Philip Yordan | Movies | The Guardian

Philip Yordan

Prolific Hollywood screenwriter who fronted for victims of the McCarthyite witchhunt
Tue 8 Apr 2003 21.03 EDT

Philip Yordan, who has died aged 88, was credited as screenwriter on dozens of Hollywood movies, but there is more to this than meets the eye. Behind his name were often those of blacklisted writers unable to work during the McCarthy era, and, in 1996, a panel of the Writers Guild of America restored their titles to 82 films.

In the revised version of Hollywood history, Yordan has to share the credit with, or give way completely to, a number of other writers. It is known, for example, that he acted as a front for Ben Maddow on at least five films, including God's Little Acre (1958). Maddow also claimed to have written Johnny Guitar (1954), though Yordan insisted that the final version was his.

He also fronted for Bernard Gordon on Circus World (1964) and Battle Of The Bulge (1965). Gordon's name was added to the credits of The Day Of The Triffids and 55 Days To Peking (both 1962), and Ben Barzman now appears as co-writer on El Cid (1961).

In fact, Yordan, who was living in Spain as assistant to producer Samuel Bronston on the latter epic, merely handled the business side of the contract with Barzman. Nevertheless, he insisted on maintaining a writer's credit on the picture to the end.

It was not only blacklisted writers with whom there was some dispute as to who wrote what. The director Joseph L Mankiewicz claimed that he "scrapped all of Yordan's dialogue" for House Of Strangers (1949), though when the Screen Writers Guild offered him the chance to share the credit with Yordan, he refused. When the film was remade as the western Broken Lance (1954) by Edward Dmytryk, who had named names before the house unAmerican activities committee, Yordan won an Oscar for best screen story.

However, it would be doing an injustice to Yordan not to regard him as a significant figure in his own right. Born in Chicago, the son of Polish- Jewish immigrants, he gained a BA at the University of Illinois and a law degree at Kent College of Law, but then preferred to work in the theatre.

In 1941, the director William Dieterle, who had seen Yordan's first play, Any Day Now, off-Broadway, invited him to Hollywood to write the script for the jazz musical Syncopation. Yordan went on to write a number of B-movies, including When Strangers Marry (1944), an excellent film noir starring Robert Mitchum in his first important role. Yordan shared the writing credit with Dennis Miller, to whom he had given the plot outline from which to write the first draft.

In the same year, his play Anna Lucasta was produced on Broadway by the American Negro Theatre (ANT), which revised the work for a black cast after the story of a waterfront prostitute - originally written about a Polish-American family - had been rejected by white companies. It ran for more than 950 performances, and generated two screen versions.

Yordan won his first Oscar nomination for best original screenplay with the tense gangster movie Dillinger (1945), and took a second nomination as co-writer of Detective Story (1951.) He also wrote Whistle Stop (1946), a thriller which starred the up-and-coming Ava Gardner, one of the many beautiful women with whom he had affairs.

According to Bernard Gordon, "He wore heavy glasses and squinted all the time. But he sold himself extremely well. What women found attractive in him, I can only assume, was not only a man who was rich and powerful but a man who knew his own mind. He had strength."

As far as one can tell, Yordan did script two splendidly tough films in 1955, Anthony Mann's The Man From Laramie and Joseph L Lewis's The Big Combo. Then he left the US for Paris, where he maintained a stable of blacklisted writers in the basement of his sumptuous town house, because, according to Patrick McGilligan's book Tender Comrades, "he got the better people cheaper". It was not because of any political commitment: "The word blacklist never escaped his lips."

Later, Yordan became a producer of big-budget movies, such as the over-inflated Custer Of The West (1968). Here he allowed Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet (another blacklisted writer) to give the Indians the moral advantage, and make Custer (Robert Shaw) an anti-hero - although he told Gordon, "It's Jews like you who ruined the motion picture industry with this anti-hero shit."

One of Yordan's undisputed screenplays was Nicholas Ray's King Of Kings (1961), although the uncredited Ray Bradbury wrote Christ's final monologue and the voice-over narration, spoken by Orson Welles. He continued to produce and write films into the 1990s, one of his last being Night Train To Terror (1985), a trashy horror anthology concocted from edited versions of three unfinished movies.

He is survived by his fourth wife and five children.

Philip Yordan, screenwriter and film producer, born April 1 1914; died March 24 2003