Michael Wilson (writer)
July 1, 1914|
Wilson was born and raised Roman Catholic in McAlester, Oklahoma. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1936. He taught English and began his writing career with short stories for magazines. Then, starting in 1941, he wrote or co-wrote twenty-two screenplays, several of which are legendary and considered some of the finest in the history of film.
Wilson's early work consisted of William Boyd westerns. His career in Hollywood was interrupted by service with the United States Marine Corps during World War II. In 1945 he became a contract writer with Liberty Films, working on such pictures as It's a Wonderful Life. In 1952 he was a co-winner of the Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay for A Place in the Sun, and in 1953 he won an Edgar Award and another Oscar nomination for his script for 5 Fingers.
He was named an unfriendly witness by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted for being a communist. After he was blacklisted, he left for France and worked on scripts for European film productions. In 1954, while blacklisted, Wilson wrote the script for Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized account of a real strike by zinc miners in Grant County, New Mexico. The movie was directed by Herbert Biberman and produced by Paul Jarrico both of whom had also been blacklisted by Hollywood. The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film has also been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He also wrote or collaborated on scripts for Hollywood films without credit or under a pseudonym for much less than the usual fees he was used to before being blacklisted including Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962); His screenplay for Friendly Persuasion was nominated for an Academy Award, but was disqualified because his name did not appear in the credits. Director William Wyler wanted his brother, Robert Wyler, and Jessamyn West credited for rewriting the script, but Wilson disputed this. Wyler then was able under the rules of the blacklist to have one of the few films in history credited to no writer at all. He remained in France with his family for 9 years before returning to the United States in 1964 where he continued to write, including The Sandpiper (1965), Planet of the Apes (1968), and Che! (1969).
His screenplay for Planet of the Apes was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle; the film spawned four sequels, a remake, a live-action television show, and a Saturday-morning cartoon, however only Boulle received screen credit (usually "Based on characters created by Pierre Boulle") in the subsequent incarnations.
Michael Wilson was awarded Writers Guild of America's Laurel Award in 1975 and was posthumously awarded his second Academy Award in 1984 for The Bridge on the River Kwai. In 1995, Wilson was credited by the Academy Board of Directors with an Academy Award nomination as a co-writer of Lawrence of Arabia and credited as the winner of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for Best British Dramatic Screenplay.
Wilson also completed an unproduced screenplay on December 16, 1976, The Raid On Harper's Ferry, which was an adaptation of Truman Nelson's 1973 book The Old Man: John Brown at Harper's Ferry. In a February 1, 1974 letter to Nelson [that is contained in the Truman Nelson papers at Boston University's Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Library], Wilson (writing from his Ojai, California home at 514 Del Norte Road) recalled how he became involved in one of his last screenwriting adaptation projects:
On Monday, I began the preparatory work on the screenplay of "Harper's Ferry", based on your book. I want to tell you at the outset how delighted I am with this opportunity. It is without doubt the most promising project to come my way in a decade.
Let me tell you how the project got off the ground. Last summer, after the writer's strike ended, I went to work on a screenplay for Robert Wise, concerning a village in France during the German occupation in 1944. The production was aborted after three months by a studio executive. However, Robert Wise and I established an excellent personal rapport during this experience, and the last thing he said to me was: `Find something else we can do together.'
I found it in your book, thanks to Julian Mayfield, and I shall be eternally grateful to him for leading me to it, for it is a subject close to my heart, and most appropriate as a feature film as we near the Bicentenary. I gave your book to Wise to read and he said: `Let's do it.'
He then had to raise or provide the option money for you and the `seed money' for me to write a screenplay. Times have changed in Hollywood, and one can no longer bring a biography such as yours to a major studio or distributor and hope to make a deal. Nowadays they say: `Show us the screenplay, and if we like it then we'll talk deal.'...
...Finally let me assure you that I think Bob Wise is the best director in Hollywood for this particular picture. Is it necessary that I add that I find myself the best qualified writer for it?
Besides writing his unproduced screenplay for The Raid On Harper's Ferry, Wilson also apparently wrote unproduced scripts for a movie about the Industrial Workers of the World, titled The Wobblies, and for a movie about the infiltration of the Black Liberation Movement, titled Quiet Darkness.
Michael Wilson married Zelma Gussin in 1941; they had two daughters. Zelma's sister, Sylvia, was married to another blacklisted screenwriter, Paul Jarrico. Michael Wilson died of a heart attack in 1978 in Los Angeles County, California.
- The Men in Her Life (1941)
- Bar 20 (1943)
- Colt Comrades (1943)
- Border Patrol (1943)
- Forty Thieves (1944)
- It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
- A Place in the Sun (1951)
- 5 Fingers (1952)
- Mannequins für Rio (1954) (uncredited)
- Carnival Story (1954) (uncredited)
- Salt of the Earth (1954)
- The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) (uncredited)
- Friendly Persuasion (1956) (originally uncredited)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (originally uncredited)
- The Two-Headed Spy (1958) (originally as James O'Donnell)
- La Tempesta (movie) (1958) (uncredited)
- 5 Branded Women (1960) (originally uncredited)
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (originally uncredited)
- The Sandpiper (1965)
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
- Che! (1969)
- The Raid On Harper's Ferry
- The Wobblies
- Quiet Darkness
- "Here and There," Berkeley Daily Gazette (June 23, 1941): 3, social page mentions the couple's recent wedding.
- McBride, Joseph (2002). "A Very Good American: The Undaunted Artistry of Blacklisted Screenwriter Michael Wilson." From the February 2002 issue of "Written By."
- Planet of the Apes (Magazine) #2, October 1974. P. 48-52, "Michael Wilson: The Other Apes Writer," by David Johnson. An exclusive interview with the co-author of the original Planet of the Apes movie.
- Merck, Mandy (2007). Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens. Oxford: Berg Publishers. ISBN 978-1-84520-664-2.
- Michael Wilson at IMDB
- Finding Aid for the Michael Wilson Papers, 1942-1977 The Online Archive of California
- "'Under the table': Michael Wilson and the Screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai: for audiences, a screen masterpiece. For its blacklisted screenwriter, a saga of futility and bitterness, in epic proportions." The Free Library