Obituary: Harry Kleiner (1915-2007)
February 11, 2008
The Writers Guild of America today confirmed the death of the screen and television writer Harry Kleiner on October 17.
Kleiner, born in Russia and raised in Philadelphia, contributed to a raft of well-known films over a span of more than four decades. His first screenplay, a solo effort (adapting Marty Holland’s novel), was for Fallen Angel (1945), a moody film noir that was Otto Preminger’s follow-up in that genre to his celebrated Laura. Kleiner’s next work was the bland 1948 policier The Street With No Name (remade, with considerably more pep, by Sam Fuller as House of Bamboo). From there Kleiner moved on to write a number of studio A pictures including Lewis Milestone’s Kangaroo (1952), William Dieterle’s Salome (1953), Curtis Bernhardt’s Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), Rudolph Mate’s western The Violent Men (1955), and two at Warner Bros. for Vincent Sherman, the epic Ice Palace (1960) and A Fever in the Blood (1961). He also worked without credit on William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956). Following an interlude in television, Kleiner worked on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) and then Bullitt (1968) and Le Mans (1971) for Steve McQueen. His final credits – the last awarded at an ageism-defying 73 – were on two action pictures in collaboration with director Walter Hill, Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Red Heat (1988). Kleiner was nominated for two WGA Awards and won an Edgar for Bullitt.
Kleiner’s television credits were selective but noteworthy. Roy Huggins, who produced A Fever in the Blood, was an advocate for luring veteran screenwriters into television, and he engaged Kleiner to write four episodes of the worthwhile TV version of Bus Stop (1960-61). In the same season Kleiner wrote at least two teleplays for the Untouchables knockoff Target: The Corrupters. In 1962, when Huggins moved from the cancelled Bus Stop at Fox to produce Universal’s new ninety-minute western The Virginian, Kleiner followed and wrote all or part of six segments. None of those, as it happens, were very good: Kleiner seems to have fared better working with strong feature directors, or adapting literary material, than in the fast-paced world of crafting original stories for television.
The Guild also confirmed my suspicion that Kleiner also wrote under the name “Harold Clements” (note the similarity in both initial consonants). Several internet sources indicate that Kleiner’s credit on a 1964 segment of the Chrysler Theatre, “The Faceless Man,” morphed into one for Clements after the show (an unsold pilot, I think) was released theatrically in 1968 under the title The Counterfeit Killer. The Counterfeit Killer was padded out with some reshoots scripted by a young Steven Bochco (whose first screenwriting job was this curious one of expanding old anthology episodes into low-budget movies for Universal). It’s understandable why Kleiner would want to take his name off that mess, although I’m unclear as to why he used the pseudonym on “Clements”‘ most substantive body of work: six full or partial Checkmate teleplays between 1960-1961. Most likely, Kleiner was under exclusive contract to another studio (presumably Warners) at the time and sought to conceal his moonlighting. (Pulp enthusiasts take note: One of those Checkmates was a rewrite of a Leigh Brackett script, another a polish of a William P. McGivern teleplay.) None of the Clements Checkmate scripts strikes me as very impressive either, apart from the final one, “Voyage Into Fear,” a final draft of a story & teleplay by the underrated TV western writer Edmund Morris.
I first got interested in Harry Kleiner after reading A Very Dangerous Citizen, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s biography of the blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky. In it, Buhle and Wagner (perhaps respecting their subject’s legendary reluctance to confirm his under-the-table work, or else simply speculating) hinted provocatively that Polonsky made uncredited contributions to the screenplays for both Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Robert Aldrich’s The Garment Jungle (1957). (Aldrich was replaced by Vincent Sherman, who received sole credit.) The authors observed that the directors of those films shared a sympathy for leftist politics (and victims of the blacklist), but I noted another connection: both screenplays were credited entirely to Harry Kleiner. An unlikely coincidence, or had Kleiner perhaps worked as a front for Polonsky on two important features?
I decided it might be worthwhile to ask him, and to collect whatever stories Kleiner could tell about his TV work on the way, but sadly he never responded to any of my inquiries via the Writers Guild. My hunch is that he was ill the whole time. His last residence was apparently far from Hollywood, in the Chicago area, which may help explain why no one noticed the passing of this major screenwriter . . . until now.