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 KillerThe 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 that Kleiner would want to take his name off that mess, although I’m unclear as to why he used the pseudonym on 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.


7 Responses to “Obituary: Harry Kleiner (1915-2007)”

  1. Sherwood Smith Says:

    I just found this after Googling on Harry’s name. My last conversation with him was in the mid-nineties, and I’ve wondered about him since. (I worked as his secretary in the late seventies and on several project during the eighties.) I suspect he moved back with his daughter when he became frail; he’d undergone heart surgery early in the history of those procedures, something he’d kept secret from the industry for obvious reasons. Not so obvious were his reasons for limited communication–something I’m reluctant to post in a public forum.

    He was a very dear man, intelligent and well-read, and compassionate. He told me all kinds of stories during our working relationship; about the Garment Jungle he talked about all the first-hand research he did.

    Here’s a fact typical of him. He would not lock his car when he had groceries in it. He figured anyone who would steal groceries must need them.

  2. mary griem Says:

    I met harry when he and his wife came to live at an Illinois assisted living facilty where i worked. He was a very kind, interesting man.He had alot of stories to tell and also talked of the many movie stars he met. Due to hippa laws I cannot comment on his health but i can say he needed very little assistance while i worked there.

    • Jane Says:

      I just came upon this blog. Harry was my mom’s cousin. I would visit Harry and his wife often in LA. He was a sweet talented man. I lost contact with them after they relocated to Chicago. Does anyone know if his wife, Sophie is still alive. Thanks

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        Jane, there’s a Sophie Kleiner in the Social Security Death Index who passed away in 2005 at the age of 91, in the same location (Northbrook, IL) as Harry Kleiner.

      • Caren Says:

        Jane, Harry was my grandmother’s cousin. Her name was Bertha Strieb Neff. I’m trying to do some family history. Can you give me information about how you are related?

  3. Mark Z Says:

    I had the privledge of staying with Harry and Sophie Kleiner while
    attending law school in Los Angeles. Although, I talked alot with Sophie, I talked with Harry on and off. I was privy to conversation with him concerning some of the movies he would be doing. He helped me write an essay that would have taken metwo hours or more in five minutes. Because I was so busy with law school, I really did not put my full time in to learn more about Harry. They had a house on Spalding Drive-South-near Rodeo. His wife-Sophie-told me where to go to meet and see Hollywood stars.
    When they moved to Chicago, I lost touch

  4. Jean Marie Stine Says:

    I knew Harry in the mid to late 80s. We always met at a restaurant near the UCB campus. He was a sweet, brilliant guy with a gift for aphorisms and wickedly funny lines, as his last two films suggest. He was a deep meditator on subject of violence due to the Holocaust and had some interest in New Age topics.

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