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Ronald Harwood, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter, Is Dead at 85


Ronald Harwood, a British author, playwright and screenwriter who earned three Oscar nominations and won for best adapted screenplay in 2003 for “The Pianist,” died on Tuesday at his home in Sussex, England. He was 85.

His agent, Judy Daish, confirmed his death to the BBC but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Harwood was one of Britain’s leading playwrights in the latter half of the 20th century. His plays included “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold,” adapted from a novel by Evelyn Waugh; “After the Lions,” about the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt; and, perhaps most notably, “The Dresser,” which opened on Broadway in 1981 and received a Tony nomination for best play the next year.

Like many of Mr. Harwood’s works, “The Dresser” explored the world of performers and the theater. It centers on an aging, tyrannical Shakespearean actor and his backstage dresser, or personal assistant. It was based on Mr. Harwood’s own experience as a young man working as the dresser for the English theater actor Donald Wolfit.

Mr. Harwood’s screenplay for the 1983 film version of “The Dresser,” which starred Albert Finney as the actor and Tom Courtenay as the assistant, earned him his first Oscar nomination. His third and final nomination was for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007), another adaptation, this one based on a memoir by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Mr. Harwood came to writing after his initial attempts at a performing career flopped. “I didn’t write until 1960, till I got married,” he said on “Talking in the Library,” a British online interview show hosted by Clive James. “I wanted to be an actor. And I was a very unsuccessful actor for about six or seven years.”

Mr. Harwood became a prolific author who could seemingly do it all. He published numerous novels, two dozen plays and a history of the theater, “All the World’s a Stage” (1984). He became an in-demand screenwriter as well — once he mastered the craft.

In the interview with Mr. James, Mr. Harwood recalled an early lesson in the screenwriting trade that he received from Alexander Mackendrick, the director of the 1965 film “A High Wind in Jamaica.” Mr. Harwood was hired to write the script, adapted from a novel by Richard Hughes.

“In my first draft of that script, I wrote about the storm. It starts with a storm coming in,” Mr. Harwood recalled. “I think my description took three pages. … He said, ‘All you have to do is: “It gets rough.”’”

Ronald Harwood was born Ronald Horwitz on Nov. 9, 1934, in Cape Town, to Isaac and Isobel (Pepper) Horwitz. His mother was born in London and retained a love of English culture that she passed on to her son.

Mr. Harwood grew up in South Africa reading Dickens and believing that London was the center of the universe. When he was 17, he moved there. He enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Anglicized his Jewish surname as part of his efforts to become a British stage actor.

In addition to the theater world, Mr. Harwood often used the period around World War II as a backdrop to explore characters who face complicated moral decisions. His play “Taking Sides,” for instance, examined the case of the German composer Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was accused of aiding the Nazi regime. The play caught the attention of Roman Polanski, who asked Mr. Harwood to write the script for a film he was directing, “The Pianist.”

That film tells the real-life story of the Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman and how he survived in occupied Poland during the war. It won three Oscars — for Adrien Brody, its star, and Mr. Polanski as well as Mr. Harwood — and took Mr. Harwood’s career to new heights.

His later screen credits included the big-budget Baz Luhrmann epic “Australia” and “Quartet,” a quieter story of aging musicians, directed by Dustin Hoffman, which Mr. Harwood adapted from his own play.

Mr. Harwood was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010.

In 1959, Mr. Harwood married Natasha Riehle. She died in 2013. His survivors include their children, Antony, Deborah and Alexandra Harwood.

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