Ira Levin, Author of Hit Mystery Play Deathtrap, Dies at 78

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13 Nov 2007

Ira Levin, whose five-character mystery thriller Deathtrap was one of the biggest hits in Broadway history and the last major example of its once-bountiful genre, died Nov. 12 of a fatal heart attack in his Manhattan apartment. He was 78.

Mr. Levin, who also penned the 1950s military comedy No Time for Sergeants and the novel "Rosemary's Baby," split his considerable energies between the theatre and the writing of novels. His popular works of pulp fiction included "The Stepford Wives," "A Kiss Before Dying," "The Boys From Brazil" and "Sliver." They were frequently converted into films that were, more often than not, camp masterpieces. "Rosemary's Baby" was an exception. Under the direction of Roman Polanski, the story of an unsuspecting young woman (Mia Farrow) who gives birth to the spawn of Satan was rendered into a 1968 film of hypnotic, creeping dread, well in keeping with the political and cultural paranoia of the time.

Stephen King described Mr. Levin as "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels, he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores."

In the theatre, nothing topped Mr. Levin's triumph with Deathtrap. The five-character drama about Sydney Bruhl, a playwright with writer's block, his wife, his talented student, his lawyer and the psychic next door opened on Feb. 26, 1978, and ran for 1,793 performances. Marian Seldes, who played the wife, Myra, became famous for staying with the show during its entire run, not missing a single performance.

Mr. Levin based the role of Sydney partly upon himself, according to the book "It's a Hit!" Following his success with No Time for Sergeants, which starred Andy Griffith and ran for two years, he found it tough coming up with a follow-up. The comedy Critic's Choice had a modest run in 1960, but the thrillers Dr. Cook's Garden (1967) and Veronica's Room (1975) flopped, as did Interlock from 1958, General Seeger from 1962 and the musical Drat! The Cat! from 1965.



Deathtrap was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play in 1978. The play was made into a 1982 film starring Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon and the late Christopher Reeve. The film caused a sensation at the time due to a kiss shared by Caine and Reeve.

Ira Levin was born in New York City on Aug. 27, 1929. His father was in the toy business. He finished second in a screenplay writing competition held by NBC while a senior in college at New York University, where he transferred after two years at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1953 he was drafted into the Army, where he wrote and produced training films.

His novel "A Kiss Before Dying" won the Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1953. Following that success, he adapted Mac Hyman's comic novel about a naive country boy in the peacetime military, No Time for Sergeants into a stage play. The play made a star out of Andy Griffith.

Mr. Levin wrote one more play after Deathtrap. A comedy called Break a Leg, it opened April 29, 1979. It closed the same day. Deathtrap, playing nearby, would run three more years.