Lewis John Carlino obituary | Film
After early success, the writer Lewis John Carlino, who has died aged 88, attracted some criticism for abandoning experimental theatre and moving into mainstream cinema, as both writer and director. Broadway’s loss was cinema’s gain.
His screenplays were intriguingly diverse, and included The Fox (1967), adapted from DH Lawrence’s novella, an uncharacteristically taut Michael Winner thriller, The Mechanic (1972), and several films dealing with organised crime. His sparse output as a director ranged from his adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea (1976) to a glossy sex comedy, Class (1983), in which Jacqueline Bisset played a woman who has sex in a glass-sided lift with her son’s schoolfriend.
Carlino was born in New York, the son of Sicilian immigrants, Ida and Joseph Carlino, and after his father’s death moved with his mother to the west coast, where he was educated at the El Camino College in Los Angeles. Aged 19, he joined the US air force a year before the Korean war, afterwards resuming his education at the University of Southern California, where he took a BA in film studies, then an MA in drama in 1960.
During those years, he wrote a number of short pieces for the theatre, including Junk Yard and Used Car for Sale. Within a 12-month period in the mid-1960s he had four short plays and a longer work, Telemachus Clay: A Collage for Voices, produced off-Broadway.
In 1966 his adaptation of David Ely’s novel became Seconds, widely recognised as the stumbling block in the career of its director, John Frankenheimer. This sombre science fantasy about a man (Rock Hudson) given a new identity, to devastating effect, initiated Carlino’s career change.
Although he returned briefly to Broadway with The Exercise (1968), a work concerned with improvisations and theatricality, films took precedence, beginning with The Fox, co-written with Howard Koch. This story of two women (brilliantly enacted by Anne Heywood and a less notable Sandy Dennis), whose life on an isolated farm is disturbed by a sailor, was as controversial as his debut.
Carlino moved to the more commercial The Brotherhood (1968), a violent story seen through the eyes of a godfather (Kirk Douglas) who welcomes his brother into the organisation and is eventually murdered by him. He returned to the subject with Honor Thy Father (1973) and a factually based mafia story, Crazy Joe (1974).
His screenplay underpinned The Mechanic, Winner’s sparsely told story of a wealthy, hedonistic killer, Bishop (Charles Bronson), who takes a handsome assistant (Jan-Michael Vincent) in tow for his revenge-fuelled work and is murdered by his protege. It was an intriguing study of a relationship between killers for hire.
When the cameraman William Fraker briefly turned director, he remembered Carlino from their collaboration on The Fox and the result was A Reflection of Fear (1972), a gruesomely effective thriller about a teenager (Sondra Locke) who murders her mother and grandmother.
After the amiable science-fiction TV movie Where Have All the People Gone, Carlino ambitiously moved to direction with The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea. He transposed Mishima’s provocative work to the British seaside, while retaining the extraordinary tale of a teenager who at first accepts his mother’s lover but then, with other youngsters, turns on the intruder, torturing and castrating him. Unsurprisingly, the genteel locations and inhabitants were at odds with the theme.
Carlino fared better with I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977): his screenplay, co-authored by Gavin Lambert, received an Oscar nomination. He adapted and directed The Great Santini (1979) from Pat Conroy’s novel about a fighter pilot (Robert Duvall) unable to adapt to retirement in the deep south.
Carlino’s success continued with a brilliant screenplay for Resurrection (1980), which was directed by Daniel Petrie and starred Ellen Burstyn as a woman who, after a near-fatal car accident, finds she has healing powers – with appalling consequences. Burstyn received an Oscar nomination for her part. In 1999 the film was remade as a television movie using much of Carlino’s screenplay.
He returned to direction with Class, starring Bisset, Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, uniquely for Carlino as a director for hire with no credited script involvement. Class was a very glossy, sexy and often funny movie that was not especially well received critically but was a box-office hit, thanks to an attractive cast and a narrative that was daring for the period. Despite this success, it was his last work behind the camera.
Haunted Summer (1988), a skilful adaptation of Anne Edwards’ novel told the story of the famous gathering of the poets Byron and Shelley and the writer Mary Godwin in 1816 (before she married Shelley) that resulted in the novel Frankenstein. It proved to be Carlino’s last original screen work.
The Mechanic was successfully remade in 2011, with a $40m budget and Jason Statham as Bishop, the taciturn contract killer. Carlino received a credit as co-writer but this was not the case for the sequel, Mechanic: Resurrection (2016). The film boasted numerous locations, non-stop violence and stunts, and Carlino’s credit stated: “Based on characters created by Lewis John Carlino”.
Carlino’s first marriage, to Natelle Lamkin, ended in divorce in 1970. Two of their children, Voné and Lewis, predeceased him. His second wife, Jilly Chadwick, whom he married in 1976, died in 2015. He is survived by a daughter, Alessa,from his first marriage, a grandson and a great-granddaughter.
• Lewis John Carlino, writer and director, born 1 January 1932; died 17 June 2020