February 25, 2020

Screenwriter Alvin Sargent, 92

Alvin Sargent

 Alvin Sargent, whose deft hand at adapting books and plays into smart, subtly characterized scripts earned him two Oscars for best screenplay, died May 9 at age 92.

Born to Isaac and Esther Supowitz on April 12, 1927, in Philadelphia, Alvin changed his surname to Sargent — as did his older brother, Herb. “It’s an easier name to sell in Hollywood,” Alvin once told The New York Times.

Known as one of Hollywood’s most versatile writers, his credits include the college romance “The Sterile Cuckoo,” the heist comedy “Gambit,” the Great Depression drama “Paper Moon,” the financial satire “Other People’s Money” and three “Spider-Man” movies. Many of the biggest directors of his time directed Sargent’s scripts, including Alan J. Pakula, John Frankenheimer, Paul Newman, Peter Bogdanovich, Sydney Pollack, Fred Zinnemann, Robert Redford, Martin Ritt, Norman Jewison and Wayne Wang.

After graduating from high school, Sargent enlisted in the Navy. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked a series of odd jobs, including selling ad space for Variety, and tried his hand at acting. He claimed never to have seen a screenplay until he was cast in a small role in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity.” The script impressed him, and he began to write in his spare time. By the early 1960s, Sargent was writing for numerous TV shows, including “Ben Casey,” “Naked City” and “Route 66.”

His first produced screenplay was 1966’s “Gambit.” He quickly became known for his ability to adapt books and plays to the big screen and his light hand with dialogue. One studio executive called him “the prince of gentle writing.” This assured him steady work.

His Oscar nomination for “Paper Moon,” the story of a father-daughter pair of con artists starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, made Sargent a hot property. His scripts attracted top actors including Dustin Hoffman (“Straight Time”), Al Pacino (“Bobby Deerfield”), and Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave (“Julia”) — for which he took home one of his two Oscars for best adapted screenplay. The other was for 1980’s “Ordinary People.”

His 22-year marriage to actress Joan Camden ended in divorce in 1975; they had two daughters, Amanda and Jennifer, who both survive him. He began a relationship with producer Laura Ziskin in 1987 and they married in 2010, one year before her death.

With Ziskin as producer, he wrote the scripts for “Hero,” “What About Bob?,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” reboot in 2012. Critic Roger Ebert called “Spider-Man 2” “what a superhero movie should be. … It’s simply and poignantly a realization that being Spider-Man is a burden that Peter Parker is not entirely willing to bear.”

Sargent was more modest about his ability. He often joked that when he
died, he wanted his tombstone to read: “Finally, a plot!”