Writer-Director-Producer Mel Shavelson Dies at 90

Shavelson, who wrote or co-wrote more than 35 movies and directed a dozen, taught at USC College’s Master of Professional Writing Program.
ByPamela J. Johnson

Melville Shavelson, a Hollywood legend who was a comedy writer, producer, director and two-time Academy Award nominee for original screenplays, has died. He was 90.

Shavelson, an instructor at USC College’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) Program from 1998 to 2006, died Aug. 8 of natural causes in his Studio City, Calif., home.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful man,” said Ruth Shavelson, wife of five years. “I’m just so grateful to have known him.”

Shavelson wrote or collaborated on more than 35 films, directed a dozen and was a producer on scores more.

At USC College, Shavelson taught screenwriting. He often cracked to his students, “I’m a writer by choice, a producer by necessity and a director in self-defense.”

Syd Field, celebrated screenwriter, author of eight books and lecturer in the MPW program, recalled his own arrival at the College in 2001, when he taught a class with Shavelson.

“During the first few weeks, Mel watched over me like a mother hen,” Field said. “He wanted to make sure I was there for the students. He was a very, very sweet man.”

But he was also a tough taskmaster, Field said. If he didn’t like a student’s work, he was quick to say so. “He loved teaching and knew what he was talking about,” Field added. “His manner could be gruff, but he had a heart of gold.”

Shavelson got his Hollywood start in the 1930s as a gag writer for Bob Hope’s radio show. Later, he wrote and directed Hope in “The Seven Little Foys,” a 1956 film that earned Shavelson an Oscar nomination. Two years later, Shavelson wrote and directed “Houseboat,” starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, and was again nominated for an Oscar.

He directed a legion of Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in the 1968 film, “Yours, Mine and Ours.” Shavelson also co-wrote the comedy about a family with 18 children, which was remade in 2005.

Among the other stars he directed were Yul Brynner, James Cagney, Angie Dickinson, Kirk Douglas, Robert Duvall, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, John Wayne and Joanne Woodward.

Shavelson loved to tell his MPW students stories about working in the 1950s with Hollywood’s biggest stars, the ones with the biggest egos. One tale involved a lovesick Cary Grant during the making of “Houseboat.” Grant fell for a young, gorgeous Sophia Loren. Loren couldn’t stand Grant, who was unrelenting in his pursuit, according to Shavelson. Loren rushed her marriage to producer Carlo Ponti just to fend off Grant, Shavelson said. The wedding to Ponti took place in Mexico City on location, the same day her marriage to the Grant character in the movie was filmed.

“And that,” Shavelson told his class with a wink, “is how you make a successful family comedy in Hollywood.”

Beginning in 1969, Shavelson served three terms as president of the Writers Guild of America, West, where he earned the organization’s highest honor, the Laurel Award for Screen Writing. He was also a founder and president emeritus of the Writers Guild Foundation (WGF).

“Mel is the reason why the foundation exists,” said Angela Kirgo, the foundation’s executive director. “He was the force behind the foundation and kept it going for a number of years. Mel was deeply committed to the cause of equity and justice for writers.”

In 1984, Shavelson founded the WGF’s library, home to more than 20,000 scripts and other materials. He sometimes took his students on tours of the Writers Guild Foundation Shavelson-Webb Library, at 7000 W. Third St. in Los Angeles.

“The library was his dream,” Kirgo said. “Now, it’s his legacy.”

Born April 1, 1917, in Brooklyn, Shavelson graduated from Cornell University and was soon hired to write jokes for syndicated humor columnists. In 1938, he moved to Hollywood, married and had two children, Richard and Lynne.

Rich Shavelson, 64, of Menlo Park, Calif., recalled growing up in a home where famous screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman and television producers such as Sherwood Schwartz were regular visitors. At the time his father was one of Hollywood’s busiest writers. But there was another side to him. He enjoyed nature and shared it with his family.

“One of my favorite, early memories with my father was when we went backpacking together in the Sierras on a fishing trip,” Shavelson recounted. “I was about 9 and he usually didn’t have time for that sort of thing. It was a very special time. We really got to know each other. I remember we laughed a lot and caught a lot of trout.”

In addition to his film work, Shavelson created two Emmy award-winning television series and wrote for a dozen Academy Award shows. He also wrote, produced and co-directed the six-hour ABC miniseries “Ike, The War Years,” based on the World War II exploits of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

He was the author of two novels and four works of nonfiction, including a 1990 New York Times bestseller he wrote with Hope, Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me. His autobiography, How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying: P.S.—You Can’t!, was released on his 90th birthday.

“He never stopped writing,” said Maureen Solomon, a longtime friend who helped Shavelson edit his autobiography. “Even the night before he died he wrote an e-mail to me. Sometimes I would get an e-mail at 11 p.m. and the next day, I’d say, ‘Why were you up so late in your office writing?’ We’d laugh a lot. He was really like a little kid.”

Solomon said Shavelson had incredible energy, maintaining boyhood hobbies into adulthood. He was a ham radio enthusiast, and continued using the aging technology to talk with friends around the globe.

“He knew the best places to find pizza, ice cream, prosciutto, you name it,” Solomon said. “He even had his own working soda fountain in his home. There will never be another person like Mel, ever.”

Shavelson is survived by his wife, son and daughter, Lynne Joiner, and grandchildren Karin Salim, Amy Kurpius and Scott Joiner. Shavelson’s first wife of 63 years, Lucille, died in 2000.

The Writers Guild of America and the WGF will honor him at a memorial 6:30 p.m., Aug. 28 at the Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. RSVP to (323) 782-4694.

A private funeral is pending. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be sent to Defenders of Wildlife, the Hollywood Office of the Humane Society of the United States or the Pet Adoption Fund.