A successful novelist and playwright, Ira Levin was born in New York City on August 27, 1929. Initially a television writer, he became a bestselling author with his first novel, 1953's A Kiss Before Dying. More thrilling works followed, including 1968's Rosemary's Baby and 1976's The Boys From Brazil, which were later turned into feature films. Other novels included The Stepford Wives and Sliver, which were both adapted for the big screen as well. Levin died on November 12, 2007 in the city of his birth.
Background and Early Years
Author Ira Marvin Levin was born on August 27, 1929, in New York, New York. He was expected to follow his father into the toy business but a teenage Levin had other ideas, however, as he wanted to be a writer. In his senior year of college, Levin entered a television screenwriting contest. He was only a runner-up, but he was later able to sell his entry to the NBC television network for its Lights Out series. The episode aired in 1951.
First Novel a Success
While writing for such shows as Lights Out and The United States Steel Hour, Levin worked on his first novel. He published his murder mystery, A Kiss Before Dying, in 1953, which quickly brought him commercial success and critical praise. The novel won the Edgar Award for best first novel the following year.
The mystery is told in three parts, from the perspective of murderous schemer Bud Corliss and the two sisters of his first victim. In 1956, A Kiss Before Dying became a feature film starring Robert Wagner, Virginia Leith, Joanne Woodward and Mary Astor. A 1991 revised remake starred Matt Dillon as Corliss and Sean Young as twin sisters who get involved with him.
Levin served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1953 to 1955. After being discharged, he spent much of his time devoted to the theater. Levin enjoyed some success with his Broadway adaptation of Mac Hyman's humorous novel No Time for Sergeants, about a military recruit from the country. The production featured Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.
But some of his own original works floundered. The 1958 mystery Interlock came and went without much notice. Levin's 1960 comedy Critic's Choice fared a bit better, running for about six months. Directed and produced by Otto Preminger, the play featured Henry Fonda as a theater critic and Georgann Johnson as his playwright wife.
Perhaps one of Levin's greatest disappointments may have been the 1965 musical Drat! That Cat!, a comedy about a thief for which he wrote the book and musical lyrics. The show ran for only a few performances before it closed. (A song from the musical, "She Touched Me," was remade into "He Touched Me" and became a hit for Barbra Streisand.) This failure did not deter Levin. He returned with another play, the mystery Dr. Cook's Garden, two years later.
In 1967, Levin published what is arguably his best-known novel, Rosemary's Baby. The horrifying tale tells the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, a young wife in New York City who may be pregnant with the devil's child. With strange occurrences happening in her apartment building, Woodhouse doesn't know who to trust, including her own husband. She eventually uncovers a satanic coven in her building—a group with sinister designs on her baby. The following year, this thriller became a feature film directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow as Rosemary and John Cassavetes as her husband.
The success of Rosemary's Baby was thought to have influenced the creation of other satanic-themed horror movies. The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) also enjoyed great popularity with moviegoers. Levin, however, later expressed dismay over the trend and sought out other genres.
Array of Screen Adaptations
Levin continued to thrive as a novelist with such bestselling works as The Stepford Wives (1972) and The Boys From Brazil (1976). In The Stepford Wives, he explored a disturbing suburban town where wives have been replaced by androids. Again working with fantasy, Levin imagined that Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi who experimented on concentration camp victims, tries to bring the Third Reich back to power in The Boys From Brazil. The book explores the way-ahead-of-its-time issue of cloning.
Both novels ignited the imagination of Hollywood. Katharine Ross starred as a new arrival to the town of Stepford in The Stepford Wives (1975), a role later played by Nicole Kidman in the 2004 remake. A Nazi hunter played by Laurence Olivier tries to foil the plans of Dr. Mengele (Gregory Peck) in the 1978 film version of The Boys From Brazil.
That same year, Levin experienced his greatest theatrical triumph. The comedic mystery Deathtrap opened on Broadway, and it became a smash hit that ran for years. Levin successfully fused humor and clever plot twists in this tale about a washed-up writer who plans to kill his student for his play. Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve starred in the 1982 film.
Never a prolific writer, Levin wrote only two more novels during his lifetime. Sliver (1991) told the story of a woman being watched by the owner of her high-tech apartment building, and was later turned into a 1993 movie starring Sharon Stone and Billy Baldwin. In 1997, Levin tried to capitalize on his earlier success with Son of Rosemary: The Sequel to Rosemary's Baby, but it didn't capture readers' interest as much as the original.
Levin died at the age of 78 of a heart attack on November 12, 2007, in his New York City apartment. His books have remained popular and continue to have new printings.
Levin had three sons, Adam, Jared and Nicholas, during his marriage to Gabrielle Aronsohn. After that union ended, Levin married Phyllis Finkel; they later divorced as well.
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