2 January 2001
Julius Epstein, screenwriter, was born on August 22, 1909. He died on December 30 aged 91.
Author of sharp screenplays who, together with his twin brother, wrote some of the most famous lines of dialogue in cinema history
Having written some 50 films in his long career, Julius Epstein found it frustrating that his reputation should be so bound up with the Hollywood classic Casablanca (1943), which he wrote with his twin brother Philip and Howard Koch. After all, his nominations for screenwriting Oscars were for three other films: Four Daughters (1938), and his adaptations of two novels by Peter De Vries Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) and Reuben, Reuben (1983). But of course Casablanca remains the most memorable, thanks to lines attributed to the Epstein twins such as Bogart's "Here's looking at you, kid".
The twins' father, Henry Epstein, was a Russian emigrant who had arrived in New York in 1905 and set himself up as proprietor of a livery stable on the Lower East Side. The business thrived, although the Epstein twins were needed to shovel horse manure for a couple of hours each day after school.
Then the family moved to Flatbush, where the boys attended the Erasmus Hall High School. Their main interests were sporting - in particular, boxing and wrestling - though Julius was also an early initiate in the sport of dating girls.
He matriculated at Pennsylvania State College in 1927,and took a course in playwriting, studying Sheridan, Congreve and Moliere. His first job, in 1931, was with a weekly paper, The Billboard, as a film critic on $15 a week, but he was fired after only two weeks for lambasting Mystery of the Wax Museum and Forty-Second Street.
Next, he joined University Advertising, a small agency which had been set up by a college chum to sell advertising in college papers across the country. When their calling cards were designed, the printer said that Julius needed an initial in his name to balance his partner's, so Julius Epstein became Julius J. Epstein. (Later, when he married his first wife, he was obliged to extend this fictitious initial on the marriage licence form, and at the wedding there was much mirth when the rabbi addressed him as Julius Julius.)
Advertising did not suit him, so he shifted to public relations, turning his snappy prose to account for the first time. His press releases impressed the radio columnist of the New York Graphic, Jerry Wald, and when Wald went to Hollywood and sold the idea for a musical about the rivalry between radio crooners Bing Crosby and Russ Colombo, Epstein was given $25 a week plus accommodation to write Twenty Million Sweethearts.
For several months he provided other ghosted material for Wald, but he also wrote a story a day for himself, and in 1935 he collaborated with his twin on the screenplay for Stars over Broadway. Together they also wrote a stage play, And Stars Remain, which was produced on Broadway the following year.
A master craftsman with no highbrow pretensions, Epstein was becoming known for soundly structured scripts with sharp, wisecracking dialogue. In 1938 he teamed up with Lenore Coffee to write Four Daughters, which earned them an Oscar nomination and a substantial rise in salary, and before long he was earning $2,000 a week from Warners.
In 13 years he and his brother produced 18 screenplays, including memorable adaptations of the stage comedies The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). When Casablanca was adapted from a mediocre stage play, the love-story structure and most of the one-liners were their work, while the political gloss was provided by Koch.
One of the most famous lines, delivered by the cynical Vichy policeman Captain Renard (played by Claude Rains) came to the twins as they were driving down Sunset Boulevard. Renard has arrived at the airport just after Rick (Bogart) has shot the Gestapo officer Major Strasser. Renard likes Rick, who lets him win in his illicit casino. "We slammed on the brakes," Epstein recalled. "We looked at each other and shouted at the same time - I swear that to you, at the very same time - 'Round up the usual suspects!'" They then had to fit the scene around the line.
Casablanca's principal plot device, a couple of letters of transit which are stolen at the beginning of the film and enable Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband to fly out of Casablanca at the end, was borrowed from the twins' own background. When their father had left Russia for the United States he had been obliged to purchase a passport in a false name - Epstein.Their true family name, Julius had been told by his father towards the end of his life, was Shabitian.
Casablanca was a hard film to live up to, and the Epsteins did not always succeed. Their 1949 adaptation of a J.D. Salinger story, My Foolish Heart, for instance, was criticised as sentimental and resulted in Salinger's refusal to allow any further screen adaptations of his work.
Philip Epstein died of cancer in 1952, and the last three films on which the twins had collaborated were released after his death. Julius went on working on his own, his screenplay for Fanny (1961) - based on a trilogy by the playwright Marcel Pagnol - earning critical praise. Peter 'n' Tillie won him not only an Oscar nomination but the best screenplay award from the National Association of Theatre Owners, and he later had a hand in the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah's bleak war film Cross of Iron (1976) and the romantic comedy House Calls (1978). Reuben, Reuben, a bitter-sweet comedy about a hopelessly drunken poet, was particularly praised for its dialogue.
Epstein was married twice, first to the actress Frances Sage and then, after a divorce, to Ann Wasserman. At their first dinner together while they were courting Wasserman remarked that she had just been to the worst film she had ever seen, Romance on the High Seas. Not until they were safely married did he admit that he and his brother had written it.
Julius Epstein is survived by his wife and by a son and daughter from his first marriage.
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