Stewart Stern, a screenwriter most noted for providing one of the three screenplays, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), that transformed James Dean into a 20th-century god, passed away Monday, February 2, at age 92. For many, myself included, the man's life in Seattle was something of a mystery and even a bit magical. By all accounts, he left a glamorous life in Hollywood, and friendships with the likes of Paul Newman, for what pretty much amounted to the sticks—Seattle in the mid-1980s. Fellow Seattle transplant Tom Skerritt, an actor made world-famous by his big roles in M*A*S*H, Alien, and Top Gun, explained to me over the phone that Stern moved here when he no longer found meaning in the Hollywood system. "You know, Hollywood gets great writers like William Faulkner to come and write screenplays, and they end up not writing their own scripts but writing what the studio wants. This is what happened to Stewart. He was one of the most sought-after screenwriters of his generation; he made his mark in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. But by the '80s, he had enough with the system, and he left. It was very abrupt."
Stern was certainly an oddity in this city. He was raised among the giants of golden-age Hollywood (legendary producer/mogul Adolph Zukor was his uncle), got his start writing a script for none other than Fred Zinnemann (director of From Here to Eternity), was twice nominated for an Oscar (in 1952 for Teresa, and in 1968 for Rachel, Rachel), and won an Emmy for the teleplay of Sybil. (He also has a screenplay credit for one of cinema's most bizarre films, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie.) But despite fleeing Hollywood, the art was always very much in his blood. He first taught screenwriting at the University of Washington's extension program, and later, he taught at TheFilmSchool, which he founded with Skerritt and three other local film colleagues in 2002. He also regularly engaged with the local film community and was a board member of the Seattle International Film Festival (whose Film Center bears his name). It took several years, but Stern's experience and credibility formed a cornerstone around which the Seattle film community gathered and grew.
"Stern pretty much stopped writing scripts when he moved here," explained Skerritt. "He had ideas, but none were finished, as far as I could tell. He really became a teacher. That was his thing. Teaching."
His pedagogy could be both formal and informal.
"In his later Seattle years, I was fortunate enough to be Stewart's chauffeur, driving him twice a week in my 'golden wheels' (his term for my silver VW) to a timed writing group he'd invited me to," wrote Steven Schardt, a Seattle filmmaker whose most notable credits have been as a producer on Lynn Shelton's films Humpday, Your Sister's Sister, and Touchy Feely, in an e-mail. "It was a gift. The very model of a writer, Stewart was a man for whom the sight of a blooming violet could evoke the color of Elizabeth Taylor's eyes, then a bawdy song she sang to her deceased husband Mike Todd, then the days he spent holed up in a London hotel room with Dennis Hopper writing what would become, after a hijacked draft, The Last Movie—all this in the space between the driveway and his front door. Observation, sincerity, gravity, hilarity, and high adventure. He was a joy and a marvel to be around."
"I would like to say that Stewart and I had a special relationship," said Brian McDonald, a local filmmaker who was close to Stern and currently teaches at TheFilmSchool. "But the truth of the matter is anyone who knew Stewart well feels that way. Sometimes people who knew him for five minutes felt that way. There was a core group of us who were there virtually every day that Stewart was in the hospital, and I was lucky to be one of them. I'm not sure that Stewart understood how well-loved he was until he saw the outpouring of love from those of us who were lucky enough to be by his bedside. I heard him say, while lying in bed after several visitors had left for the day, that he was lucky. He knew he was dying, but he felt lucky to feel so loved. I told him that he wasn't getting anything back that he didn't put out. Those of us who were there as he took his last breath felt honored, but I think that's how many of us felt whenever we were in his presence." Stern was diagnosed with lung cancer in late December.
Lyall Bush, the executive director of Northwest Film Forum, echoed McDonald's sentiments. "The Film Forum," he told me, "played Rebel Without a Cause in 2010 for the film's 55th anniversary, and we invited Stewart to talk to the audience after it. We gave him a chair and a microphone, and it became one of those nights when no one checks his phone or gets up to use the bathroom for an hour and a half. The theater was sold out, and Stewart talked about the film, remembering all the details of writing the screenplay, from his research into juvenile delinquents to the way James Dean was the one who found the toy to play with in the opening credit sequence (which, for Stewart, was a key to the whole film). He told an associated memory of being in war and seeing how men, on a battlefield, would hold other men the way mothers hold their children. And then he described going to Indiana for James Dean's funeral, and how, at the house, Dean's mother invited him to look at the bedroom where James grew up, and Stewart lay down on the bed. The theater was very quiet when he said this, as if everyone was imagining what that must have been like."