Friday, January 13, 2023 - 11:45am
'True Nebraska boy' Lew Hunter, an icon in screenwriting industry, dies at 87
Marjie Ducey, Omaha World-Herald

A legend in the film and television industry, Lew Hunter never forgot his Nebraska roots.

Hunter, who was born in 1935 in Guide Rock and lived for years in Superior, died Jan. 6 in Arizona. He was 87.

He will be greatly missed, fellow Nebraska screenwriter, producer and Oscar Award-winning director Alexander Payne said.

“Through his decades of teaching screenwriting at UCLA, where I first met him, at engagements around the world, and at his screenwriting ‘colony’ in his hometown of Superior, Nebraska, Lew Hunter achieved legendary status and had a large impact on the film and television industry,” Payne said. “Beyond genuinely understood screenwriting, Lew was fascinated by screenwriters themselves — by the lifestyle of a writer — and he always struck me as an extraordinarily generous human being.”

Hunter, who attended Nebraska Wesleyan, Northwestern University and UCLA, worked as a producer, director and writer for several of the major television networks. He was involved in shows such as “Batman,” “Bewitched,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Rockford Files.”

His biggest impact was as a teacher.

He joined the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 1979 as a professor in screenwriting. He became co-head of the screenwriting program, and he retired in 2000. He taught one class over each winter semester from 2001 to 2015.

Writers of many Oscar scripts were among his students. In the documentary “Lucky,” writer Frank Deese described how Steven Spielberg once called Lew the best screenwriting professor he had known.

His book, “Screenwriting 434” is widely considered essential reading for anyone in the industry. One of his former colleagues, Howard Suber, said Hunter used to often host students and industry professionals at the home he shared with wife, Pamela.

“He was a very loving guy who was very giving of himself,” Suber said. “Very outgoing, funny.”

When Hunter retired from UCLA, he and Pamela held screenwriting workshops in Superior for several years.

A documentary about Hunter’s life, “Once in a Lew Moon,” premiered at the Omaha Film Festival in 2016.

At that premiere, Hunter said he was done teaching, “I decided it’s now time to do something else with my life, something dramatic.”

Marc Longbrake, executive director of the film festival, said Hunter was one of the first to respond to a request for help when the event was established 18 years ago.

At one time, Hunter read all the entries for the screenplay competition. He was always willing to come from Los Angeles or Superior to Omaha to speak, Longbrake said.

“His credits are pretty incredible,” Longbrake said. “In one of his talks, he touched on the Oscar movies and films directed or screenplays who had come through his program. That number is staggering. He’s touched so many screenplays over the years.”

Because of COVID restrictions and Hunter’s waning health, he hadn’t been part of the program for the past few years. However, the festival is returning in person this year, March 7-12 at Aksarben Cinema.

One of Longbrake’s favorite stories about Hunter was when Pamela met Jon Bokenkamp, the creator of “The Blacklist.” Bokenkamp, a Kearney High School graduate, was sacking groceries in California before his career took off.

When learning Bokenkamp was from Nebraska, Pamela brought him home to meet her husband.

“They forged a friendship that night,” Longbrake said.

He wasn’t the only one from Nebraska mentored by Hunter.

Marion Dayre, a screenwriter from Superior who worked five seasons on “Better Call Saul,” said she wouldn’t have had the courage to move to Los Angeles without Hunter’s encouragement.

She also worked with him while taking film classes at UCLA. He and Pamela helped her out occasionally with groceries when she couldn’t afford her rent.

He often spoke at the Nebraska Coast Connection, a group for Nebraskans working in the entertainment industry.

“You could feel the joy and encouragement. It’s just really rare and beautiful,” she said. “He approached everyone the same, whether you had a big illustrious career or were a newcomer.”

Those ties to his fellow Nebraskans are no surprise to those who knew him well.

“It was clear he was a true Nebraska boy, and he was very proud of that fact,” Suber said.

Lev Hunter