Hollywood writer, longtime Aspenite Semple dies at 91

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
Longtime Aspen resident and Hollywood screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., passed away at his Los Angeles home Friday.
Courtesy photo |

Famed Hollywood writer and longtime Aspen resident Lorenzo Semple Jr. — known for his work on the original “Batman” television series and big-screen thrillers “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor” — died of natural causes at his Los Angeles home Friday. He was 91.

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., Semple attended Yale University for two years before enlisting with the Free French Forces during World War II, earning him a Croix de Guerre award. He also served in the U.S. Army, which awarded him a Bronze Star.

In 1950, he began his writing career as a critic for Theater Arts magazine. By 1959, he had written two Broadway plays, “Tonight in Samarkand” and “The Golden Fleecing.” He adapted the latter for the screen with “The Honeymoon Machine,” starring Steve McQueen.

Riding on the success of his plays, Semple had the idea to buy a bookstore in the mountains, which led him to Aspen. Though Semple never got his store, he moved his family here for what was supposed to be 12 months. According to his wife, Joyce, after a year of renting, they liked Aspen so much that they built a house and stayed for more than 20 years, raising three children — Johanna, Maria and Lo — along the way.

Joyce said that when she met Semple, he was full of ideas. He was “so different from any of the other college guys I went out with,” she said

“He was the first writer I ever dated, and I thought, ‘This is the way I want to live,’” she said. “He could take a typewriter and go anywhere, and so we did. When we were first married, we went to Mexico, had a kid there, and then we had another kid and went to Spain. And then we had another kid in the United States and settled in Aspen and now California. I could just tell being married to him was an adventure.”

Joyce said all three of her children benefited from having Semple as a father. Maria, a screenwriter and novelist in her own right, is scheduled to appear in Aspen on Monday, when her brother Lo will interview her at the Aspen Meadows Resort. Maria said she is looking forward to the humiliation her brother might set off with his questions.

“He learned that from his father,” Joyce said with a laugh.

In the 1960s, Semple broke into television writing with a four-episode pilot for “Batman,” which introduced the villains the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman. Credited with the idea of including the “Pow!” “Zap!” and “Kapow!” graphics during the show’s fight scenes, Semple wrote numerous episodes as well as the 1966 feature film “Batman.”

“I think ‘Batman’ was the best thing I ever wrote, including those big movies,” Semple said in a 2008 interview with the Archive of American Television. “As a whole work, it came out the way that I wanted it to, and I was excited by it.”

In the interview, Semple recalled a wine-tasting benefit in Princeton, where people mobbed him when they found out he had written “Batman.”

“I was astounded,” he said.

In the 1970s, he delivered screenplays for “Papillon,” a prison film starring McQueen and Dustin Hoffman; “The Parallax View,” starring Warren Beatty as an ambitious reporter investigating a senator’s assassination; and Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor,” starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. He also is credited for “Flash Gordon” in 1980 and “Never Say Never Again,” a 1983 James Bond film starring Sean Connery.

From 1984 to 1990, Lorenzo taught graduate screenwriting at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. His students include John Fusco (“Young Guns” and “Hidalgo”), Susan Cartsonis (“What Women Want”) and Stan Seidel (“One Night at McCool’s”).

In 2007, Semple teamed up with longtime friend and Hollywood producer Marcia Nasatir for “The Reel Geezers,” a popular YouTube series in which they bicker over films. A year later, the Writers Guild of America honored Semple as a “Living Legend.”

A private service will be held for Semple at a later date, and he will be buried in Aspen, Joyce said. He is survived by his wife, Joyce; children Johanna Herwitz, Maria Semple and Lorenzo Semple III; and six grandchildren.


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