November 6, 2007


Peter Viertel, 86; wrote about Huston, Hemingway (Jon Thurber, 11/06/07, Los Angeles Times)

His death came less than three weeks after his wife of 47 years, actress Deborah Kerr, died in Suffolk, England, also at 86.

A formidable figure and bon vivant in his own right, Viertel drew upon his relationships with Hemingway and Huston -- two larger-than-life friends -- in his most noted books, the novel "White Hunter, Black Heart" (1953) and the memoir "Dangerous Friends: At Large with Hemingway and Huston in the Fifties" (1992). He would later help adapt "White Hunter, Black Heart" for the 1990 film that Clint Eastwood starred in and directed.

Huston invited Viertel to accompany him to Africa in 1951 to help with dialogue in James Agee's unfinished script for "The African Queen," which gave Viertel a front-row seat to watch the distracted filmmaker hunt wild game while the crew endured wretched conditions, unbearable heat, aggressive insects and dysentery during delays in shooting.

Huston's goal was to bag an elephant -- and the film, which turned out to be a classic, took second billing to that endeavor. The relationship between Huston and Viertel suffered over their different views about the script and Viertel's decision not to hunt with the director.

"John had a bee up his bonnet that he was going to kill an elephant, and it became an obsession with him," Viertel told The Times some years ago. "People like Hemingway and Huston did that kind of thing to prove themselves."

And although Huston didn't get his elephant, Viertel bagged enough rich material from the expedition to write "White Hunter, Black Heart," which, although fictionalized, laid down in honest detail his true feelings about the dark side of Huston's genius.

"I really wrote the book as a personal letter to him," Viertel told The Times.

"I was very, very fond of him. Outside of Billy Wilder, I thought he had more potential than any other filmmaker, and I didn't want him to [throw] it away."

After finishing the book, Viertel showed it to Huston and offered to change or delete anything he thought offensive.

Huston asked for no changes, and as Richard Schickel noted in his biography of Clint Eastwood, "White Hunter, Black Heart" became a best seller in 1953 "thanks in part to an ending suggested by Huston himself in which his character is portrayed more monstrously than he was in real life."

Eastwood asked Viertel to help with revisions on the film's final script. The film was shot in Zimbabwe, and Eastwood played the Huston character named John Wilson; Jeff Fahey played the Viertel character named Pete Verrill.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 6, 2007 1:14 PM
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