Alvin Sargent, who won Oscars for writing Ordinary People and Julia and was nominated for Paper Moon, has died of natural causes in Seattle. He was 92. Sargent also won WGA Awards for all three of those films and received the guild’s career honor, the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, in 1991.
Sargent penned more than two dozen feature screenplays from the 1960s into the 2010s, most recently The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Spider-Man 2 (2004). His feature credits also include What About Bob? (1991), Other People’s Money (1991) and Unfaithful (2002).
He began his screenwriting career in television, penning episodes of such 1960s drama series Ben Casey, Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Run for Your Life. He also wrote episodes of ABC’s short-lived Paper Moon spinoff series in which Jodie Foster played the role that won Tatum O’Neal a Supporting Actress Oscar.
Born on April 12, 1927, in Philadelphia, Sargent had been working as an ad salesman at Variety in the early 1950s while aspiring to act. He’d been on the job for three weeks when he was offered a non-speaking role in a little film called From Here to Eternity. The trade pub granted him a leave of absence to shoot the movie, and when director Fred Zinnemann was unhappy with another actor’s line reading, Sargent was ordered to replace him. His character would announce the beginning of World War II and its first American casualty.
Zinnemann would win the Best Director Oscar for that classic film, which also scored Best Picture and six other Academy Awards. Nearly a quarter-century later, Sargent penned Julia (1977), which won him his first Oscar and earned Zinnemann a seventh nom for Best Director. It starred Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Hal Holbrook and introduced Meryl Streep to movie audiences.
After his stint on From Here to Eternity, Sargent returned to Variety but proved rather lousy as selling ads. In his off hours, he wrote stories in his basement — one of which a friend sent to lit agent Sam Adams. He got the young scribe a TV writing job, and Sargent wrote the script. Then he didn’t hear from Adams — or anyone else in Hollywood — for more than a year.
On Christmas Eve 1961, Sargent got an unexpected call. It was Adams asking if the scribe could do an emergency rewrite for one of the vacationing writers of CBS’ long-running series General Electric Theater. Sargent delivered the rewrite four days later and never went another day as an unemployed writer. His final script was for The Amazing Spider Man, which he finished at age 85.
Sargent won his second Oscar for Ordinary People, ensemble drama about a family’s grief over the death of a son that puts their relationships to the test. Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton, it also would win Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford.
In between he also penned features including Gambit (1966), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Bobby Deerfield (1974), Straight Time (1978), Dominick and Eugene (1988), Bogus (1996) and Anywhere but Here (1999), among others.
Ever the scribe, Sargent was quoted as saying, “When I die, I’m going to have written on my tombstone, ‘Finally a plot.’”
His older brother was the prolific comedy writer Herb Sargent, an original member of the Saturday Night Live staff who co-created “Weekend Update” with Chevy Chase, won several Emmys and also wrote for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Herb Sargent died in 2005.
Alvin Sargent was married to Joan Camden from 1953-75, and he later was married to producer and Stand Up to Cancer co-founder Laura Ziskin until her death in 2011. Survivors include daughters Jennifer Sargent and Amanda Sargent, several grandchildren and a great-grandchild, as well as Ziskin’s daughter Julia Barry.
A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles, but no date has been announced. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to Stand Up to Cancer, which Laura Ziskin co-founded in 2008.