Ernest Lehman
Ernest Paul Lehman

(1915-12-08)December 8, 1915
DiedJuly 2, 2005(2005-07-02) (aged 89)
Burial placeWestwood Village Memorial Park
Alma materCity College of New York (BA)
  • Screenwriter
  • producer
  • director
Known forHello, Dolly!
The King and I
North by Northwest
The Sound of Music
Sweet Smell of Success
West Side Story
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Jacqueline Shapiro
(m. 1942; died 1994)
Laurie Sherman
(m. 1997)

Ernest Paul Lehman[1] (December 8, 1915 – July 2, 2005) was an American screenwriter and film producer.[2] He was nominated six times for Academy Awards for his screenplays during his career, but did not win.[2] At the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001, he received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of his achievements and his influential works for the screen. He was the first screenwriter to receive that honor.

He received two Edgar Awards of the Mystery Writers of America for screenplays of suspense films he wrote for director Alfred Hitchcock: North by Northwest (1959), his only original screenplay, and Family Plot (1976), one of numerous adaptations.

Early life and education

Lehman was born in 1915 to Gertrude (Thorn) and Paul E. Lehman.[3] Their wealthy Jewish family was based on Long Island;[4] they had suffered major financial losses during the Great Depression. Lehman attended the College of the City of New York (The City College of New York), from which he earned a bachelor's degree.[2]

During World War II he was trained at the New England Radio Institute, then worked as a radio operator for the aviation industry.[5]


After graduation, Lehman started working as a freelance writer. Lehman felt that freelancing was a "very nervous way to make a living", so he began writing copy for a publicity firm that focused on plays and celebrities. He drew from this experience for the screenplay of the film Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which he co-wrote with playwright Clifford Odets.

Lehman also published many short stories and novellas in magazines such as Colliers, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. These attracted the attention of Hollywood managers, and in the mid-1950s Paramount Pictures signed him to a writing contract. His first film, Executive Suite (1954), was a success.

Lehman was asked to collaborate on the romantic comedy Sabrina (1954), which was released the same year and also became a hit. Some of his most notable works are the screenplay adaptations of the musical West Side Story (1961)[2] and the mega-hit film version of The Sound of Music (1965), another musical.[2]

Collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock

In 1958, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had hired Hitchcock to make a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, based on Hammond Innes' novel of the same name. Collaborating with Lehman, Hitchcock produced North by Northwest (1959) instead. This was one of Lehman's few original screenplays (rather than adaptations). The film starred Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a group of menacing spies (led by James Mason and Martin Landau). Lehman later said he intended North by Northwest to be "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." The writing process took Lehman a year, including several periods of writer's block, as well as a trip to Mount Rushmore to do research for the film's climax.

North by Northwest was one of Lehman's greatest triumphs in Hollywood and a huge hit for Hitchcock. For his efforts, Lehman received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a 1960 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.

Other projects

In addition to screenwriting, Lehman tried his hand at producing. He was among the few people who initially favored a film adaptation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He persuaded studio executive Jack L. Warner to allow him to take on the project, and the film was a critical sensation, garnering many Academy Award nominations. Lehman was also nominated for an Academy Award for producing Hello, Dolly! (1969), starring Barbra Streisand.[2]

In 1972, Lehman directed Portnoy's Complaint, based on the novel by Philip Roth; this was his only directorial work.[2] Later, he earned another Edgar Award for his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's final movie, Family Plot (1976).

By 1979, Lehman had stopped writing screenplays, aside from some television projects. He turned down offers to write for Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs and Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible. Lehman completed adaptations for two films that were never made: a screenplay for the Noël Coward classic Hay Fever, and one for a musical version of Zorba the Greek. The latter was intended for direction by Robert Wise and starring actors Anthony Quinn and John Travolta.

In 1977, Lehman published the bestselling novel The French Atlantic Affair, about a group of unemployed, middle-class Americans who hijack a French cruise ship for a $35 million ransom. It was adapted as a TV miniseries in 1979.

Personal life

Lehman married Jacqueline Shapiro in 1942. They had two sons, Roger and Alan. Jacqueline died in 1994.[2]

In 1997, Lehman married Laurie Sherman. They had one son, Jonathan, and were married until his death.[2]

Amateur radio

Lehman held amateur radio callsign K6DXK.[6] He was an active member of the Bel Air Repeater Association.


Lehman died on July 2, 2005, at UCLA Medical Center after an apparent heart attack.[7] He was buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Writing credits






Lehman received six Academy Award nominations during his career, but never won. At the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony in 2001, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Lehman did, however, receive more honorable recognition from the Writers Guild of America than any other screenwriter in film history.

Award Date of ceremony Category Film Result
Academy Award 1955 Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Sabrina (shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor)
Lost to George Seaton for The Country Girl
1960 Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen North by Northwest
Lost to Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene, Stanley Shapiro, and Maurice Richlin for Pillow Talk
1962 Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium West Side Story
Lost to Abby Mann for Judgment at Nuremberg
1967 Best Motion Picture of the Year Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Lost to Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Lost to Robert Bolt for A Man for All Seasons
1970 Best Motion Picture of the Year Hello, Dolly!
Lost to Jerome Hellman for Midnight Cowboy
2001 Academy Honorary Award "in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work." Honorary
Golden Globe Award 1955 Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Sabrina (shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor) Won
1967 Best Motion Picture – Drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Lost to Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Lost to Robert Bolt for A Man for All Seasons
1970 Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Hello, Dolly!
Lost to Stanley Kramer and George Glass for The Secret of Santa Vittoria
Edgar Allan Poe Award 1960 Best Motion Picture Screenplay North by Northwest Won
1977 Family Plot
1978 Black Sunday (shared with Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat)
Lost to Robert Benton for The Late Show
Writers Guild of America Award 1955 Best Written American Comedy Sabrina (shared with Billy Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor) Won
Best Written American Drama Executive Suite
Lost to Budd Schulberg for On the Waterfront
1957 Somebody Up There Likes Me
Lost to Michael Wilson for Friendly Persuasion
Best Written American Musical The King and I Won
1960 Best Written American Comedy North by Northwest
Lost to Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond for Some Like It Hot
1962 Best Written American Musical West Side Story Won
1966 The Sound of Music
1967 Best Written American Drama Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
1972 Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement Honorary
1977 Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium Family Plot
Lost to Blake Edwards and Frank Waldman for The Pink Panther Strikes Again


  1. ^ "Ernest Lehman Biography (c. 1915-)". Retrieved 2020-11-24.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Fox, Margalit (July 6, 2005). "Ernest Lehman, 89, Who Wrote 'North by Northwest,' Dies". The New York Times.
  3. ^ "Ernest Lehman |".
  4. ^ Erens, Patricia (1998). The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press. p. 392. ISBN 978-0-253-20493-6.
  5. ^ "Ernest Lehman: An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center".
  6. ^ "Ernest Lehman, K6DXK and Screenwriter of "The Sound of Music," Dead at 89". KB6NU's Ham Radio Blog. July 6, 2005. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  7. ^ "Ernest Lehman - The Washington Post". The Washington Post.