, of pain, of fear. People tell you who they are if they feel cloaked by darkness.
"I also learned I could reach people by confiding my own fear and vulnerability to them. In the Army, sharing my poet with men who'd never read a poem allowed them to find the poet inside themselves."
As a boy Stern had found maternal surrogates in charismatic actresses. As an aspiring writer, he gravitated toward magnetic male artists as mentors, role models, and colleagues.
One of the first was director Fred Zinnemann (later known for "High Noon" and "From Here to Eternity"), who hired the eager novice to script a film about Israel that was never made ("Sabra"), and, soon after, to write "Teresa." That 1951 feature brought Stern, at 39, an Oscar nomination for co-authorship of an original story. He also scripted "Benjy," Zinnemann's Oscar-winning 1951 documentary about a disabled youngster.
From the exacting director, Stern acquired research skills and a high standard of collaboration. From his own psyche and imagination, he devised the character of an American anti-hero he would recreate in many guises: the alienated, sensitive youth seeking personal integrity and authentic connection in an unsupportive culture.
Stern traces this persona to his long fascination with the myth of Peter Pan, the "lost boy" who can't grow up.
"It's the unmoored, untended child searching for an idealized teacher, hero or protector to help him find the path," Stern says. "All my movies are about that, and about finding out that the hero resides within."
For "Thunder of Silence," one of several '50s TV plays he wrote, Stern found a brooding, blue-eyed actor perfectly suited to such roles: Paul Newman. Two years later, in 1956, Newman's nuanced portrayal of an anguished Korean War vet accused of treason in Stern's "The Rack" cemented an artistic and personal bond.
NEWMAN WAS THE FIRST OF a triumvirate of mesmerizing American actors Stern befriended and collaborated with. Another young star shot comet-like across his path soon after, inspiring the most influential script of Stern's career.
Stern first met James Dean at the home of his producer cousin, Arthur Loew Jr. To fill an awkward silence, he mooed like a cow at the diffident Indiana-bred Dean - and Dean mooed right back.
"That's really what got me the job on `Rebel Without a Cause.' " Stern says.
Director Nicholas Ray's concept "was to look at middle-class kids whose delinquency did not come from poverty, but from some terrible sense of isolation. At the time, Nick felt guilty about his own shortcomings as a parent, and as a newcomer to psychotherapy I was blaming my parents for everything. We were kind of a match."
With police permission, Stern masqueraded as a visiting social worker at juvenile court, talked to troubled kids and parents, "and felt tremendously connected."
Though dated now, "Rebel" still captivates. Dean's electric performance, released after his death at age 24 in a car crash, catapulted him to cult status. It also created a tough-but-tender teenage archetype with staying power.
Says Stern: "The '60s came out of that movie as much as anything else, in terms of the idea of finding one's own alternative family. I mean, what was the Woodstock Festival, if not the old mansion that Jimmy and his friends retreat to in `Rebel?' "
Stern never got to know the elusive Dean well. "But I was struck by his vivid presence. He was like a god, someone who could do anything." When novice director Robert Altman invited Stern to write the 1957 documentary homage, "The James Dean Story," he accepted because he feared "if I didn't, the film might corrupt what Jimmy meant as an artist and person."
Stern was also attracted to the compelling screen aura of sensitivity and strength projected by James Dean's idol (and a Newman rival), Marlon Brando.
The writer and star became friends during a trip to Asia to research a possible film about the United Nations. Their only actual collaboration occurred a bit later, when Stern adapted the novel, "The Ugly American" into a film starring Brando as a beleaguered American diplomat in Southeast Asia.
Though "Ugly American" is not one of his favorite films, Stern adds, "Marlon and I have stayed close at odd moments. The phone would ring every few months, it's Marlon, and we'd talk for three hours. He is simply the most dazzling, funny, insightful conversationalist I've ever known."
Stern has drawn much closer, though, to Newman - an introverted actor-philanthropist who Stern says "has grown into a consistent, solid, entirely trustworthy human being" and "fulfilled himself as a man and an artist."
"Rachel, Rachel," Stern's adaptation of the Margaret Laurence novel "A Jest of God," proved an artistic triumph for both men, and for its luminous star, Joanne Woodward. The 1968 feature, Newman's directing debut, depicts the midlife crisis of a lonely teacher via her dreams, fantasies and scenes of her small-town life.
The project tested - and solidified - Stern's tie with the Newmans, as the three thrashed out Rachel's character.
"Mostly it was wonderful," says Newman, "but sometimes when Stewart didn't get his way he would sulk. He was a very public sulker."
THE TROUBLE, STERN SAYS, was not raging ego, but a gnawing artistic insecurity that would eventually overwhelm him.
Mounting praise and honors - an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe Award for "Rachel, Rachel," an Emmy for the psychiatric docudrama "Sybil" (starring Sally Field), a Writers Guild Award for the 1977 TV movie, "A Christmas to Remember" - only ratcheted up the pressure on Stern, in a Hollywood increasingly obsessed with dealmaking and blockbusters.
"Writing on assignment, with lots of money handed to you before you even began, got very scary for me," he says. "My dread of not being perfect, something I got from a childhood surrounded by powerful, successful people, began to infect everything I wrote."
For the next decade, Stern battled his fears to turn out a screenplay based on the novel "Time and Again," and several other scripts that were shelved. Then he hit the wall and "froze on page 40" of a biblical teleplay.
By 1985, he was turning down all film assignments. "I no longer wanted to make promises to other people or myself that I couldn't keep." Newman helped out financially, by hiring Stern to do research for his authorized biography. (Though no biography has materialized, Stern did write "No Tricks in My Pocket," a book about the making of Newman's film version of "The Glass Menagerie.")
ESCAPE WAS INEVITABLE. IN 1988, when Stern's ex-ballet-dancer wife, Marilee, was invited to teach at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the couple relocated to Seattle.
"I desperately needed to restore myself," he recalls. "I had to get away from all the outside voices and pressures, and back to what inspired me to write in the first place."
That journey was not an easy one. In 1989, Stern suffered a major heart attack while strolling in Seward Park. He recovered, but still "hated the fact that I'd left my friends and walked out on my career. I knew, though, that if I was ever going to write again, it would have to come out of a different place."
It is clear, observing him now, that Stern has made Seattle that place. Far from the Hollywood rat race, notes Marilee Stern, "Stewart's gotten back to the things he loves, but never had time for."
One thing he reclaimed was his love of nature, and especially animals. Soon after moving, Stern discovered Woodland Park Zoo.
"It was the loveliest zoo I'd ever been to, and I would go there often to walk and think. Being with the animals helped me get out of my head and into my heart."
In 1992, he became a zoo volunteer. Recalls zoo director David Towne, "I started to see this nice, unassuming man around a lot, but for a long time I had no idea he had such an illustrious past in Hollywood. He was just another very enthusiastic and dedicated volunteer."
Stern has donated more than 2,000 hours working with the zoo animals, giving talks to visitors and fellow docents, and (recently) compiling a film tribute to Congo, a gorilla who died suddenly in February.
Watching him romp with Bert and Ernie, a pair of rare Dexter bulls, one sees a robust septuagenarian with the unbridled joy of a 7-year-old farmboy. He shared that joy with the Newmans a while ago in a private tour. Eagle-eyed Woodland Park workers that day spotted two of America's best-known actors helping feed giraffes, gorillas and hippopotami.
Teaching also brought Stern new gratification. In his UW extension courses, novice screenwriters receive artistic pointers and warm encouragement, and rub elbows with the likes of Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, who flew in recently to speak at Stern's request.
Moreover, the Oscar nominee and Emmy winner considers himself a "total beginner" too, and never pulls rank. "Stewart gives a group hug, plus a lot of practical hands-on advice," says co-teacher Geof Miller. "He shares his own struggles, and completely erases the wall between himself and the students."
Stern also became a student. He took acting lessons, and played small roles in "Swan Lake" and other PNB ballets.
AND STEWART STERN THE WRITER? Slowly he, too, is being reborn. Every Thursday, Stern lunches with Miller and fellow writer-teachers Bob Ray and Jack Remick. Over lattes, they engage in some go-with-the-flow writing exercises Stern says "are doing absolute wonders for me."
And, yes, he is once again toiling on a film script. Co-written with Miller, he describes it as "a psychological science-fiction horror film about love." He plans to pitch the story to producers soon.
"Writing is still hard. It's always hard," he will tell you. "But I'm getting a lot more enjoyment from it than I used to."
He has soared, and fallen. But in his 70s, Stern is flying again.
Misha Berson is the drama critic for The Seattle Times. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Stern's Best
STEWART STERN HAS WRITTEN more than a dozen feature movies and television films. Some are not available on video, including two early collaborations with Fred Zinnemann ( "Teresa" and "Benji") and the low-budget but arresting "The Rack," based on an original teleplay by Rod Serling and starring Paul Newman.
A sampling of Stern at his best, and available on videocassette:
"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955). One can argue with the facile psychology in this study of Southern California teenagers adrift. But the power of the quicksilver characterizations Stern wrote for James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper is undeniable. It was directed by Nicholas Ray.
"The Outsider" (1961). Tony Curtis starred as Marine Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian celebrated for helping raise the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima but who died young and alcoholic. Though the ending is contrived and (to Stern, among others) anticlimactic, the film won respect for what critic Moira Walsh termed its "integrity and seriousness of purpose." It was directed by Delbert Mann.
"Rachel, Rachel" (1968). Sensitively directed by Paul Newman, beautifully acted by Joanne Woodward and others, this portrait of a virginal, small-town teacher approaching midlife was a low-budget success, and remains one of Stern's favorites. New York Times critic Renata Adler called it "the best written, most seriously acted American movie in a long time." It received Oscar nominations for best movie, screenplay, actress (Woodward) and supporting actress (Estelle Parsons).
"Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" (1973). Though dismissed by some critics as "dreary" and "menopausal," and not a box-office hit, this portrait of a cold, narcissistic New York matron (based on Stern's mother) is detailed, engrossing and ultimately redemptive. Directed by Gilbert Cates, it earned Oscar nominations for Woodward and supporting actress Sylvia Sidney.
"Sybil" (1976). This harrowing TV miniseries, adapted from the true story of a woman juggling 17 different personalities, proved that Sally Field could act. It was nominated for numerous Emmy awards. Stern won one for his teleplay. - Misha Berson
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.