Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ira Levin R.I.P.

Ira Levin, novelist , playwright, television writer, and songwriter, died Monday at the age of 78 in Manhattan. He is perhaps best known for his books Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives.

Ira Levin was born August 27, 1929 in Manhattan, New York. He grew up in both the Bronx and Manhattan. Levin attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for two years before transferring to New York University. Levin graduated from New York University in 1950 with a bachelor's degree. He also served in the Army Signal Corps from 1953 to 1955.

While a senior there Levin entered a teleplay writing contest sponsored by CBS. Despite the fact that he did not win, Levin was able to see his teleplay to NBC as the episode "Leda's Portrait" of the anthology show Lights Out (it first aired in 1950). By 1953 he would publish his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying. It won the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and would be adapted to the big screen twice (once in 1955 and again in 1991). He continued to write for television, writing the episode "The Notebook Warrior" and adapting Mac Hyman's No Time for Sergeants for The U. S. Steel Hour. Starring Andy Griffith as Will Stockdale, a hillbilly who finds himself in the Air Force, No Time For Sergeants put Levin on the map as a writer. Levin would adapt it as a play on Broadway, where it ran for 796 performances. It also earned Andy Griffith a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. The play in turn would be adapted into the 1958 motion picture.

Levin continued to write for television, writing the episode "Sylvia" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and "The Devil You Say" for General Electric Theatre. For the next several years, however, the bulk of Levin's work would be on the stage, although his success there was often hit and miss. His plays Interlock (1958), Dr. Cook's Garden (1968), and Veronica's Room all bombed. He would have successes with Critic's Choice and Deattrap. Critic's Choice (1960) ran for 189 performances on Broadway. It would later be adapted as a motion picture in 1963. Deathtrap (1978) was arguably Levin's most successful play. It ran for 1793 performances and was nominated for several Tonys.

Levin wrote the book and the lyrics to the songs of one musical, Drat! The Cat!. A parody of Victorian melodramas, it closed after only eleven performances. Ironically, Barbara Streisand would have a hit with one of the songs, "He Touched Me."

Levin did not write another book after A Kiss Before Dying for 14 years; however, that novel would become a cultural phenomenon. Rosemary's Baby was a best seller in which a young wife is chosen to bear the Anti-Christ. It would not only be adapted as the classic 1968 movie by Roman Polanski, but would inspire a slough of movies and novels touching upon the Devil in the Seventies. The movie was followed by a made-for-TV sequel called Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby; it bore almost no relation to the novel. Levin published an official sequel to the book, Son of Rosemary, in 1997.

Levin would repeat the success of Rosemary's Baby with The Stepford Wives, published in 1972. The Stepford Wives would be adapted into a 1975 motion picture. Between the novel and the book Stepford would enter the English language as an adjective for anything that is overly obedient or robotic. The 1975 motion picture would be followed by three made-for-TV movies (none of which bore any particular relation to the book or the first film). Another major motion picture adaptation was made in 2004.

Levin's next book, The Boys From Brazil, would not quite have the pop culture clout of either Rosemary's Baby or The Stepford Wives. That having been said, it was one of the earliest mainstream books to deal with cloning and it was a bestseller. It was adapted into a 1978 movie and New Line Cinema is currently working on a remake. Levin's other books included This Perfect Day and Sliver.

To say Ira Levin was a multifaceted writer would be a bit of an understatement. He wrote novels, plays, and television shows, doing well in each medium. His novels A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stepford Wives are classics in their respective genres. Levin's adaptation of the novel No Time for Sergeants is one of the greatest teleplays of all time. Critic's Choice and Deathtrap were both two of the best plays of their times. He was certainly one of the most influential writers of our time. References to Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and even The Boys From Brazil abound in Anglo-American pop culture.

If Ira Levin has been so influential, it is perhaps because he had a gift for combining the utterly ordinary with the utterly outré. In the world of Levin's novels and plays, something terrifying generally lurked amongst mundane, ordinary lives. Rosemary Woodhouse was an ordinary, young mother who just happens to be bearing Satan's child. Stepford, Connecticut appears to be a fairly standard New England town, except for the fact that wives often find themselves replaced by robotic surrogates. Josef Mengele is alive and well in Paraguay and busy cloning Hitler. Levin was a master of making the absurd believable by couching it in a world that was all too real. Few writers today match his talent. I doubt there will be very many in the future who will match him either.

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