Kurt Luedtke relinquished a top perch in journalism for a pipe dream of screenwriting, only to earn an Oscar nod for his first script, the newspaper and legal thriller Absence of Malice, and a win for his second, the romantic drama Out of Africa.
He died on 9 August at a hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was 80. His wife, Eleanor Luedtke, confirmed his death but said she did not know the immediate cause.
As a young journalist, Luedtke developed a reputation as a swashbuckling reporter with an eye on the executive ranks. At the Detroit Free Press, a muscular metropolitan daily at the time, he helped direct Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of civil unrest – sparked by long-standing racial tensions – that enveloped the city in the summer of 1967.
Over five days of violence that July, an army of police and national guards blanketed the city to restore order. Luedtke went behind police lines into riot-ravaged streets, dropping to his belly at one point to avoid gunfire.
He wrote a detailed account of police storming the Algiers Motel, where officers said they suspected snipers were stationed. Three young African Americans staying at the hotel were killed, and a jury later acquitted the officers of murder – an incident that became the subject of a book, film and play.
When the uprising was over, 43 people had been killed and nearly 1,200 were injured. Powered by black coffee and Marlboro cigarettes, Luedtke, an assistant city editor at the time, shepherded a package of stories that ran that September under the headline “The Forty-Three Who Died”.
Those accounts of the victims’ lives, which cast a critical light on the authorities, were among the articles that earned the staff of the Free Press the 1968 Pulitzer for local general or spot news reporting.
At 33, Luedtke landed the top editorship at the Free Press. But by many accounts, he alienated colleagues with his sometimes impatient management style and found the job personally unfulfilling. At one point, he said, he realised that he could “literally look forward to 27 more years of it and then retirement. And I thought: Good Lord, that’s impossible!” He resigned in 1978.
As he contemplated a new career, he judged TV “too mindless” and “kind of drifted off to Hollywood, talking to anybody willing to talk to me”. Later, jokingly confessing to the Orlando Sentinel his ignorance at the time of Hollywood competition, he observed that he was more likely to achieve greatness as a neurosurgeon than to have a film made.
He pitched a novel about journalism, and a studio bought the unwritten book for $20,000 with the intention of hiring a professional screenwriter to adapt it for film. Instead, he wound up abandoning the book and attempting the movie script himself.
The result was Absence of Malice (1981), which explored the reputational damage caused by a hard-boiled Miami newspaper reporter (Sally Field). Paul Newman played the innocent man whose life is upended when Field, acting on a malicious leak from a government lawyer, tied him to the presumed murder of a union boss.
The drama, which received mixed reviews but entered the curriculum of journalism school ethics classes, earned Luedtke an Academy Award nomination. It also brought Newman a nomination for best actor and a nod for supporting actress for Melinda Dillon, who played a woman driven to suicide by the reporter’s coverage.
Many viewers saw the film as a challenge to the heroic depiction of reporters in All the President’s Men (1976), about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their unravelling of the Watergate scandal. Of the many lapses in judgment committed by the Field character in Absence of Malice, Luedtke was most often asked about her affair with the subject of her stories.
He told the Toronto Globe and Mail that the movie was essentially about the human frailties that underlie every complicated news story – but that his chief goal was to entertain rather than moralise. “You’re not going to put Sally Field and Paul Newman on a marquee and not let ‘em kiss,” he said.
For his next project, Out of Africa (1985), Luedtke turned to his childhood fascination with east Africa and the semi-autobiographical writings of Danish author Isak Dinesen about her years in Kenya. Previous attempts to adapt works by Dinesen had gone nowhere. But by focusing on her complicated affair with a free-spirited and handsome pilot, he persuaded Absence of Malice director Sydney Pollack of the story’s potential.
The film – with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford as the leads – earned seven Oscars, including best picture, best director and best screenplay based on material from another medium for Luedtke.
He reunited less successfully with Pollack on Random Hearts (1999), a romantic melodrama based on Warren Adler’s novel and starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas as a couple who meet when their unfaithful spouses are killed in a plane crash.
Kurt Mamre Luedtke, the son of a lumber broker, was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 28 September 1939. He graduated from Brown University in 1961, then worked for a newspaper and TV station in his hometown before entering a summer law school programme at the University of Michigan.
Inspired by James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, Luedtke quit law school for graduate studies at Northwestern University’s journalism school, hoping to help cover the civil rights movement and other seminal social shifts of the era.
He left after a summer internship at the Miami Herald turned into a full-time job in 1963. He had captured the attention of editors with zesty, even cinematic turns of phrase that elevated crime stories to the argot of 1930s melodrama. “Murph the Surf and two beach boy pals somberly told a New York judge Monday they are innocent in the fabulous Star of India jewel theft,” he wrote of robbery suspects.
From beach boys, he moved on to The Beatles – at one point donning a moptop haircut and picking up a guitar case as he and three other Herald staffers zipped around the Miami airport in luggage carts – hoping to spark enough excitement amid Beatlemania to write about the gambit. Instead, they were booed by surprisingly discerning teenage fans.
In 1966, a year after joining the Free Press, he inaugurated the popular “Action Line” column, assisting readers with problems from the mundane to the wrenching. The feature was credited with winning the paper a significant circulation advantage over the rival Detroit News. And it boosted Luedtke’s standing as a protege of executive editor Derick Daniels, whom he eventually succeeded.
In 1965, Luedtke married Eleanor Kruglinski, his only immediate survivor. Even amid his screenwriting career, they remained in Michigan and, at his death, were residents of the Detroit suburb of Birmingham.
Although his screenwriting credits were few, Luedtke was hired to write early drafts of movies that became Rain Man (1988) and Schindler’s List (1993), the latter of which vexed him for almost four years as he struggled to adapt a literary work by Thomas Keneally.
Luedtke did not accept the view of German industrialist Oskar Schindler as a saviour of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany; instead, he came to believe that Schindler was a war profiteer whose role in saving the lives of more than 1,000 Jews was motivated by his need for their labour in his enamelware factory.
Luedtke tried fruitlessly to find the altruism that he sensed director Steven Spielberg wanted to dramatise – a version of Schindler’s story that eventually earned the film seven Oscars, including best picture, best director and best screenplay (by Steven Zaillian). In 1993, the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem honoured Schindler and his wife, Emilie, as “righteous among the nations”, an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.
The problem that hindered Luedtke from finishing the script was his ingrained scepticism, Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly. “As a reporter,” the filmmaker added, “he had some journalistic conflicts about not believing the story.”
Kurt Luedtke, screenwriter, born 28 September 1939, died 9 August 2020
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