Wednesday, June 27, 2012
RIP Joan Scott
June 27, 2012, 12:03 p.m.
In 1950s Hollywood, screenwriter Joan Scott seemed so adept at turning out tough-guy scripts that she became known as "the girl who writes like a man."
What the studios didn't know was she wasn't the writer. Her husband was.
She was married to Adrian Scott, the screenwriter who was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. Cited for contempt of Congress, he went to prison as one of the Hollywood 10.
When he was released he was unemployable, so Scott became his "front," taking his work to story conferences, keeping track of the revisions and giving him the notes at home so he could do the rewriting. When his work made it onto television shows, she took the credit under a pseudonym, Joanne Court.
Those were bitter years with one unintended benefit: "It was how I learned to be a writer," she told The Times years later.
Scott, who had a colorful career in her own right scripting stories for such popular shows as "Lassie" and "Have Gun – Will Travel," died June 19 in Woodland Hills, said her friend, Candy Tanaka. She was 91 and had vascular dementia.
Blacklisted herself, Scott fought to gain proper recognition of her work from the Writers Guild of America, which in 1980 began restoring credits to the authors of hundreds of screenplays who had been forced to use aliases or "fronts" during the McCarthy era. She was a technical advisor with a small walk-on part in the 1991 blacklist film "Guilty by Suspicion," which starred Robert De Niro.
In the 1990s the guild changed the screenwriting credits for the 1962 MGM release "Cairo" and the 1960 Disney film "The Magnificent Rebel" from Joanne Court to Joan Scott.
"She had a bitter life to some degree," said Patrick McGilligan, a historian who co-authored the 1997 oral history of the blacklist era "Tender Comrades." "I think of her as a stand-in for all the wives—and, in some cases, husbands—who were affected by the blacklist profoundly, horribly in her case, and never found their voice. Joan found her voice partly as a consequence of the blacklist, as a front for her husband. She emerged as a very sharp writer in her own right, not Oscar-nominated or famous but with a very interesting career."
She was born Joan LaCour in Long Branch, N.J., on May 21, 1921. Her mother performed in vaudeville, which led to a peripatetic childhood. Her father deserted the family when she and her identical twin sister were 2.
As the Depression deepened, she moved with family to Los Angeles around 1934 and attended Hollywood High School.
After World War II, when her disastrous first marriage to an Army lieutenant ended, she joined the left-leaning Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions as a volunteer and later as a staff member. She also joined the Communist Party but quit after six months.
In the early 1950s, she was executive secretary of the Television Writers of America union when a Hollywood columnist wrote an attack piece alleging Scott was part of a plot to get Communist propaganda into TV scripts. She was blacklisted and called to testify before the House committee investigating subversives in the movie and television industries.
She met Adrian Scott at a rally for the Hollywood 10 and began dating him after he was released from prison in 1951. In 1955 they were married at the home of another Hollywood 10 member, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Adrian, who had produced the Oscar-winning 1947 movie "Crossfire," struggled writing story lines for comic books until he decided to try the then-new medium of television.
Many writers in his boat had turned to fronts in order to make a living, but the Scotts knew that was risky; some fronts were trustworthy but others, she said, "rooked you completely, shamelessly."
They eventually decided that Scott, who had been working as a typist, was the best person for the job. "It was a mistake in a lot of ways," she said in the oral history for McGilligan. "There were times when it almost severed our marriage. Then again, there were times when it also saved us."
She began fronting for her husband in 1955 on "Lassie," the popular children's series featuring the adventures of a brave collie and his young master. One night when Adrian and his story editor were stumped for ideas, she came up with one they loved. From then on, she wrote for the show herself.
"There were funny things about writing for that show," she told McGilligan. "You had to learn to think like a dog. We used to say, 'Lassie is classy, not like Flipper,' " a reference to the 1960s-era series about an adventure-loving pet dolphin.
She felt the strains of leading a double life, writing for "Lassie" while fronting for Adrian on other shows, including "Meet McGraw," "77 Sunset Strip" and "Surfside Six." Often he would explode in anger when she came back from story meetings with changes the producers wanted in his scripts.
One time she almost blew her cover in a story conference when she was asked about a crucial plot change that he had forgotten to tell her about. "I had to do all this double-talk until I'd got the producers so bewildered that they gave up and let it go," she told The Times in 1997.
Her husband eventually began writing under his own name again but his work went uncredited. He was only 61 when he died of cancer on Christmas Day in 1972.
"He'd had too much despair and disappointment," Scott said in 1997. "He died of cancer, but in my mind it was the blacklist that really killed him."
Scott, who had no children, is survived by her sister, Jean LaCour of Topanga; and a nephew, Doug Scott of Ann Arbor, Mich.
After her husband's death, Scott continued her career, writing for daytime soap operas and prime-time hits such as "The Waltons" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." She wrote an unpublished memoir, which she named, with a large measure of irony, "Adrian's Wife."
SCOTT, Joan (Joan LaCour)
Born: 5/21/1921, Long Branch, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 6/19/2012, Woodland Hills, California, U.S.A.
Joan Scott's western - screenwriter:
Have Gun - Will Travel (TV) - 1958, 1962